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.
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