At the centre of Shehan Karunatilaka’s remarkable debut is W G “Wije” Karunasena, a Sri Lankan sports writer and souse.
Having spent years carousing in Colombo, Wije is told by doctors that he must give up the bottle or die within months. The problem is, he can’t write without a shot of arrack to still the shakes, and he has an idea for a book that will finally make his reputation: a biography of Pradeep Mathew, a sublimely talented but little-known spin bowler, whose career was ended by a pernicious mixture of “politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck”. Deaf to the protests of his wife and friends, Wije resolves to finish the project before his liver gives out, insisting that “unlike life, sport matters”.
Chinaman – the title refers to Pradeep’s signature bowling technique, the crazy trajectory of which bamboozled batsmen – is obviously a book about sport, which is to say, it is a book about the chasm that separates failure from greatness. But it is also a book about friendship and marriage, about alcoholism and the Sri Lankan civil war (as Wije wryly observes, the papers print the “death count on the front page, cricket score on the back”).
Reading like a cross between Borges and Simon Barnes, Wije’s fragmented, essayistic narration uses the game as a prism through which to view the wider world, as well as to give a funny and very moving account of his personal struggles. I don’t like cricket, but I loved this: it’s the most distinctive, stylish and downright enjoyable novel I’ve read all year.