Irish Times

Portrait of an Everyman 

One man's life as told through the course of a novel can hardly be described as new territory. It is a theme that has dominated fiction since the birth of the novel form. For all the stories inspired by conflict and war, the personal has always overshadowed the public. Countless novels have looked to an individual life as a way of exploring the wider relevance of existence. Things are as they are. The convincing articulation of this fact is but one of the reasons explaining not only the appeal but the artistic success of Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera's graceful fourth novel, The Match, in which he gives new energy to what is a long-established theme: times past and one man's journey. 

Before even looking to the story, Gunesekera, a writer who has the' mind of a poet and the eye of a painter, makes effective use of a quote from the legendary photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, which explains not only the art of photography but the impulse behind the act: "Shooting a picture is holding your breath ... " A photograph freezes a moment; it also establishes memory. And memory is a defining element of experience, of existence, just as the act of taking a photograph in this book is not only a job, it is an attempt at survival. 

In this most beautiful and atmospheric of novels, Gunesekera recaptures the magic of his outstanding second novel, The Sandglass (1998), a meditation on time and death which itself had fulfilled the artistry evident in his debut, Reef (1994). The Match, which is both contemporary and period, flares into a multi-textured realism through its melancholic, gentle humour and the brilliant creation of a character named Sunny Fernando, the son of an unhappy pianist mother and a lapsed journalist father whose career did not so much end as taper off into inactivity. 

Sunny is that familiar Everyman character, yet another Bloom, and more importantly, yet another human adrift in the small world of his immediate life. All that happens is defined for him by the early death, when he is only eight years old, of his remote mother, a woman "with the striking features of a thirties screen idol" who taught piano to other children but never to him. "What he found difficult to understand was her bizarre decision to draw into their house dozens of freakish children in an effort to develop their musical abilities, while at the same time assuming that he, like his father, had none." 

Without striking the slightest note of sentimentality, Gunesekera evokes the dignified heartbreak of the small boy and the tragedy contained in the realisation that "he came to believe that in death she was much closer to him and safe from distractions". Her exit leaves him totally dependent on his father, Lester. Their common ground is cricket, the closest they come to shared emotion. As the narrative evolves, cricket also assumes a central importance, not only as a passion but as a symbol of cultural cohesion. There are shades of V S Naipaul, without the cynicism, without the ego. 

Gunesekera's lightness of touch enables him to evoke intense feeling without losing narrative flow. He fills the story with episodes from daily life and an almost physical sense of the island in which the early sequences are set. In time, as expected, young Sunny heads for London as a student, where "Manila, those bittersweet years of wavering adolescence, faded into a dream". 

Observations such as this consolidate the mood of time passing. In England, Sunny quickly discovers that engineering is not for him. He turns to his father's old pal, Hector, for advice and so cues one of many wonderful comments made by Hector, in ways the heart of the book: "Adolescence has never been part of our culture." 

At no time does Sunny become the standard artist-as-outsider figure - Gunesekera is too subtle for that. Instead he surrounds his young non-heroic hero with interesting characters. One of them, Ranil, has a father who had come to England to study medicine in Liverpool, and had stayed. On hearing this, an impressed Sunny remarks "a doctor?", only to be informed: "He's actually an undertaker. He failed, you see." The obvious is consistently bypassed. Years pass, Sunny eventually finds love with one of his circle and becomes a father and a man who never quite manages to exert himself sufficiently at anything. This is Goncharov's Oblomov brought forward to the 21st century. 

All of this is brilliantly handled. With time, Sunny also learns what really happened to the mother he had been told had simply died. Pieces slowly fit together. Daily living, its dreams and its failures, the telling asides, comes to life. Grace and truth and humour inform this mature vibrant narrative. Gunesekera is in full control without ever appearing calculating. All the while there is a sense of outside events and change gathering momentum. Many writers have used newsreel detail to place a story artificially within the context that becomes history. Gunesekera's use of the topical and historical is never laboured. 

Before he knows it, Sunny has been away from Sri Lanka for more than 25 years. It is time for him to revisit his home. He does this alone, without his love, Clara, whom he has never married, and their son. Just as he was the child of parents who hardly knew him, he develops into a father who suddenly realises he does not know his own son, whose childhood has simply slipped away. 

Blair's England is seen in full flow. But Sunny is no speech-maker; polemic does not interest him. His mildness is one of the strengths of what is an astutely crafted feat of characterisation. Sunny's photographic business rises and falters, but he continues taking pictures and retains his passion for cricket and also for his old notions of romance. 

The Match is an organic, mature novel conveying truths and inhabiting its own vivid world. To read it is to enter it and actively experience it. Here is an obvious Booker contender that does not strike one as written for Booker. Subtle and convincing, it is life as art, art as life. Gunesekera is gifted and possessed of a rare humility. He has written an engaging, appealing, universal and hopeful book that not only shows what fiction can do, it shows why fiction is written - and read. 

by Eileen Battersby 


He may be Sunny, but he ain't happy ... 

