It's not just cricket
Two cricket matches bookend Romesh Gunesekera's new novel. The first is a local, one-off, comically amateur challenge between expats in the Philippines in 1970. The second is an all-star televised clash at the Oval in 2002.
Despite cricket's longevity and aura of aestheticism, its literary heritage is lightweight compared to baseball's. The north American game is at the centre of books by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, WP Kinsella and Robert Coover. In contrast, cricket in English fiction has tended towards the nostalgic or whimsical; the locales have been the village green, country house or public school. The game is usually treated as a social rite, sometimes a rite of passage. The first of Gunesekera's matches harks back to this tradition, reworking it in a vein of bleak frustration that is a world away from the hearty japes of Dickens's Dingley Dell, All Muggleton or the sublimated class conflict of Hartley's The Go Between.
In general, cricket in south Asian fiction assumes a more mature guise. In novels by Salman Rushdie, RK Narayan, Vikram Seth, Shyam Selvadurai and Mukul Kesevan, cricket is public property. It bristles with potent associations: national identity, modernity, social aspiration, political intrigue. Gunesekera's second match belongs to this family, but it has the distinction of being (as far I know) the first extended treatment of a modern one-day international in a serious novel.
The Match opens with an intriguing glimpse into the teenage expat scene in an affluent Manila enclave. Sunny Fernando and his friends roll joints on album covers. They're excited and awed by the "bright Americanised world where girls wore hardly any clothes and pouted with alarming ease". Their milieu is small and isolated but curiously global, with ties across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. As a "Ceylonese", Sunny has an interest in cricket that is not shared by his friends, who none the less get drawn into the plans hatched by Sunny's journalist father to stage a match against visitors from Hong Kong. For Sunny, the build-up to the match is overcast by his lust for a neighbour, a Sri Lankan girl with a bewitching batting style, and his diffident relationship with his father. That the match itself is anticlimactic turns out to be typical of Sunny's life, and of the novel's circuitous approach.
Sunny goes to London and for the next 30 years drifts in and out of careers and friendships, nursing but never curing the emotional wounds of childhood loss. His low-burn meanderings are juxtaposed with the traumas of world politics, which impinge on his introverted consciousness as from a great distance: dictatorship in the Philippines, civil war in Sri Lanka, assassinations in India, 9/11, a succession of disasters mitigated only by the occasional triumphs of the Sri Lankan cricket team. Unfortunately, the relationship between public and private remains hazy; the juxtapositions arbitrary. The grand historic backcloth ends up highlighting the central weakness of the novel: the inertia of the protagonist. Sunny lives in a fog; both the outer and the inner worlds remain opaque to him, and too often this vagueness debilitates the prose. His ruminations on the people around him and on his lot in life never get very far. He doesn't grow, and while this stasis may be integral to the author's scheme, it loosens his grip on the reader.
However, the book's last chapter contains a jewel: Sunny's visit to the Oval in London to watch Sri Lanka play India during the summer of 2002. What comes alive here are not the events on the pitch (Sri Lanka lost) but the crowd in the stands. This is "cricket at full decibel". Gunesekera is at his best recreating the ebbs and flows of wit and witlessness (the chant of "Beckham is an Indian" falling somewhere in between), the carousel of social and sporting identities, the multiple reference points that animate a London-located encounter between two south Asian sides. Sunny bathes in these cross-currents, and for a moment he glimpses "the tender possibility of renewal", the prospect of an acceptance of past hurt and a deeper contact with his loved ones. Missed connections are a motif in the book, and though I found it hard to believe that Sunny would ever really connect with anyone, I liked the idea that such an intimate revelation could take place in the garish, hectic, highly public setting of a one-day international cricket match.
Source: Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
(R) thedailystar.net 2006