by Shehan Karunatilaka
Prior to picking up The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, nearly all I could tell you about cricket is what the bat looks like and that I once saw a bowler on the Jonathan Ross Show who was apparently very good. I can't remember his name. Yes, I do know they're called bowlers, not pitchers. Also, my friend Karo loves cricket. That was the extent of my knowledge.
After reading The Legend of Pradeep Mathew? Well... I perhaps gleaned a small amount of knowledge, particularly regarding Sri Lankan and Australian corners of the sport. I still have no idea how the scoring system works, but maybe I could better figure it out were I to watch a cricket match now. Not that they really show cricket in the US... but in theory, perhaps.
Does minimal knowledge of cricket impede my enjoyment of the book? Absolutely not. Shehan Karunatilaka's novel is surprising, funny, and interesting — though I imagine that if you love the sport, it is even more so. This was an impulse read for me, after seeing it on the 'New' shelf at my local library. I'm so glad I gave into the urge, however massive my reading queue was otherwise.
W.G. — "Wije" or "Gamini" to some — Karunasena has just been told by his doctor that his liver is shot and that if he keeps drinking like he does, he will most certainly die soon. He is sixty-four, a retired sports journalist, married, and has an adult son named Garfield with whom he has a contentious relationship. He asks the doctor:
"What if I cut down to two drinks a day?"
He doesn't look surprised. But at least he lets go of the smile. "A year or two. Maybe more."
Thus it was settled. I would attempt to do a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket. There is nothing more inspiring than a solid deadline.
W.G. enlists the help of his best friend and neighbor, Ari, and other cricket enthusiast friends they share. Fights have occurred over who are the best players of all-time, and every man has different criteria. Over the objections of others, W.G. insists that the best of them all was a little-known Sri Lankan called Pradeep Mathew. He more or less only appeared in test matches in the 1980s before disappearing from the game — and seemingly, from everyone — after his impressive-but-brief playing run. W.G. wants to know what happened to him, and he wants the rest of the cricket-watching world to know of Mathew's importance.
What starts as a documentary project soon morphs into an ongoing quest, and the book is written as though we are seeing the compiled notes and initial manuscript from W.G., and he is fond of talking directly to the reader. Of course, he is not the most reliable narrator when it comes to the treatment of his son or his dismissal of his wife's concerns about his drinking. Documenting cricket becomes a frame around which Sri Lankan life and politics hang, with W.G.'s goals and failures mirroring the process. What can be taken at face value? Almost nothing. Every character, every scene, has layers upon layers of Best Foot Forward mixed with the Appropriate Amount of Deception.
Love is the Magic
What follows was not revealed in one sitting. Neither was it revealed by one person. What follows is a stitching together of hearsay. I held the needle, so apologies if the seams show.
I have quoted only those who agreed to speak to me.
Charith describes Pradeep as having long fingers and being unusually supple. Some mornings, Mathew would be stretching, other times he would be reading his English books, some days he would be in the toilet vomiting.
"He told me his mother wanted him to give up cricket and look after his father. He was determined to become the first regular Tamil player in the national side. 'Ado, Silva. As a Tamil I have to be ten times better than the Sinhala spinners. Now I am only eight times better.' Sometimes fellow had swollen head."
This is a long novel, and because I'm not overly familiar with Sri Lanka or cricket, I would sometimes think, I'm not sure what he's talking about or what exactly is going on, yet I was enjoying myself. It takes a special sort of outstanding writer to make a non-sport person love reading 400 pages filled with it. Karunatilaka imbues W.G.'s voice with a subtle humor throughout, even as the man's health deteriorates.
Just when I started to wonder how it would all play out, this massive cast of characters and information, Karunatilaka wraps up the story in an unusual but absolutely fitting way. Any flaws the book has a relatively minor and probably come down to my personal taste — sometimes the timeline of events could be a bit confusing, for instance — but in general, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is excellent. And if you love cricket, you'll likely love it wholeheartedly.
I got this book from my local library. Support yours.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.