The Legend Of Chinaman
By Indi Samarajiva
Chinaman is the great Sri Lankan novel, about a hundred pages too long and a year late. Like any great Sri Lankan, it has shown up as the party’s nearly ended — drunk, disheveled, yet full of humour and charm, belying a deeper sadness.
Chinaman is the story of Pradeep Mathews, a legendary spinner with an unreal talent to rival Murali’s.
While Murali got a stadium named after him, this Pradeep Mathews has only a book, half of which is filled up with how the author wrote the book, half of which was by drinking arrack and gambling. Like any great Sri Lankan, this novel is determined to die before it gets to the point, which it does. Still, you miss the book when you put it down. This makes it, by default, the great Sri Lankan novel.
Chinaman’s main claim to fame is winning the Gratiaen Award for fiction. Last year. The Gratiaen itself, founded by the illustrious Michael Ondaatje, has actually been devalued to the point that LakbimaNews Editor Rajpal Abeynaike has said he could match any shortlisted candidate given two days in a hotel. Sadly, this is probably true. Sri Lankans love award shows even if there is nothing deserving of an award. As long as there’s food, gossip and — god willing — booze. Of all the mediocre offerings with ‘Gratiaen’ in their tagline, Chinaman stands out because it actually gets to the point. Namely, food, gossip and booze.
Chinaman is ostensibly the story of a great spin bowler whose memory was lost to the world through a combination of bad luck, bad intentions and bad blood. In reality, it is a novel about writing a novel, which would be dull and self-indulgent if the writer was not a charming mess, full of wit and vigor, even in failure. That, as of 2008, was the quintessential Sri Lankan: fun but essentially useless. This next generation of Sri Lankans may be more industrious, but no one’s written that novel yet. Chinaman arrives, hence, a bit late but it remains the only Sri Lankan novel even remotely of this century.
Chinaman emerges as the great Sri Lankan novel if only because it is not trying to be Ceylonese. There are no evocations of Araliya flowers, no hand-wringing over 1983, no vain pretences of being colonial fiction, despite being written in English. Like a game of beach cricket, Chinaman simply takes the English language, mangles it into a lively vernacular and bats on. By being explicitly self-conscious, the book enables the vain pretence of many Sri Lankan offerings and becomes, instead, a picture of us as we truly are.
Sri Lankan fiction is often torn between describing natural beauty, revering the fact that villagers are essentially nice and wondering how we can be so violent. This is, in essence, the BBC view of our island, but it misses the vibrancy and tenor of actual life in this country. We remain, through it all, almost entirely self-centered, cheaply drunk, slightly lecherous, fading in body and mind, missing the point almost entirely and yet, a lot of fun to be around. This, in essence, describes the experience of reading Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathews. One learns precious little details about the long-lost spin bowler, but learns an awful lot about the author and oneself.
If the classic Sri Lankan novel has been the senile aunty, this is the cheeky uncle, sneaking arrack from the trunk of a car at a funeral, the first in line for string hoppers and the last to wash their hands. It is those endless chats where you wonder at the depth of history and scandalous and heroic existence behind every seemingly staid uncle or aunty, those awesome depths of existence which we can only probe in laughter and which never seem to coalesce into any sort of communicable reality. Sri Lanka is randomly awesome, but nothing seems to fit together in any rational sense. One can only enjoy and laugh, even the terrible bits, an experience that Chinaman manages to convey.
If by now this review has repeated itself, told you nothing about the book and fundamentally wasted your time, I think you’ve got the point. Chinaman is the great Sri Lankan novel. It’s too long, too late and too fundamentally unfocused, but it’s certainly a damn good read. Essentially the Sri Lankan condition. We’ve had too much history, too little independence and not enough discipline, but damn if it’s not a good life here. Damn if Chinaman’s not a good read.
Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathews takes the physical form of a novel. It is available at Odel, Vijitha Yapa and all leading bookshops as well as online at www.ph-books.com. It costs about as much as a bottle of arrack and is worth it.