Shehan Karunatilaka’s first novel, Chinaman—a mystery story about cricket and addiction in Sri Lanka—is due to be published in the UK on 28 April by Jonathan Cape.
The novel centres around retired sportswriter WG Karunasena who is dying. His two obsessions are alcohol and the famous spin bowler Pradeep Mathew, whose meteoric career was cut short after his mysterious disappearance in 1995.
Karunasena embarks on a quest to track down his hero and in doing so, encounters secret underground bunkers, Tamil Tiger warlords, and more startling truths about Sri Lanka than he had bargained for.
Through this story of a cynical old man’s love for cricket, Karunatilaka also traces the contours of modern day Sri Lanka. Karunatilaka stated that he interviewed lots of uncles and grandfathers to gather anecdotes about cricket, and hung around many a shady bar talking to drunks as part of his research.
Publisher Dan Franklin compares Chinaman to Midnight’ s Children, arguing that it does for Sri Lanka what Rushdie’ s novel did for India. “This makes it sound serious,” he added, “but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s anarchic, verbally playful, incredibly funny, and most glorious of all, it’s entirely one hundred percent about cricket and it doesn’t matter one jot if you’ve never seen an over bowled.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said the novel is one of the best to come out of South Asia in a decade. “The characters are wonderful; the ‘history’ is so subtly woven in and the cricket is of course superbly handled,” Mehta explains. “Kurunatilaka has done something rare in South Asian literature – created characters.”
Reception of the novel has been largely positive, with iconic Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje describing it as “a crazy ambidextrous delight.” Chinaman first came to prominence as an unpublished manuscript in 2008, when it won the Gratiaen Prize – one that was instituted by Michael Ondaatje to award the best creative writing in English by a Sri Lankan.
The novel has also been selected for Waterstone’s pick of the best first novels of 2011 and the first chapter is available for download on their website. Mirza Waheed is the only other South Asian to make this list for his novel, The Collaborator.