I have just finished reading Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, and to be blunt, the business of writing this review is interfering with what I really want to do. Which is watch cricket.
I feel free to confess this because the narrator of this novel would be quite forgiving of my weakness. W.G. Karunasena, apart from being a spent sportswriter and a semi-tragic drunk, is also a cricket fanatic: He is dying but is still determined to find and write about the Tamil cricketer who was his country's greatest and yet most obscure sportsman. When asked by his wife why he loves sport more than her, Karunasena responds that she is talking nonsense, but he confides to the reader: "Some people gaze at setting suns, sitting mountains, teenage virgins and their wiggling thighs. I see beauty in free kicks, late cuts, slam dunks, tries from halfway and balls that turn from off to leg."
"Balls that turn from off to leg." If that last phrase made no sense to you, then, benighted reader, I'm happy to inform you that The Legend of Pradeep Mathew contains within its pages helpful diagrams and breezy notes that serve as introduction to the rules of cricket and the magic of spin bowling. That is not all. In one of the book's asides, and there are many, we read: "Hard to believe, but in the 19th century, cricket was America's favorite team sport. Cricket clubs flourished in over 22 states, and the sport's first international game took place not between England and Australia in 1877, but between Canada and the U.S. in 1844." Unlike many other things in the book, all this is indeed true. One might also add that the 1844 match was the first sporting event in the modern world, predating the revival of the Olympic Games by more than 50 years.
The sun set on cricket in the U.S. and arose in the former colonies. Sri Lanka beat Australia to win the World Cup in 1996, and The Legend of Pradeep Mathew finds a pivot for its narrative in this victory. As W.G. says at one point: "Us brown folk play the game better and we should no longer apologize for our quirks; in fact, we should celebrate them, and, if necessary, defend them." He is talking of a style of playing cricket, but it's impossible to ignore the broader implications.
A drunk makes for an admirably unreliable narrator, but you also don't want to be stuck with one in a bar for too long. Karunatilaka's tall tales have more charm when they have not only the lightness but also the control of Michael Ondaatje's "true" stories in Running in the Family. W.G. and his friends invest a great deal of belief in conspiracy theories: In an unequal world of murderous ethnic conflict and power and profiteering, that particular worldview helps explain the world. But unlike, say, General Zia in Mohammed Hanif's novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, the figure of a missing cricketer cannot carry as heavy a narrative burden as the unsolved mystery of an assassinated dictator. At times, our patience is strained.
As I said earlier, I've been watching cricket. I live in New York's Hudson Valley and wake up to watch a T20 tournament half a world away. This is cricket in its newest, shortest, crudest form. The crowd on my screen is noisy, but noisier still is the din of commerce. It had been a comfort these past few days to turn from the commercials to the pages of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. Our curmudgeonly narrator is sitting alone, drinking himself to death. Unlike the people speaking on television, he doesn't want to be everyone's friend. He says, "While I myself may be something of a freak, I am certainly no racist. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers all nauseate me in equal measure." W.G. Karunasena, RIP.
Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.