A review of Chinaman
W.G. Karunasena, the hero of Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman, used to be my neighbour in Battaramulla about the turn of the century. Our homes stood on a quiet, leafy lane, slightly downhill from the ITN studios and transmitting tower. I understand the location was chosen as the site of Sri Lanka’s first TV station because the hill is the highest in the Colombo district. It’s a long, sweaty climb to the top on foot, so when one day I came upon a skinny, leathery old gent in white making heavy weather of the first (and steepest) part of the ascent and recognized him as my neighbour, I stopped the car and offered him a lift. We’d seen each other before, of course, but hadn’t spoken. He’s garrulous, W.G., more so than you might think from Karunatilaka’s portrait of him. In the book, he mostly just asks questions and lets others do the talking, but in real life he is, like many arrack-fuelled convivialists, an eager, indeed unstoppable, raconteur. That was the first thing I learnt about him. By the end of that two-kilometre drive up ITN Hill, I’d learnt a lot more.
He had done all right for himself in the end, despite the booze and the health problems it had caused him, the enemies he made researching the story of Pradeep Mathew, and the machinations of people like Rakwana Somawardena and Newton Rodrigo. In spite of them, W.G. did manage to get a foot in the door of the then-new and burgeoning world of Sri Lankan cricket television. He did a bit of commentating but was rather better known as a pundit, the sort of person who comes on after the match has ended to help conduct the post-mortem. He told me (this must have been later, on our second or third meeting) that he’d given up drinking, though there’d be mornings when he looked remarkably crapulous for a teetotaller. One of these, I remember, succeeded a night on which big, shiny SUVs had congregated in our lane, half blocking it, and unwonted sounds of revelry could be heard coming from the Karunasena house. The next morning he sought me out to inform me that his dinner-guests the previous night had been Ian Botham and several members of the Sri Lanka cricket team. A fine time had been had by all, he said, but this morning the ‘domestic’ (he’d taken up Sheila’s gentrified usage by then) had given in her notice. A famous all-rounder’s hands had been all round her all evening, and the silly girl had been too ignorant of the gentlemen’s game and its famous exponents to appreciate the compliment being paid her.
Readers of Chinaman will learn from the above that Karunatilaka has taken a number of liberties with the biographical details of his sports-journalist hero. Either that, or I have. At any rate, one of us is lying, and I think you’ll agree, once you’ve read the book, that it’s probably him. Chinaman the novel subsists – make that thrives – upon the wreckage produced by the collision of truth and fiction. It features among its characters a famous English cricketer-turned-commentator named Tony Botham and a Sri Lankan sports minister called Tyronne Cooray who had a stadium in Moratuwa named after him. It takes implausible liberties with the geography of De Saram Road, Mount Lavinia. Its overloaded, rattling, magpie-bedizened pantechnicon of a plot advances unsteadily, forever teetering between seizure and disintegration, on stepping-stones of such far-fetched contrivance as a Geoffrey-Bawa designed retirement colony for traitors and criminals beloved of the Sri Lankan state and Dutch catacombs under the P. Sara Stadium crammed with ancient but still perfectly functioning Second World War surveillance electronics.
The plot concerns W.G.’s efforts to research and write the biography of Pradeep Mathew, a Tamil spin-bowling genius who played for Sri Lanka in numerous test and one-day international matches as well as for Thurstan College, Royal College and Bloomfield C.C. Mathew delivered spectacular performances in obscure games and more than once saved the day for his team and his country, but since the Nineties he has been somehow forgotten, lost to history. Even the few people who still remember him – old coaches, former teammates who never made the record-books, family members and an ex-girlfriend who may not be quite what she seems – don’t want to talk. But W.G. is a fine old newshound despite his dependence on the bottle, and helped by his old friend and neighbour Ari Byrd, he slowly teases out and weaves together the threads of Mathew’s story. It turns out that Mathew – arrogant, prickly, too honest for his own good – is the victim of an effective, secret purge. His name and achievements have been quietly but thoroughly expunged from the score-books and public records, and people of importance or authority who once knew him simply pretend he never existed. As for the man himself, he seems to have disappeared.
A foreign reader, unless she is a conspiracy theorist, may find this aspect of the story hard to swallow; Sri Lankans who understand how powerful a force denial has been and still remains in our history and culture will find the suspension of disbelief easy. How many great Ceylonese have been erased from the records and forgotten? How many historical epochs have been blanked out or subjected to thoroughgoing revision? The iconic elements of contemporary Sri Lankan culture – the lying politician’s pristine raiment, the worldly bikkhu with his business interests and political connections, the bland white van of the abductor – are all symbols of denial: denial of truth, denial of reality. W.G. Karunasena himself is an avowed practitioner of the art, not least when he tries, as Sinhalese often do, to lay the blame for Lanka’s ethnic and social divisions (as well as her other manifold troubles) at the feet of the Europeans who ruled us for so long. No-one really believes this, of course – even the spit-flying ‘nationalist’ fanatic knows in his heart that it is lie – but I suppose it helps us live with ourselves.
Behind the wall of denial that conceals Pradeep Mathew, Karunasena finds many unsavoury things: racism, feuds over women, honey-traps, ball-tampering, theft and counter-theft, evidence of match-fixing at international level, and collusion between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. W.G. is warned off and threatened by mysterious callers. He is taken for more than one white-van ride. It is all very Sri Lankan, masterfully imagined and convincingly presented. For all I know, some of it – maybe even all of it – is true.