For Sunny doesn't remain in Manila. Though temperamentally apt to take the line of least resistance, he becomes sufficiently disenchanted with his father to leave him. Here's an erstwhile leftist accommodating himself to, indeed actively extolling, the despicable Marcos regime. Besides Sunny has belatedly understood a distressing truth about his parents' marriage. So, in 1973, he goes to London, and studies engineering - a mistake, for his interest is scant. London doesn't provide friends or a social network as did Manila suburbia, and even his great pal, Robby, when he too moves there, turns curiously elusive. Sunny feels cut off from English life; from the Philippines, adolescence and father; from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), childhood and mother. But it's not altogether coincidental that when he eventually finds friendliness, it's from a young student, Ranil, whose father is not only Sri Lankan but connected to Hector, that old cricket-loving buddy of Lester's. Ranil takes Sunny to his home in Birkenhead, and introduces him to his girl-friend, Clara - a meeting of great import.

As he moves through the 1970s into the more affluent but xenophobic 1980s, Sunny does not evolve into a happy man, though he is, we see, capable of both passion and enterprise. Ironically the very detachment that preserves him from the worst consequences of exile also prevents the kind of commitment which strengthens one's hold on life. Giving up engineering, he turns to photography, first as an ambitious practitioner, then as a dealer in cameras. He follows in the media Sri Lanka's descent into brutal ethnic war, and visits the country during a comparative lull. Yet its sufferings never quite galvanise him; his emotional distance is too great. And while he goes on caring for the woman he fell for and now lives with - as he does for their son, Mikey - even here there's aloofness, as if the lessons he's learned in human indifference have made him unable to affirm loyalties.

Sunny's salvation lies in his self-awareness, the other side of the coin of detachment. When in 2002, after successful Norwegian peace-brokering between the Colombo Government and the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka sends a highly talented Test cricket team to England, something in him stirs at the news - memory, buried hope, an all-but-forgotten identity. He takes himself to Lord's and later to the Oval, where a one-day-match will be played, bringing up from psychic depths that distant event of his adolescence.

A principal subject of this fine novel is how the wear-and-tear of living corrodes the self presented to the world, curbing its responses, burdening it with exhaustion and distrust. Yet Sunny, even at his most disillusioned, retains somewhere within the person who rejoiced in the company of Robby and Herbie.

This is a most intimately and precisely imagined novel. Those who have followed Gunesekera from the debut stories of Monkfish Moon and his subtle first novel, Reef, won't be surprised. Yet so complete a match (to use the novel's central image) between empathy and artistry, between lively observation and intellectual grasp of cultural tensions, always surprises. Henry James said about Balzac's relation to his characters: "It was by loving them that he knew them." Loving, while remaining in sharp moral control, is a hard business, but it leads to the profoundest kind of knowledge, as The Match so movingly demonstrates.

by Paul Binding

17 September 2014


Times Literary Supplement

Cricket is a game like life.

Those eighteenth-century Hampshire gentlemen hailed as the founding fathers of cricket can scarcely have foretold its latter-day triumph as the world's most popular sport. That numerically it attracts as great a
global following as football is implausible to most Europeans, accustomed to the media circus surrounding the so-called "beautiful game" and its players. Anyone travelling throughout the Commonwealth, however, is immediately struck by the depth of a universal cricketing passion, of a kind which' inspires a Sri Lankan taxi-driver's lament in Romesh Gunesekera's new novel The Match. Why, he asks, can "the white people of the Queen" not play the great game any more?

 Cricket's detractors endlessly blame it for elements of diffuseness and extended deliberation which, to the untutored or impatient eye, seem to make up too much of the game. In its ideal state" apart from the voice of the umpire or the occasional appeal, it refuses all concession to the unbroken torrent of baying and chanting which shapes the unique sound world of a football match'. Similar restraints characterize Gunesekera's method in his latest novel. He has been noted in the past for the sensual richness of Ills language, and Heaven's Edge in particular drew praise for its poetic rendering of landscape and emotion. For The Match he has evolved another idiom altogether, one whose ideal simplicity sharpens its impact with the help of silences, suppressions and a stealthy control of appropriate pace from end to end.

