There was a clever salesman from Sri Lanka
who tried to decide on a corporate lingua franca.
“Not Tamil,” Helas said…
“No Sinhala,” Tamil’s pled…
“English? – the tongue of imperial propaganda?”
“Chinaman” is the tale of an alcoholic Sri Lankan sportswriter, W.G. Karunasena, who is attempting to write a biography of the man he considers the greatest cricketer to ever live, Pradeep Matthew. The two-fold challenge is that Matthew had a short and controversial career before disappearing off the face of the earth, and Karunasena is in a race to finish the book before the bottle finishes him off. [For non-cricket fan readers wondering about the title, Chinaman is a cricket term for a style of bowling. I also learned that a “ponytailed Chinaman” in Sri Lanka is (or was) slang for someone gullible.]
I try to read at least one work of literature from every country I visit, and I chose “Chinaman” for Sri Lanka, and am happy with my decision. While the book is very much cricket-centric, it does offer insight into the familial and community dynamics of Sri Lanka. Given the time frames discussed in the book (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s), we also learn a little about the civil war that was going on at the time. But most intriguingly, one views the politics and underworld that largely remain hidden to tourists, and so the book has that appeal. The book contains many explanations, diagrams, and drawings to help clue those, such as myself, who are ignorant of the game into the fundamentals, but it’s not just about cricket.
The book is presented as a novel that’s only sold as fiction for legal reasons, but my little bit of research [including a short author interview] suggests that that is just a plot device to add to the feeling of intrigue.
The last two of five parts of the book, while less than 15% of the pages, are presented from a different point of view. This is a bit jarring because the reader has developed a great deal of affinity with Karunasena, and that kind of connection doesn’t have time to blossom with his son, the second voice of the book. However, the last to parts do give the reader a satisfying conclusion.
I enjoyed this book. It’s humorous and offers a glimpse into Sri Lankan cricket and everything it touches (which is pretty much everything.) I’d recommend it for fiction readers. Even if you aren’t a big fan of cricket, you’ll enjoy the story and the humorous dialogue. If you are a fan of cricket or want to know more about Sri Lanka, it will be particularly enjoyable.
This is an anthology or erotically-themed short fiction and poetry of Sri Lanka.
Readers who are interested in cultural idiosyncrasies, particularly related to sexuality, will find the works included offer fascinating insights. That said, readers whose primary experience with erotic fiction is, for example, French erotica will probably find the stories tentative and occasionally creepy in a desperation-derived way (e.g. the hotel employee who sneaks into an admired guest’s room and – among other things — sniffs clothing.) For readers outside South Asia, one must read these works with a recognition that it is a culture that is less open about sexuality, in which the sexes don’t co-mingle as freely in youth, and where people have to take love when and where they can get it to a greater extent than readers from elsewhere may be used to. That said, the characters in these stories tend to be from a more open and progressive segment of society, but they are still operating within the constraints of the society. Some readers will find the tentativeness endearing and nostalgic, others may find it slow or tame.
Before describing each work in brief, the reader may wish to be made aware that – unlike many works of erotica – this book does not target a particular sex or sexual orientation. By that I mean, it bounces around between straight, lesbian, and gay male relationships in its stories.
– The Proposal: The first-person narrator has a friend who is on the outs with his girlfriend, and said narrator has an opportunity to bed said girlfriend. There isn’t much deliberation about whether a “bro” should be put first here
– Sex in the Hood: A poem about art and life in challenging environs.
– Undercover: A middle-aged woman whose marriage has gone lukewarm, gets groped at a movie theater, and returns the next day.
– Me and Ms. J: An ex-pat in Brussels looks back on a youthful lesbian dalliance with an older woman.
– The Lava Lamp: When girlfriends end up staying together overnight, the lava lamp becomes a representation of the couple’s flow with each other. A short piece.
– Bus Stop: A young man works up the courage to advance a relationship with a pretty girl he’s been seeing (wordlessly) at the bus stop for months. This is one of the longer and more developed pieces.
– A Courtyard: An imagery-intensive poem not only about a courtyard, but what is glimpsed across it. Probably my favorite of the poetry.
– Veysee: If you thought my mention of a hotel employee who sneaks into a guest’s room and sniffs her clothes was creepy, this story about a porn-addicted thirty-something carrying out a covert relationship with an under-aged girl takes creepiness to a new level. (Though there are hints of recognition on the part of the character of the error of his ways.)
– No: This is less erotic than a commentary on things that go unsaid in sexual relationships because the individuals involved don’t know how to broach the subject, or because they are operating on fundamentally different wave-lengths. I should say that it’s not that it lacks the sensuality of erotica, but it deals heavily with consent being mowed down.
– I’d Like to Hold Your Hand: A poem describing how the author would like to proceed from holding hands to ecstasy.
– Bi-Cycle: This is a very brief dreamy piece about the author’s personal dilemma.
– Bookworm: A bookish young man gets ushered into sexuality by the shopkeeper of his favorite bookstore.
– What Reminds Me of You: A sensual poem of nostalgia for a past love.
– Room 1716: A lobby manager at a hotel in Colombo develops a secret crush on Alicia, a tourist from an undesignated Western country. When Alicia makes a short overnight trip, the manager arranges for her to keep her room without charge. Said manager then sneaks into the room to investigate clues about her girl-crush.
– 76, Park Avenue: A Russian (or other undesignated Slavic) man has a relationship with a Sri Lankan woman.
– Flower Offering: A sensual poem about flowers – literal and symbolic.
– Hot Date: A guy ends up in drama through pursuit of the most sexually willing girl.
I found this book to be interesting. As I said, to relate to many of its characters and their motivations one has to be aware of setting and cultural norms. It has a mix of more and less developed stories and characters. (Though there are no isolated sex scenes, as sometimes occur in erotic works.) There’s a lot of power-dynamics playing out, but not at all in the explicitly sadomasochistic dominant / submissive way. There are many characters and actions that a reader might find unsavory (e.g. the grown man who acts like he’s fresh out of puberty and has no self control is a recurring theme) but loathsome characters can be as readable as likable ones. (Only indifferent characters are unreadable.)
I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in taking a world tour of erotica.