A Review: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunathilaka
Some people gaze at setting suns, sitting mountains, teenage virgins and their wiggling thighs. I see beauty in free kicks, late cuts, slam dunks, tries from halfway and balls that burn from off to leg … In real life, justice is rarely poetic and too often invisible. Good sits in a corner, collects a cheque and pays a mortgage. Evil builds empires … Sports can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.
I don’t know anything about cricket. I’m not sure I even know what a cricket bat or ball or field looks like. What pleasure could there be for me then in a 400-plus-page novel about the sport—unless there is truth in what the author, Shehan Karunathilaka, has written about sport as a reflection of life. We battle and fumble and recover, take sides and hope for the impossible.
It’s this mysticism of the sport that captures Karunathilaka’s narrator, W.G. Karunasena, a Sri Lankan sportswriter and one of cricket’s most devoted fans. Throughout the novel, he spits statistics and scores, reminisces about matches. He becomes obsessed with Pradeep Mathew, a man—long disappeared into the depths of time and space—who Karunasena (aka WeeGee, Wije, W.G., Gamini) believes to have been the greatest cricket player ever. But, more importantly and critical to the novel’s integrity and its success, a man WeeGee forces into a representation of their country and an analogue of himself. “Wasting talent is a crime,” a friend says, and our battered writer thinks, “…of Pradeep Mathew, the great unsung bowler … of Sri Lanka, the great underachieving nation … of W.G. Karunasena, the great unfulfilled writer … of all these ghosts and [he] can’t help but agree.”
The novel reads like a journal of a man trying to find himself in things outside of himself—cricket and Mathew and booze. He invests everything he has (literally, every dollar) into a cricket documentary and then a book, and always alcohol and always a search for the lost Mathew. He loses himself in this search—but any lack of subtlety in the comparison between WeeGee’s search for Mathew and the loss of himself disappears in the humor, candor, and brief but deep displays of heart that Karunathilaka invests in the novel. The author peppers his narrator’s effusiveness with moments of surprising insight, as in: “I may be drunk, but I am not stupid. Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. There is little point to anything.” WeeGee may be drunk through most of the novel, but that, if anything, makes him more likable, more engaging. He is flawed; he knows he is flawed. He hurts his family and himself with words and actions he can barely remember—we will never know the “truth” behind many of the book’s moments, only the version of the truth that we receive through our drunk narrator’s story.
Like Mathew, who disappeared into the void of the world, WeeGee disappears into “insight, jocularity and escape” fueled by liter after liter of arrack, and some of the novel’s most honest moments rise from the interludes when he admits that his life has not, in fact, been as jocular as he’d hoped. He is ill, his liver “well worn.” He makes a list, “Things to Do Yesterday” (whether he lives for one more month or for years). Item 1: to make peace with his son, Garfield. When WeeGee falls sick enough to be hospitalized, he knows, still—his family and friends’ tears be damned—knows still that he won’t stop drinking. He says, of his wife:
There are things that Sheila will never know. She will never know how much I regret. She will never know that I disappoint myself more than I disappoint her. She will never know that even though I love her more than anything, I will always hate myself a tiny bit more.
A writer who can make my heart ache the way it did when I read those hopeless lines deserves all the laudation I have and probably more.
In his search for the legend of Pradeep Mathew, W.G.—and his best friend and sidekick, Ari, a crucial ancillary character, next to whom WeeGee’s antics and mistakes blaze like neon lights—encounters unbelievable character after unbelievable character, those marked by deformities and dishonesties and possible cricket conspiracies. The narration itself is marked by mystery since we never know more than WeeGee knows, and that is never much. With added undercurrents and side stories of Sri Lankan’s racial tensions, sexual choice and homophobia, and the struggle of the creative process, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew takes shape, becomes a tome that contains so much more than cricket. It—yes—it contains a life.
WeeGee asks, “What is more important, Sport or Life? Stupid question.” As I read the novel, I wondered how he would have answered, until I realized: there is no difference. Through the vessel of this fragile and forgivable character, Karunathilaka creates a story in which every moment of sport is life and every moment of life is sport—and every moment of the novel sings with the beauty of both.
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