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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

(The Legend of Pradeep Mathew)

Shehan Karunatilaka

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To purchase The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

Title: Chinaman
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 395 pages
Availability: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew - US
Chinaman - UK
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew - Canada
Chinaman - India
  • UK title: Chinaman
  • US title: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
  • DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2012

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Our Assessment:

B+ : drags on a bit, and definitely cricket-heavy, but fine entertaining fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dawn . 15/5/2011 Hasan Zaidi
Financial Times B 29/4/2011 Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
The Guardian B+ 6/5/2011 Kamila Shamsie
The Independent . 29/4/2011 Salil Tripathi
New Statesman B+ 4/7/2011 Soumya Bhattacharya
The Observer A 30/4/2011 Tishani Doshi
Outlook India A+ 18/4/2011 Shashi Tharoor

  From the Reviews:
  • "The brilliance of Karunatilaka is in crafting a voice for his rambunctious, reflective, dying protagonist that is completely and entirely believable, not a small feat for a writer at least 20 years younger. Equally remarkable is the layered nuance he brings to W.G.’s human relationships, particularly that with his wife. (...) But Karunatilka’s other big achievement is in making contemporary Sri Lanka come alive, warts and all, even for readers who may never have been there." - Hasan Zaidi, Dawn

  • "Chinaman is the Singapore-based Karunatilaka’s first novel, and betrays a rawness you might expect from a first-timer. The chronological structure darts around confusingly and there’s an awkwardly tacked-on subplot about an English expat friend accused of pederasty. Pages are dense with dialogue and characters. Yet Chinaman’s free-wheeling, zany tempo is part of its charm too." - Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times

  • "Admittedly, the relentless back and forth of the narrative can be frustrating, and makes one long for the tempo of cricket rather than ping pong. It is not without purpose -- the dislocations and disorientation mirror Wije's own life -- but for a while it diminishes the pleasure of the book, until suddenly it doesn't. It's impossible to say if that's the writer playing himself into form, or the reader getting her eye in. The structure itself ultimately becomes a strength – to tell this rambunctious story neatly wouldn't have been nearly as effective. (...) The strength of the book lies in its energy, its mixture of humour and heartwrenching emotion, its twisting narrative, its playful use of cricketing facts and characters, and its occasional blazing anger about what Sri Lanka has done to itself." - Kamila Shamsie, The Guardian

  • "Cricket allows Karunatilaka the outfield to show what his country is capable of, without being overt about it. (...) What Karunatilaka has produced may or may not be the Great Sri Lankan Novel. Other worthy contenders exist, and parts of Chinaman are genuinely abstruse for those who see cricket as a game of flannelled fools. But it a Great Cricket Novel." - Salil Tripathi, The Independent

  • "Chinaman is a capacious novel, discursive (often delightfully, on occasion annoyingly), leavened with snappy one-liners, plotted like a good thriller, and as compulsively readable, yet full of postmodern high jinks too." - Soumya Bhattacharya, New Statesman

  • "For all the seriousness of his subject matter, Karunatilaka has a real lightness of touch. He mixes humour and violence with the same deftness with which his protagonist mixes drinks. What he lacks in lyricism, he makes up for with brashness. (...) What is most remarkable about this novel, though, is how fact and fiction are manipulated. Real personalities parley with invented ones. (...) This may not be the Great Sri Lankan novel, as Karunatilaka's publishers loudly proclaim. But it is a great novel, and it is most certainly Sri Lankan." - Tishani Doshi, The Observer

  • "Shehan Karunatilaka’s extraordinary first novel is manifestly a work of genius -- one that manages to be about Sri Lanka without being overtly about it, and seems to be about cricket but goes well beyond it. (...) Karunatilaka’s writing is astonishingly assured for a debutant novelist, witty, insightful, often clever and occasionally profound. His style is quirky and original: the novel unfolds in short sections with whimsical sub-headings, and is sprinkled with sketches, lists, wry observations and over-exposed photographs. And yet the idiosyncrasies never grate; they inveigle you into the mood of the book" - Shashi Tharoor, Outlook India

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chinaman -- published as The Legend of Pradeep Mathew in the US -- is presented largely as some-time sportswriter W.G.Karunasena's last, great hurrah: warned that his alcoholism is doing irreversible and likely soon fatal liver damage, Karunasena decides to dedicate his remaining years to: "a worthy cause". And the die-hard sports-fan (and two-time Sportswriter of the Year on the island nation of Sri Lanka) believes:

