Book of the month: Shehan Karunatilaka

A few weeks ago, Mohammed left a comment on this site: ‘Ann after these long years did you finish reading all the list?’

He was referring to the lengthy collection of alternative recommendations I received for many countries during and shortly after my 2012 quest to read a book from every country. Although I made one choice for each UN-recognised nation that year, I recorded all the valid suggestions I received on The List so that I – and anyone else who was interested – could refer to them. At the time, I think I did intend to work my way through them all eventually and I have cherry-picked a number of titles in the six years since the end of the original project.

However, I have also found myself tempted away by numerous other intriguing books (many of which have been published since my list was drawn up).

That’s the thing with reading. One book leads to the next. You plunge into a story about a woman’s struggle to relocate to Johannesburg and find that leads you on to an intriguing memoir about growing up under Apartheid. This piques your interest in literature written and spoken in South Africa’s ten other official languages, which in turn leads you to discover a trend for sunshine-noir crime writing. Before you know it, a month has passed and you’re still nowhere near to exhausting the leads that sprouted from that original book.

Small wonder, then, that many of those suggestions I received in 2012 are still waiting their turn.

Sometimes, however, a title on The List gets impatient and seems to reach out from my computer screen to grab me and demand my attention. This happened to me most recently with Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman.

The novel had been a strong contender for my Sri Lankan choice back in 2012. I had heard very good things about it – not least that it had won several awards, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

There were two sticking points, however. The novel had been written in English (and after my enlightening exchange with Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan I was making a concerted effort to read more translated books) and it was about cricket, of which, I have to confess, I am not a fan. As a result, I jumped another way, picking Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta as my Sri Lankan choice.

That might have been it for Chinaman. But then, earlier this month, I was invited to take part in several events at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Assam. Among the sessions on my schedule was a panel discussion with Shehan Karunatilaka. Clearly, it was time I read his book.

Centred around WG Karunasena, an aging alcoholic journalist trying to track down the elusive Pradeep Mathew – the greatest Sri Lankan spin bowler you’ve never heard of – the novel takes readers into the heart of the nation’s most popular sport. It is, unashamedly, a book about cricket, but, like the best sports writing, it also explores many other things – fanaticism, history, politics, love and hate. What’s more, it makes a bold claim, a ‘Sales Pitch’ appearing in the opening pages:

‘If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.’

Karunatilaka delivers on this promise. He does so by inhabiting his characters’ obsessions – a perspective he says he gained by spending many hours hanging around bars with old, drunk cricket fanatics – so completely that we live and breathe them too. Deftly working in the necessary explanations of cricket’s mechanics alongside numerous quirky facts and pieces of trivia (how test matches came to last five days and the surprising identities of the first teams to play an international game, for example), he opens up a world and invites us in.

The whole thing is achieved with wonderful playfulness. From word-play and witty one-liners through to amusing sleights of hand in the plotting and even jokes at the author’s expense (by the end of the narrative characters have not only criticised the novel as being ‘rubbish’ in places, but also dismissed Karunatilaka’s name as ‘common’), the book sparkles with good humour.

Indeed, it is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook the virtuosic leaps Karunatilaka makes to propel us between its numerous storylines. It is testament to his ability to draw characters in a line or two that, many times, we find ourselves picking up a thread that was left dangling tens of pages before without hesitation.

Anglophone readers tend to think of humorous books as being towards the lighter end of the spectrum, but Chinaman challenges this assumption. From racism and the violence and injustice that has marked Sri Lanka’s history through to the personal tragedy of being unable to connect with those we love, Karunatilaka presents us with a broad range of human experience and makes us feel its weight.

The result is a reading adventure as gripping and memorable as attending a brilliant test match must be for a cricket fanatic. I marvelled at the technical ingenuity, gasped at the surprises and moments of drama, chuckled at the back and forth between the players and the umpire, and luxuriated in the ability to be taken out of myself by something truly fascinating for a few days. It is a wonderful, joyous book… and a strong argument for digging out a few more of those recommendations from that there list.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

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Sri Lanka: seismic shifts

There was an obvious choice for Sri Lanka. Having won the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature this January, Shehan Karunatilaka’s cricket novel Chinaman seemed a shoo-in. I’d even bought a copy and added it to the pile of books waiting for me in the corner of my living room before I began to have doubts. After all, shouldn’t I try and get something a little more off the beaten track? Something written in one of Sri Lanka’s official languages rather than the English of the nation’s colonial past?