But then again, Chinaman is a novel: a work of fiction, although the postmodernist acrobatics that decorate the last hundred pages or so may persuade a few gullible readers otherwise. Fiction, however, is rarely all made up; those of us who write it know that the clay we work with is real enough, the stuff of our own lives and other people’s, though normally so altered in the moulding and firing that the finished artefact bears very little resemblance to the people or events that inspired it. There are exceptions, of course; novels like Tropic of Cancer or Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs seem, to this reader at least, to be indistinguishable from autobiography. On the other hand, someone like Neal Stephenson can devise a historically accurate setting peopled by real characters and use it as the backdrop against which to unfold a story that seems fantastic, cut from the whole cloth of imagination. What Karunatilaka has done smacks more of Stephenson than Miller or Genet: his story takes place in the real world and features real characters and events together with fictitious ones, as well as many that are probably best described as half-unreal. Nevertheless – and to repeat myself – Chinaman is a work of fiction and no-one, as Hemingway once wrote, should be so egotistical as to see himself or herself in any of its characters. I think it is important to note this, because an author of fiction in a savage country is exposed to many dangers his colleagues in the civilized world need not fear – unless, of course, they happen to be Salman Rushdie.
There is, however, one aspect of the novel that seems to me to correspond faithfully to real life. It is a metaphorical correspondence, not a literal one, and subtle withal; perhaps only someone who has personally experienced the qualms, second thoughts, boggings-down, crises of confidence and feelings of helplessness that plague a writer who genuinely labours to turn an inchoate mass of half-expressed ideas and half-completed phrases into a work of art will be able to spot it. Indeed, the correspondence of which I speak can only properly be guessed at; but I think I have enough experience of reading from ‘between the shoulder-blades’ – to read, that is, as if one were writing and not reading – to assert with some confidence that it is real. It is this: W.G. Karunasena’s struggles with the bottle precisely mirror Shehan Karunatilaka’s struggles to write his novel. Part One of the novel ends when a television documentary W.G. has written about Mathew is telecast. At this point the real story of Chinaman is only just beginning, and its author, having surmounted the foothills whose conquest has monopolized his energy and attention up to that point, looks up and comprehends in its entirety, probably for the first time, the Himalayan task awaiting him. At this juncture, as if in sympathy with his creator, W.G. has his first serious medical crisis. Afterwards, the arc of his affair with the bottle – his renunciations, backslidings, bouts of illness and catalogues of ever-more-terrifying symptoms – appear side by side with other signs that indicate, to the experienced eye, that Karunatilaka is feeling the weight of his material, that the process of drafting and re-drafting is beginning to confuse and daunt him, and that he fears the multiplication of characters beyond feasibility (we are twice introduced to new ones, only to be told immediately that they will not reappear in the book). Somewhere just past the two-thirds mark, which is the point at which any novel and its author enter the doldrums of creativity, W.G., who’s been concentrating on the Mathew book and letting everything else take care of itself, suffers his worst alcoholic reverse so far. And when Karunatilaka hits the wall, 150 pages or thereabouts from the end, Karunasena ends up in hospital.
Fortunately, both author and book recover. The final portion of Chinaman contains a number of surprises of an apparently postmodernist kind whose true origin, I suspect, lies in the shifts to which the author was driven in order to bring about any kind of ending to the book at all. This is not to denigrate his achievement, for to turn an innings around with only one wicket in hand, in failing light, is (as any cricket fan will tell you) the work of heroes.
Which brings me to the question you’ve been waiting for me to answer from the beginning: is Chinaman any good at all, and if so, how good?
The first person to ask me this was a friend who had been involved in the design and editing of the novel, whom I met at the Barefoot Cafe hours after I’d posted up a Facebook status note saying I’d reached p. 279 of it. I told him it seemed okay so far, but that I was reserving my judgement until the end. This, I explained, was because I had yet to read a novel by a resident Sri Lankan author that that stayed good, or even palatable, to the last drop. Some of them had arguable literary merits – beautiful prose, a charming sense of time or place, real action and suspense (for instance, the hijack scene in David Blacker’s For a Cause Untrue), the odd felicitous turn of phrase or telling auctorial insight – but none of them were worth a damn as a story, one that kept you interested, had a plot which stayed the course and characters anyone but the author could possibly give a damn about. Not one of them, frankly, ever had a proper ending. Chinaman has that, and pretty much everything else it takes, too. The first genuine contender for the title of Great Sri Lankan Novel has entered the lists.
And Sri Lankan it is with a vengeance. Its blend of fact and fiction closely resembles the ‘history’ Sri Lankan children are taught in school. Its subject, cricket, is, of course, our national obsession (and this is a novel that rarely strays from its subject); but in the background, Karunatilaka touches, without ever making it look like a stretch, upon all the crucial Sri Lankan realities: racism, all-pervasive yet blandly denied; class snobbery; endemic corruption, moral failure and cultural decline; suicide-bombings, alcoholism, paedophile sex tourism, the shadow of the colonial past and the failures of the first post-Independence generation. It’s a depressing list, but in spite of it, as we all know, Sri Lanka is a far from depressing country. And Shehan Karunatilaka’s book isn’t depressing at all. It’s a festival, a carnival, a giddy riot on Galle Face Green after Sri Lanka wins the World Cup. Though portions of it are set in Australia and New Zealand, no novel I have ever read captures, embraces and partakes of the essence of Sri Lanka so perfectly. Even its faults – its fragmentary construction, its occasional grammatical and stylistic infelicities, the imperfect editing that has allowed a few nugatory fragments from discarded earlier drafts to infiltrate the final text – are thoroughly Sri Lankan.
Chinaman, my old neighbour W.G. Karunasena reminisces about how he felt ‘watching Wettimuny at Lord’s in 1984, the first time I realised that a Sri Lankan could be as good as anyone else.’ I don’t give an all-girl softball team captain’s toss for cricket, but I know a bit about writing, and Shehan Karunatilaka and Chinaman have made me feel exactly the same.