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Shehan Karunatilaka's 'Chinaman', about a fictional cricketer, has won plenty of awards this year. The author spoke on how the book came about.
Before he was trotted out as Sri Lanka's best contemporary author in English and was called to expound on that island's political and social ballgame to an unknowing world, Shehan Karunatilaka wrote a little-known libidinous piece (' a warts-andall look at the Sri Lankan male psyche' ) for a compilation of shorts, titled Blue: Stories for Adults. In it Karunatilaka mentions that 'Statistics reveal Sri Lankans consume more hard liquor and talk more about sex than any nationality in the uncivilised world'. At the time, the first part of that claim was true, the second bit he made up.
Karunatilaka, who cut his teeth on advertising copy, is a past master at fabulation. His prize-winner, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, doesn't just put out a clever work of metafiction, the story selfreflexively turns in on itself like a deft ouroboros chasing its own tale. In a line, this tale is akin to the Biblical quest for the Promised Land, but Chinaman's Moses and Aaron are two aging Lankans, W. G. Karunasena, a boozy cricket journalist, and his statistician pal Ari Byrd on the trail of an apocryphal bowler. This creature is the title's Mathew who may have been Sri Lanka's greatest cricketer of all time, if they can only prove it. Trouble is, except for hearsay, no records appear to substantiate the man;it's as if he never existed.
In Karunatilaka's hands, this deliberate erasure of identity points also to Sri Lanka's own systematic 'finessing' of history with dominant Sinhalese-Buddhists writing off the defiant Tamil minority through manipulated myth and applied amnesia. "We're witnessing a revisionist history even now, " says the author, "the war may have ended, but we still have no convincing history of what really happened, the exact death toll. However, with the Internet it's becoming harder for the government to censor history. The real archiving is now taking place on blogs. "
If in Chinaman, by page eight fact cannot be divided from fabrication it's because Karunatilaka has solidly padded his own myth with documented history, statistics, anecdote, photographs, and an ace-in-thehole - a phony Pradeep Mathew scoresheet on the Internet. And of course, those all-butobvious references to real cricketers and politicians. "I was a bit worried when I finished the story because some of the characters were thinly veiled, " he reveals, "I consulted my lawyers and they said libel was tough to prove, and if at all there was a lawsuit, it would be good for the book. Luckily, there has been no lawsuit to date. They (the cricketers) would be implicating themselves if they reacted. "
The going's good for now. Karunatilaka pocketed the 2012 editions of the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian literature. The latter institution has lately been touring the author in India. But the trigger of these concatenated wins was the modest Gratiaen Prize, an award established by Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje with the prize money for his 1992 Booker, The English Patient. Karunatilaka won the Gratiaen in 2008 for his till-then self-published work. Random House came after.
Karunatilaka tells us the germ took seed in Central Park, where a game of baseball was on and he sat by, writing an article about a recently attended Police concert. "I thumbed through my journal, to which I had committed various ideas through the years, and I came across one I had for a book about a genius cricketer. What if such a cricketer had existed, how would his career have panned out?" he wondered. For the next six months Karunatilaka hammered out his story every morning before work. It grew to intrigue and interest him, and he eventually surrendered his job and spent the next two years researching cricket and inebriation. "It wasn't tough, like researching Portuguese colonial history. " He spoke to relatives, mined books and cornered every known junkie of the game. His investigation of arrack bars taught him how drunks thought, felt and conversed and if his own narrative loops around, it's because its narrator, W. G, is a tosspot.
"I imagined them as Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets, " he says of W. G and Ari. They do resemble two smart-mouthing critics tearing into the show - in this case, '80s and '90s Sri Lanka. Which was not exactly a Disney set. "I'd seen bodies in the streets in the riots of '83 and remember the suicide bombings of the late '80s. We were living in a war-torn country, but not exactly in a warzone;that was in the north and east, " says the 37-year-old, whose family eventually migrated to New Zealand when he was a teenager. The ethnic violence he remembers as a child refigures in the book, but in a way that's incidental, not central to the plot. "I wanted to show that people in Colombo found a way to get on with life;that two old men would continue to watch a cricket match as bombs went off;it was what they could do to stay cocooned from the violence. "
Chinaman, by the way, is a cricketing term for a skilled left-handed form of ball delivery. It's also an illustration of Karunatilaka's own pitch. Where other hopeful Sri Lankan writers aim for literariness, after the subcontinent's authors of choice, Rushdie and Ondaatje, Karunatilaka spun an idiomatic pulpy chaser, which wasn't disinclined to philosophize.
He believes there are plenty of untold stories there. "When I wrote Chinaman, I didn't expect it to be read outside Sri Lanka, which is why I used colloquialisms. Turns out I was fortunate to write for a Sri Lankan reader. It's an approach I will use with my next book as well. I think award juries now find more value in reading about cultures they are unfamiliar with. " Be they about Ceylon or cricket.
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