In my humble opinion, what the world needs most is a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket.
       More specifically, he wants to write about the mysterious, great, and unknown Pradeep Mathew -- the greatest cricketer no one has ever heard of. There are several mysteries surrounding the man -- beginning with how nearly all traces of him have vanished. And while Karunasena wants to find out what became of the man, he's also fascinated by this particular story because he sees it as representative, both of his country and of himself:
       'Wasting talent is a crime,' says Graham.
       'A sin,' concurs Ari.
       I think of Pradeep Mathew, the great unsung bowler. I think of Sri Lanka, the great underachieving nation. I think of W.G.Karunasena, the great unfulfilled writer. I think of all these ghosts and I can't help but agree.
       Chinaman is less Pradeep Mathew's story than the tale of the search for Pradeep Mathew's story -- making it as much a tale of Karunasena, of Sri Lanka, and of Sri Lankan cricket.
       The novel spans from the mid-1990s to 2009,with many flashbacks and accounts from earlier times filling it out. The first two sections are by far the longest, presented -- like a cricket test match -- as 'First Innings' and 'Second Innings'. (Like a test match they also have their occasional longueurs.) Karunasena is a serious, dedicated alcoholic -- "If I could I would drink in my sleep" -- and the 'First Innings' chronicles his efforts on his documentary project while under the influence of drink, which he firmly believes he needs to do his work. He argues:
Alcohol has enhanced my life and the world I inhabit. It has given me insight, jocularity and escape. I would not be who I am without it.
       Nevertheless, as it brings him close to his deathbed he is forced to go teetotal, and 'Second Innings' is what he writes stone sober. (For what it's worth, it doesn't affect the quality or the style of his ramblings all that much.) A crisis has him eventually falling suddenly and completely off the wagon, leading to the shorter sections of 'Close of Play' (as well as the predictable physical result), and then the decade-spanning (and metafictional) concluding sections, 'Follow On' and 'Last Over'. If Karunatilaka lets his narrator-author ramble on a bit too long in the innings, he nevertheless manages to round everything off very nicely by the end -- yes, part of that has the feel of a too smugly neat first-novel finish, but it's pulled off well enough that it is entirely satisfying.
       The mystery of Pradeep Mathew is why such an immensely talented bowler (the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball) never made it big. (A secondary mystery is why there are essentially no records of any of his accomplishments, even though he did play a few test matches for the national side; among the clever ideas Karunatilaka has is to have Karunasena witness Mathew's greatest game -- his record-breaking 10-51 against New Zealand -- and cleverly explain why that never entered the record books; as to other records of Mathew's accomplishment ... the reason they are missing is also, eventually, revealed.)
       Karunasena learns that Mathew never got along well with many of the other cricketers and especially the sports-authorities; the shadier figures in the periphery of the sport -- making a mint off of gambling on the game -- also played a role. From his difficulties playing for a school-team in Sri Lanka -- his gift for mimicry allowing him to impersonate other bowlers rather than making a name for himself -- to the fact that he never really liked playing for the national side and made enemies too easily, events conspired against Mathew breaking through -- with a great deal of assistance from Mathew himself, who could bowl sublimely but wasn't willing to make the necessary effort off the pitch.
       Much about Mathew is necessarily 'legend', as Karunasena comes across all sorts of stories about the man (including the claim that he is now dead). He finds, too often: "Those who remembered him, remembered him vaguely." Having met him, and having seen him in action, Karunasena knows there is some truth to much of what he hears -- it's just that separating fact from fiction is difficult (as befits a pseudo-documentary novel ...). As is getting down to the essentials.
       Despite its strict, precise rules and gentleman-reputation, cricket turns out to be as dirty as any other human endeavor, with lying, cheating, and self-promotion widespread. It's the perfect Sri Lankan sport (though not the national one, as Karunasena notes: for personal and political reasons that would be ... volleyball), and Chinaman (the title refers to an unusual spin-delivery that Mathew had mastered) is, in its way, also very much a national critique. As Karunasena suggests:
Ideally, we Sri Lankans should have retained our friendly, childlike nature and combined it with the inventiveness of our colonisers. Instead, we inherit Portuguese lethargy, Dutch hedonism and British snobbery. We inherit the power lust of our conquerors, but none of their vision.
       Ethnic divisions and conflicts shape much of what happens in Sri Lanka -- especially in the period in the late 1990s when Karunasena is working, as terrorist attacks are on the increase. These long-simmering conflicts have shaped Mathew, too, whose: "Overbearing Sinhala mother and workaholic Tamil father raised two children who did not know what race they were " -- until an explosion of racial violence in the early 1980s.
       Along the way, Karunasena personal and professional life and failures also continue to haunt and affect him. Karunasena has not quite failed as a husband -- his long-suffering wife has her share of complaints about him, but remains devoted -- but his son does take off with a neighbor girl and tries his luck as a musician (and father) abroad. Among Karunasena's hopes is to reconcile with his son, but given his pride and attitude it's not in the cards -- though the son comes to figure prominently in the nice turn of the novel's conclusion.
       As much a character-portrait of the flawed Karunasena as a cricket- or national-novel -- with Sri Lankan history and politics figuring strongly in the background throughout --, Chinaman is impressively multi-layered. Karunatilaka finds good tones for his narrators -- though Karunasena arguably drones on a tad too much -- and there's some brilliant invention here.
       If not entirely bogged down in cricket, the novel does rely heavily on it, and while Karunatilaka makes the intricacies (and peculiarities) of the sport fairly comprehensible even to those unfamiliar with it (there are even diagrams to go along with some of the explanations) the sheer amount of cricketry does get to be a bit much. Still, Karunasena's passion for the game is almost enough to carry that off.
       A fine work -- and excellent first-novel, showing a great deal of promise -- Chinaman can certainly be recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 March 2012

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Chinaman (The Legend of Pradeep Mathew): Reviews: Shehan Karunatilaka: Other books by Shehan Karunatilaka under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka was born in 1975.

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© 2012-2022 the complete review

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