Title: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Release Date: May 8, 2012
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction (South Asian)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
W.G. Karunasena (also called Wije) is a sportswriter who has spent his life drinking his days away. Now, his doctor informs him that, unless he stops drinking, he will die soon. Instead of doing the responsible thing, Wije chooses to continue with this lifestyle and decides to make a documentary about the history of Sri Lankan cricket. He wants to focus on Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer that almost everyone else has forgotten about, but finds difficulty at every turn in his search for information. Who was Pradeep Mathew, and why do people not want his story told?
When I first heard about The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, I had no idea it was the same book that had been published as Chinaman in other countries (though the change of name is wise, especially for US audiences, yes?). Chinaman won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2012, and when it was awarded, I lamented that the book wasn’t available in the US. Now it is, and that made me even more excited to pick up The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. (And let me add that chinaman isn’t meant to be offensive – it’s the word used to describe a left-arm spinner in cricket.)
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of cricket. It’s not my game, I don’t really understand the rules, as much as I’ve tried. Therefore, the fact that The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is about a cricket player gave me some pause; that is, until I started reading the book. I was instantly taken in by Karunatilaka’s unique writing style. It’s at once engaging, but never pretentious. The words flow easily and beautifully, but the prose is never so lofty as to lose the reader or abandon the story in favor of poetry. It’s a lovely balance, and makes for a great reading experience.
The novel is centered around Wije’s search for Pradeep Mathew. It’s clear from the beginning that someone or something is standing in Wije’s way. Time and again, he’s promised full funding if he drops his inquiries into Mathew, or he watches as people come forward with information about the cricketer and then disappear. This mystery is one of the driving forces in the story, and Karunatilaka does a wonderful job renewing and keeping it fresh over the course of the book.
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew isn’t necessarily written for cricket fans, as the narrator states:
“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.”
That being said, an understanding of the sport can only help while reading it. I’ll admit there were times I was completely lost, though Karunatilaka does an excellent job explaining as much as he can without being repetitive. He weaves in Sri Lankan history with the cricket, and this is where the novel really shines. It’s smart and well-written; readers will close the book with a newfound understanding of both cricket and Sri Lankan history, politics, and the current issues the country faces.
In the end, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a genius of a book with a powerful twist at the end that will leave readers with dropped jaws. The novel is not exactly what you think of when you hear the term “South Asian literature”; it’s not tragic or heavy. In fact, it’s actually very funny, full of unique and well-developed primary and secondary characters that will stick with the reader long after the last pages are turned. It’s a story of real life, of love and obsession, of history and culture, and it’s an amazing thing to behold.