I went back to the drawing board and fired off an email to DK Agencies, an Indian bookseller that specialises in literature from South Asian countries. It wasn’t long before I was looking at an impressive list of Sri Lankan titles in translation from Tamil and Sinhala. Choosing felt a bit like trying to order a dish from a menu in a language you don’t understand — particularly as, unlike titles released by Western publishers, the books on the list had very little information about them available on the web. Crossing my fingers, I plumped for Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award-winning novel Metta.

Three weeks later, the book arrived, wrapped in a makeshift envelope constructed of two A4 sheets of paper. Regular AYORTW visitor @alualuna informs me that this is quite normal, but for me it simply seemed to add to the intrigue of the whole thing – especially as the package had partially ripped open in transit. This novel really did seem to have taken a tortuous route to get to me.

The book tells the story of Varnasi, her mother Manoramya and Sasha, the man who has set them against each other, as an earthquake hits Sri Lanka during a ceasefire in the recent civil war. While normal life crumbles around them, Sasha and the two women are forced to assess the barriers they have put up against each other, unearthing truths and secrets that have kept them apart and seeking a resolution that, for Varnasi at least, draws on the Buddhist concept of Metta – which, as translator Carmen Wickramagamage explains in her Afterword, is commonly inadequately explained as ‘loving compassion’.

The prejudice that separates people is a key theme in the novel. One of its most compelling parts – the opening section which portrays Sasha’s uneasy position as a consultant-cum-liaison officer for international NGOs – reveals the suspicions that divide the community. Viewed as a ‘peacewallah vulture’ by the warring local factions, Sasha is held at arm’s length by the Western workers and is perpetually wary of getting caught up in some cultural misunderstanding that might lead him to be dismissed, had up for sexual harassment, or worse.

Similarly, the foreigners themselves seem trapped in their own bubble, numbed by flitting from one conflict to the next. ‘They don’t feel the pain of our injuries because they have already seen too much pain in the places they have been’, muses Sasha before urging one of the young woman not to remain in her job too long because she’ll ‘never be able to return to a normal life’.

This insight into human fears and insecurities, gives Rajakarunanayake the tools to unfold the subtle shifts in emotion between Varnasi and her mother as they cower beneath a table through the night. It also enables her to reveal some powerful insights into what it is like living through a natural disaster when all the rules about property and propriety are shivered into dust (the references to the prevalence of rapes and sexual assaults in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, for example, were particularly disturbing).

The earthquake does more than rearrange the three main characters’ lives: it disrupts the narrative structure too. No doubt a lot of this is intentional. Rajakarunanayake makes much of the metaphorical potential of the earthquake – it even changes the shape of the island – so it’s hardly surprising that the text itself undergoes an abrupt transformation.

That said, the book needs some closer editing. Several ideas are restated too often, particularly as the narrative shifts between the three characters. Some of the practical details of the resolution Rajakarunanayake reaches for are also a little questionable and would probably not stand up to medical scrutiny.

I was also tripped up by the strange Postscript, in which Varnasi claims half the story never happened. I’d be interested to know from Sri Lankan literature buffs whether this and the ‘In a Nutshell’ summary at the start of the book are part of a wider tradition in Sinhala literature or innovations of Rajakarunanayake’s own making.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated by what Rajakarunanayake has achieved here. While creating something very specific and personal, and unlike anything I’ve read before, she expresses broad truths. These reach beyond the Sri Lankan coastline to show people to themselves the world over. The printed copy might have struggled to reach me, but its writer had no trouble at all.

Metta by Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, translated from the Sinhala by Carmen Wickramagamage (The Three Wheeler Press, 2011)