A dying sportswriter, Karunasena, wants to make a documentary on cricketer Pradeep Mathew, who he believes to be the greatest spin bowler ever. There is a compelling mystery surrounding this cricketer. Who is he? What is his mystique? Is he alive? Did he even exist? If so, how was he erased from public memory? Will the quest that now gives meaning to the life of an otherwise inconsequential writer be realised? The plot of this engrossing mystery is easily summarised. But its literary achievement is not. Chinaman is, quite simply put, something as close to a masterpiece as anything to have come out of South Asia in recent years. Most South Asian writing in English has lived down to a genre in which critics place it. We have the “postcolonial” novel, the “Indian” novel, the “Pakistani” novel and so forth; almost as if novels were simply history by other means. In line with our tendency to engage novels by placing them in genres and limiting them, Chinaman is also being described as the Great Sri Lankan Novel or, more charitably, the Great Cricket Novel. Its achievement is that its plenitude transcends any description that seeks to confine it to a particular genre. It is, unlike much other writing in this genre, simply a great novel: a work of exquisite literary craftsmanship.What makes this novel exceptional is this. In most contemporary novels, identity dominates over individuality, history over character, argument over observation, politics over life, moralising over moral psychology. Chinaman is a class apart for several reasons. It is incredibly funny and moving at the same time. It has a lightness of touch that lesser writers can only aspire to achieve. The humour in the book resides not simply in the jokes; it is the way in which the humour gives a whole new context to the complexities of life. Its prose is crystal sharp, almost Wodehousian in its precision. It can convey in one lapidary sentence what other novels take pages to describe. The characters are memorable. Their insights on life come largely from their individuality. Karunasena, for example, achieves a kind of luminous, wry and funny clarity over his surroundings largely because of his defeatism. It is almost as if you can understand the world only if you have no stake in it.advertisementHis small circle of friends and family are memorable in their own ways. If Karunasena has the insight of detachment, his wife has the insight of affection; his son of rebellion; and his friends of a genteel sociability. There is also a rich cast of finely etched smaller characters, none of whom is wasted. The conversations amongst all the characters pull off the unbelievable feat of being both so recognisable and so funny at the same time. Many of the conversations, particularly between Karunasena and his wife Sheila, are perfect examples of what a master novelist can do.The novel deftly brings into perspective several large themes: the odd gap between talent and success, the regret of recognising a truth too late, the importance of sociability. Much of it is a wry look at the way we construct meaning. Some of Karunasena’s friends are busy searching for the meaning of life, flirting with doctrines that promise ultimate redemption. But Karunasena is more engaged with the meaning of life. “Unlike life, sports matters” will perhaps become the most often quoted of several memorable epigrams in the book. Like most humans, Karunasena constructs meaning vicariously, living through the achievements of others. What can compare with the thrill of a World Cup victory, or your son hitting a six? Sports are, in a sense, like ritual: anyone can participate in it vicariously. From an external point of view, it seems arbitrary and pointless. But the paradox is precisely that for this reason it can invest meaning in life like nothing else can.Then there is Pradeep Mathew, the elusive cricketer, whose life itself shows how talent can be hostage to the complex tides of history and fortune. His character bears the weight of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. But what are these constructs of identity that hold his career hostage? Are they also forms of vicarious arbitrariness? The delicacy with which Karunatilaka weaves history is an object lesson in that old adage about novel writing: show, not tell. The plot has an innovative narrative structure. For cricket fans, Karunatilaka creates an entire world with extraordinary precision: from cricket history to statistics, from bookies to unruly commentators. The cricket is engrossing but never intrusive.advertisementThere are layers and layers to this novel. But it is a measure of Karunatilaka’s craftsmanship that the novel remains so thoroughly enjoyable, a sheer reading delight. Most novels try and plumb depths of history to the point of getting lost. This one does something more difficult and artful: illuminate surfaces with a depth of insight that is rare. “Wasting talent is a crime,” Graham Snow, a commentator, says in the book. “A sin”, replies the character Ari. There is no doubt that Karunatilaka has committed neither a crime nor a sin.