A few weeks ago, I was asked by Graywolf Press here in Minneapolis to read and review a novel about Sri Lankan cricket that they were releasing. I jumped at the chance, of course.
I read The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by debut author Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian literature, from four different points of view: that of a fan of great fiction, that of a fan of cricket, that of an American fan of cricket, and that of a world history buff. The book delivered on all four fronts, I am happy to say, and I would highly recommend it to my cricket loving friends as well as to my literature loving friends and my history loving friends – for while the book has cricket as its bones, the novel’s flesh and personality transcend sport to explore the troubled history of Sri Lanka, as well as the themes of love, regret, alcoholism, and fatherhood.
The story, like cricket, is a simple one – on the surface. An aging, failed Sri Lankan sportswriter, Wije, is drinking himself to death, while simultaneously researching and trying to write the biography of his country’s most talented (and fictional) spin bowler, Pradeep Mathew, who only played in a handful of games in the 80s and 90s before disappearing forever.
In search of the Mathew’s ghost, Wije teams up with his best friends to track down and interview Sri Lanka’s cricket coaches, players, commentators, and sportwriters, as well as Mathew’s lovers, friends, and teammates. Along the way he is thwarted by his drinking, and his estranged son, and his suspicious wife. He encounters lunatics, terrorists, and six fingered bowling coaches.
The story, as I said, is a simple one, but the book is brilliantly written, and the characters are all likable and endearing. You will grow to love Jonny, for instance, the homosexual ex-pat whose side story is the heart and soul of the novel. And the author’s descriptions of Colombo make you feel as if you are right there with Wije in the back of a tri-shaw, drunk again, chasing phantoms.
It is heartbreaking, and it is sad, and it is funny. And while it meanders at times, and while it feels a little loose in places, well hey, that’s test cricket, that’s the way it is supposed to be.
And speaking of cricket: the book made me fall in love with the sport all over again. Wije and his friends are positively mad for the game, and reading about people who love something even more than you do is truly a fun experience. Even the most fanatical cricket fan will take something away from the cricket talk in this book.
Further, as an American cricket fan, and therefore new-ish to the sport, I learned a great deal about the intricacies of the game, about spin, about the legends, about what it is to truly be a cricket nut.
And, finally, the author talks a great deal about Sri Lanka’s history, and he is not all that subtle about the fact that the country that he loves is screwed up beyond repair. Sri Lanka has a remarkably sad and violent and interesting history, one that very few outside of Southeast Asia know much about, and so the novel delivers an important lesson in Sri Lankan history to the reader, one which I greatly appreciated.
In the end, the book is about a cricket, about friendship, about ghosts, and about hardship. It is about sport and how it rightfully transcends history; and simultaneously it is about history and how it rightfully transcends sport. It is about God, it is about sadness, and it is about spin bowling. That surely sounds like a lot of balls in the air for the author, but he successfully juggles them all.
It is a book for those that love cricket, for those that love history, or for those that love good books. Thankfully I am lucky enough to be in all three categories.
The book is available in the states via Graywolf Press. Do check it out!