By Alison Flood –
Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, a former advertising copywriter, has won the Commonwealth book prize for his highly praised debut novel Chinaman: the Legend of Pradeep Mathew.
Narrated by the alcoholic former sports journalist WG Karunasena, the novel is the story of his quest for Pradeep Mathew, a devastatingly talented Sri Lankan spin bowler who appears to have been expunged from historical record. Despite its cricket focus, Karunatilaka promises in the book: “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.”
Judges of the £10,000 prize agreed. “This fabulously enjoyable read will keep you entertained and rooting for the protagonist until the very end, while delivering startling truths about cricket and about Sri Lanka,” said chair Margaret Busby.
“It’s an insightful story about fact and gullibility, about world history, about friends and family [and it] sets the standard high for the new Commonwealth book prize.”
The award, won in the past by Peter Carey, Christos Tsiolkas and Aminatta Forna, has been relaunched this year by the Commonwealth Foundation’s Commonwealth writers’ programme to target and identify new talent, and goes to a first novel. Karunatilaka beat names including Ondaatje winner Rahul Bhattacharya to take the prize, which was presented at the Hay festival on Friday afternoon by the award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Speaking to the Guardian, Karunatilaka said it was a “huge surprise” to win – although the fact that the Sri Lankan cricket team lost to Pakistan on Thursday had made him quietly positive, he joked. “Whenever the Sri Lankan cricket team loses, something good happens to the book, so as they got thrashed last night I was pretty confident,” he said.
“Winning the prize means so much … If you are a Sri Lankan writing in English you can’t expect to be published outside Sri Lanka. When I finished it, I thought it would be appealing to Sri Lankans, and perhaps readers in India and Pakistan and the subcontinent would get into it, but I really didn’t think it would go further than that … I was surprised to make it to the final five, considering how strong the Asia shortlist was. To win it is quite crazy. Now I just need to find a pub in Wales that serves arrack.”
Chinaman – the title is a reference to a particular bowling delivery in cricket – has already received glowing reviews in the UK. Nicholas Lezardwrote in the Guardian: “I can hardly believe this is a first novel by someone self-described as a bass-player and advertising copywriter, the dumbest jobs in music and writing. He has with no apparent effort got into the mind of an articulate, wise, but despairing and cynical drunken old hack, and this long, languorous and winding novel has registers of tragedy, farce, laugh-out-loud humour and great grace”.
Karunatilaka is now about to go on tour in the US.
The author said he spent two years doing “nothing but watch cricket” as research for the novel. “Research is what derails a book, but all I had to do was watch cricket and hang out with drunk old men, so that wasn’t too strenuous. I wanted to be authentic to the voice, which was why I did a lot of talking with these characters, these old men obsessed with cricket who would spend all day drinking,” he said.
Karunatilaka is now writing his second novel – not about cricket, but also set in Sri Lanka. “I’m steering clear of drinking and sport, but it will be in Sri Lanka,” he said. “I do feel quite lucky because Sri Lanka is not very well trodden ground [for authors] and there are so many stories around.”
The £5,000 Commonwealth short story prize was won by New Zealand author Emma Martin for Two Girls in a Boat, which chair of judges Bernardine Evaristo described as “gorgeous, elegant and spare”. The story was chosen, she said for “its nuanced handling of time, place and relationships; its daring, provocative subject matter and clear-eyed exploration of the choice of heterosexual conformity in the face of sexual mutability. Until we had decided on our shortlist, all entries were anonymous. So it is also great that this prize, I think we can claim, has discovered Emma Martin, who has not yet published a book, and brought her to an international audience. With her considerable talent we hope to see more of her work in the future.”