8 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

WG (Wije) Karunasena is a Sri Lankan sportswriter who has been forced into retirement because he is a drunk. He is also on a fast track to an early death. But he can only write when he’s intoxicated, and his lifelong fascinations for cricket and alcohol propel his obsessive search for Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer who had a brief but spectacular career during the late 80s and early 90s. Mathew is able to accomplish impossible and yet for some reason, in spite of his exceptional abilities, he disappears, not only from the cricket field but from the world in general, after playing very few matches, including a test match that takes place in an empty stadium. Struggling to make sense of his life and accomplish something meaningful and lasting, Wije and his neighbor Ari leave behind their families and depart on a journey to locate Mathew. They have both seen Mathew play, which is the only evidence they have that he ever existed. People refuse to speak of him, and all records of him have been erased.

Cricket is the lens through which Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew shows a very telling portrait of the country. While the book is very much about cricket—it is littered with relevant descriptions and diagrams—it would be just as easy (but admittedly less fulfilling) to simply skip the sections of the book that are full of jargon. Because this book isn’t a book about cricket per se, but about how Pradeep Mathew became a legend when people simply stopped talking about him. His legend outlasted his presence in Sri Lanka, and fueled the obsession that carried Wije through the last few alcohol-blurred years of his life.

The narrator’s unreliability makes the line between fact and fiction very hard to draw. Many of the tales, in spite of being framed as reality, are surreal. Wije’s estranged son is trying to get the manuscript published in fulfillment of the old man’s dying wish, despite the awareness that the manuscript is flawed and full of the ramblings of a senile alcoholic, as seen in the attempt to censor him:

Karunasena has been known throughout the industry as a shady character, some say he suffered from mental illness in his final years. This book is gutter journalism and it would be irresponsible to publish and taint our national team who has brought such glory to our nation.

In fact, it is revealed that the more fantastical anecdotes are the ones that are true, while the more believable ones are false, but what is true and what is false is not distinguished. There are references to matches and players that actually existed functioning alongside invented characters, and along with realistic descriptions of cricket. Upon attempting to conduct research as to whether Pradeep Mathew really existed, I came across a website dedicated to the cricketer, which is mentioned in the book itself as being created by Mathew’s son but potentially could have been created by Shehan Karunatilaka himself. There are fantastic and unbelievable confrontations, riots, and conspiracies, and the gradually unveiling of hidden truths about Sri Lanka. And then there’s the fact that Karunatilaka is revealed to be the pseudonym of Wije’s son who is publishing the book within the book. This emphasizes the inability to distinguish fact and fiction.

This novel is very deliberately crafted, from the fumbling and often confused tone taken by the narrator, to the factual details interspersed with fiction. It is difficult to determine whether Pradeep Mathew is a real man or a fabrication or a legend made of a little bit of fact and a little bit of fiction, and furthermore it is an experience to wade through the dense text over the course of several days, much like a game of cricket itself.

8 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, which is available from Graywolf Press.

Here is part of the review:

WG (Wije) Karunasena is a Sri Lankan sportswriter who has been forced into retirement because he is a drunk. He is also on a fast track to an early death. But he can only write when he’s intoxicated, and his lifelong fascinations for cricket and alcohol propel his obsessive search for Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer who had a brief but spectacular career during the late 80s and early 90s. Mathew is able to accomplish impossible and yet for some reason, in spite of his exceptional abilities, he disappears, not only from the cricket field but from the world in general, after playing very few matches, including a test match that takes place in an empty stadium. Struggling to make sense of his life and accomplish something meaningful and lasting, Wije and his neighbor Ari leave behind their families and depart on a journey to locate Mathew. They have both seen Mathew play, which is the only evidence they have that he ever existed. People refuse to speak of him, and all records of him have been erased.

Cricket is the lens through which Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew shows a very telling portrait of the country. While the book is very much about cricket—it is littered with relevant descriptions and diagrams—it would be just as easy (but admittedly less fulfilling) to simply skip the sections of the book that are full of jargon. Because this book isn’t a book about cricket per se, but about how Pradeep Mathew became a legend when people simply stopped talking about him. His legend outlasted his presence in Sri Lanka, and fueled the obsession that carried Wije through the last few alcohol-blurred years of his life.

Click here to read the entire review.

24 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week I wrote up the finalists for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and mentioned how I thought Chinaman by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka sounded like one of the most interesting of the six books, and that I was curious why no American publisher had picked this up.

Well, two updates: On Saturday, Chinaman won the DSC award, which comes with a $50,000 cash prize, and Graywolf is publishing this book in May with the new title, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. (And a somewhat bizarre blurb from Michael Ondaatje: “A crazy ambidextrous delight.” OK . . .)

From the DSC jury:

Commenting on the occasion Ira Pande, Jury chairperson said “The jury unanimously chose this year’s winner. While this fact in itself is a historic one for book juries are notorious for spirited battles over lists and winners, let me add that this year’s winner is also important for several other reasons. The winning title is a brilliant narration of all that is both great and sad about South Asia and in that sense it brings a world to the reader that needs to be seen outside this region. No longer are novelists who write of violence, breakdown of communities and the old way of life able to speak the whole truth about our world.”

Speaking further about the winning book, she said, “The speech rhythms of smaller towns and indigent characters, so seldom seen and heard, are brought alive by a writer who handles character and speech with consummate ease. That world has long needed a suitable metaphor and he has discovered it: Cricket. Set in Sri Lanka, as an epic search for a lost player, Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilake is both a portrait of a lost way of life and a glimpse into the future this vast and vivid region is fated to occupy.”

Congrats, and I’m really looking forward to reading this when the U.S. edition is available . . .

....
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