Ahead of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Shehan Karunatilaka reveals the backstory to his award-winning Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew.
New Zealand educated Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka has won the prestigious Commonwealth Book Prize 2012. Through the eyes of a retired sportswriter WG Karunasena, Chinaman tells a story of modern Sri Lanka through the history of its most loved sport, cricket. He talks to Saradha Koirala about Forgotten Silver, Wanganui Collegiate boofheads, obsession and absurdity, and ’96.
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Chinaman blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction somewhat—real people and moments in history are cited and there’s a sense of self-awareness. “You are shaking your head. You are closing the book and frowning at the cover,” says the narrator in the opening chapters. “Re-reading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question.” Why did you choose to integrate fact and fiction and how does it add to the credibility of the story?
The initial plan was to write the book as non-fiction, or as fiction masquerading as fact. I felt that Sri Lankan spin bowlers of the 1980s was such an obscure topic that I could make up anything and pass it off as truth. My inspiration was the Peter Jackson documentary Forgotten Silver, which I saw as a student at Massey and which completely took me in—at least for half an hour. But a lot of the stories in Chinaman are based on anecdotes and real events, that it seemed disingenuous not to at least nod at the real stories hidden amidst the lies.
The main character, Pradeep Mathew, for example, is an amalgamation of a number of real cricket players. Who were they and what interested you about their stories?
I used to bowl left-arm spin and grew up in Wanganui, dreaming of doing just that for Sri Lanka. So I kept a close watch on Sri Lankan spin bowlers and found that until Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan] came along, most of them had a very short shelf life. Guys like Anura Ranasinghe. Roshan Guneratne and Sridharan Jeganathan all played test cricket for Sri Lanka, performed well and then disappeared. All three of those guys were tipped for greatness and all three died in the 40s, after their careers washed up. For some reason, I found this fascinating. The idea that you could have the talent to get the highest level and then squander it. I started being drawn to one-hit wonders in all walks of life. I shouldn’t talk too soon, considering I’ve only written one book myself.
The story of WG Karunasena writing about Pradeep Mathew becomes the focus of Chinaman and readers perhaps learn more about the sportswriter than the sportsman. How did you create WG as a character?
Karunasena began as a minor character, a device from which to deliver my Forgotten Silver tale. He then became the sole narrative voice, and then, without warning, he took over the book. This wasn’t my intention. But once it became clear that the teller was as much a part of the story as the story itself, I revised the whole thing. My initial models for WG, and his sidekick Ari, were Waldorf and Stadler, the two grumpy old men from the balcony of The Muppet Show. But then I began spending afternoons drinking arrack with old men in dodgy bars, talking about cricket and life. The voice evolved organically from there.
His voice comes across very well—the sense of obsession is obvious from the start. Is there a sense of absurdity in a nation’s fixation on sportspeople and sport history? When do we know we’ve gone too far?
Life in Sri Lanka is filled with absurdity. Buddhist monks acting like thugs, politicians having gangster-style shootouts, greased devils terrorizing the country, journalists being picked up in white vans and never being seen again. Then there are the various fictions woven over how our wars are won and lost. You can either go mad, make pythonesque jokes about it, or you find a distraction. Cricket is our main distraction. The politicians know this, so if they want to introduce a price hike or expand their executive powers they do it during a test series. It’s not surprising that we distract ourselves with cricket and cricketers. It’s much more pleasant than facing reality.
How does Sri Lanka’s sports obsession compare with New Zealand’s?
Kiwis have many sports to obsess over. League, union, netball, sailing, maybe even cricket. We just have the one. And at the moment, we’re pretty crap at it. I think we’re a nation of critics and spectators, whereas New Zealand is a nation of players and doers. It doesn’t mean our obsessions are any less ridiculous, just that they’re slightly more irritating.
What else did you learn about New Zealand sporting culture while living here?
I steered clear of the rugbyheads at Massey, because they were the same guys who used to beat me up at Wanganui Collegiate School. So for a long time I avoided Kiwi sporting culture and embraced the so-called alternative arts and music scene in the early 90s.
But after I got rid of that chip on my shoulder, I joined a social cricket team and started watching Fitzpatrick’s All Blacks. You have a very physical and active nation and that’s something to be proud of. It’s hard not to have a great sporting culture, when you live in such wide open spaces.
You’ve written feature articles, travel stories, short stories, and advertising campaigns. What are some commonalities between these forms and how did they feed into Chinaman?
Every form of writing is difficult and involves prolonged periods of procrastination, followed by panic, followed by frantic activity. I guess the ads and the articles taught me to sit in one place, come up with more ideas than I needed, and to type even when the fingers aren’t moving. I did the same for Chinaman, just did it for three years non-stop.
Do you have a preferred genre in which to write?
I’d like to try them all. Comedy, tragedy, horror, love. Whatever feels interesting and whatever the story needs to be. Chinaman is a mock detective story, told by a drunk. My next one is a… oops, almost gave it away.
A lot of research must have gone into writing Chinaman (which covers decades of not just cricketing but national history). What was your starting point and how long was the process of writing the novel?
One year of research, one year of writing, one year of rewriting. I watched every Sri Lankan cricket match from 1982-1999, read every cricket book I could find, and hung out with loads of drunk old men. It was a glorious way to spend three years.
WG says at one point, “Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls, and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport is eternal. Unlike life, sport matters.” How else do you see sport as a metaphor for life?
I don’t actually believe most of WG’s drunken pseudo-philosophy. I’m not sure if sport is as transcendent as he claims it is. In fact a majority of games are fairly pointless and do nothing more than suck up time. That said, some, like that final in Lahore in ’96, can alter the universe. I do see the parallels between life and test cricket though. Both can be sprawling affairs with long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of brilliance. Some of them can be inspirational, but most end up as drab draws.