Maverick Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka's second novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (2022), originally published in India as Chats with the Dead in 2020, has just been shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize for Fiction. But his first book Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, his breakout work, remains the most inventive debut novel to have come out of the subcontinent in many years.
On the one hand, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is the story of a retired, begruntled, often drunk (also dying!) journalist’s irrational pursuit to track down half-Sinhalese/half-Tamil spin bowler Pradeep S Mathew – who he thinks is “the greatest player to walk the earth”. On the other, this is a heady deep dive into the history of Sri Lankan cricket using the fictional character of Mathew, while also deftly documenting the story of his nation in the throes of violence, terrorism, and relentless tragedies, inexorably enduring through it all to survive.
Shehan writes early in the book: “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.” This, particularly, is one of Chinaman’s great strengths. Even while talking about something very specific – a game of cricket or life in the Sri Lankan underbelly – it’s also deceptively about several other things at once; such that every reader who appreciates absorbing fiction is bound to find a door that gives them access to Chinaman’s world.
Countless real-life cricketers, trivia, and actual cricket matches make an appearance, and while they only help take the narrative forward, it’s impossible for any ardent cricket fan to read this book and not go to the internet after every few pages just to check how much of all this is true. So effortlessly is fact blended with fiction by Karunatilaka in this novel, and the writing is so feverishly original, it seemed to me that the author wants his readers to forget about any reviews, or any laurels the book might have earned and is just asking them to enjoy an exhilarating, unforgettable ride with him.
Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Gratiaen Prize, and was also adjudged the second greatest cricket book of all time by Wisden.