 When fourteen-year-old Sunny Fernando's family relocates from Colombo to Manila, cricket fits easily into its luggage. This is the period of the false dawn created by the Marcos regime; Sunny's journalist father Lester hopes for untrammelled press freedom while the boy himself luxuriates more realistically in the vast-ness of the neighbouring supermarket, "an erogenous zone", whose requirement "Please Leave All Firearms At The Desk" he dreams of fulfilling with a well-stocked arsenal. Moonstruck by Tina Navaratnam, the girl next door, he wallops a ball through the window of her, father's Mercedes. She herself has already enough aptitude as a batswoman to merit inclusion in the scratch team formed from his stock of friends and relatives, an outfit which notches up an easy victory over a visiting side from Hong Kong. On the day of the match, alas, Tina appears less concerned with hitting sixes than scoring with Sunny's sexually ambiguous best chum Robby. The team swiftly fragments, one of its members dies in a car crash, another goes into drug rehab and Sunny himself discovers what he believes to be the truth behind his mother's suicide.

His cricketing enthusiasm, though subsiding briefly, proves unquenchable. Moving to London as an engineering student, he poaches slender, luminous Clara off his new friend Ranil, and the pair settle down in Homsey to parenthood, "a sleep-deprived sub-world of elemental urges and umbilical plugs". Neither of them has useful models for the purpose, and Clara's harsh conclusion that her father and mother are trapped by promises they can't keep but can't break either reverberates ominously through later phases of the novel. While she recovers her half-forgotten skills as a painter, Sunny abandons The drawing-board for a career as a photographer. The darkroom becomes a quiet refuge from having to confront the horrors that are beginning in Colombo and Manila during the early 1980s. Sunny feels safer observing the traumas of spiders and moths through his micro-lens than watching the Far East welter in blood. 

In London meanwhile, their son Mikey grows up uneventfully and the trio appear cocooned in a potentially soporific bourgeois idyll. The sense of the novel threatening a nerveless implosion at this point is a neat authorial, ruse, a narrative gamble which works because of Gunesekera's resolutely consistent view of his protagonist. The roots of Sunny's discontent. are carefully masked, but we are always made aware of the wistfulness, the unspecified yeaming, which clouds his middle age. Some, though not all of this, has to do with belonging, Most of his life, after all, has been spent in various kinds of assimilation, whether to the shallow-rooted subculture of the expatriates in Manila or to an England which neither seeks to absorb him nor demonstrates any overt racist hostility. On a seaside holiday in Wales he finds time to reflect on the quietly devastating truth that nowhere can be called his own; and to question "what it is we are weaving for ourselves between Alexandra Palace and Archway". At the close of this episode, such pervasive remoteness is heightened by Sunny's inability, as he watches Clara and Mikey on the beach, to hear what the pair of them are saying to one another against the noise of the wind. A belated return to Sri Lanka, with the aim of recovering, if only in part, a territory all too thoughtlessly left behind, scarcely assuages his unease. Gunesekera's handling of this section of the novel illustrates his gift for balancing casual flippancy with a kind of long-breathed, slightly mournful reflectiveness which is entirely authentic to his hero. While an aunt deplores the way in which the island's penchant for political assassinations has grown concurrently with a craze for eating "fat cake", Sunny finds himself growing nostalgic for a particular local delicacy which folds curried meat inside a sweet bun.

A comic encounter with a herd of elephants, their behaviour distinctly unphotogenic, is offset by Sunny's visit to the grave of the mother he hardly knew. Here, too, photography misbehaves, the light is at fault, and a family friend suggests that perhaps after all he has been looking in the wrong place.

 Has Clara been comforted in his absence by her art teacher Alex? For a season she, Sunny and Mikey appear to enter that all-too-familiar world of shared separateness which enables, many households to survive where a more dramatic and revelatory stand-off between their various members might destroy them. Catharsis of a kind arrives via cricket at Old Trafford, the Oval and Lord's, At one of these matches Tina Navaratnam reappears, still glamorous and now married to the galumphing Australian Steve Thompson, a bowler from the victorious Manila team of thirty years past. The epiphany merely deepens' Sunny's gloom, but though he and Clara have seemed to draw apart, there is to be no dramatic realignment. Mikey, far from sealing the ultimate sportsman's bond by accompanying his father to the ground, is chasing a girl and dodging exam revision. Gradually Sunny begins to relish his alienation and to understand the essential nature of cricket. "It was not meant to be" about expectations", he decides. "The experience ought to be meditative. The game, like life, was at best a slow slide from cold champagne to tepid beer.'" His day at the Oval, watching Sri Lanka versus India, provides a single, compelling image, that of a player picking up a pigeon struck dead by a hurtling ball; catching it on camera, Sunny regains some sort of purpose and equilibrium.                                                 .

The Match employs a more obviously seletive palette and restricted focus than its predecessors. That "complete appreciation of the usual" which Henry James found so admirable a feature in Trollope is one of this book's principal strengths. Sunny, always a distinctive personality, is yet never distinguished, and Clara's strained forbearance towards him often seems better than such a figure deserves. We learn to
love, him because of his limitations, his eternal tentativeness, his quest for that species of certainty whose assurance derives from ducking nearly all the more painful truths. The organization of the team in Manila, the match itself, even the romantic nemesis brought about by faithless Tina, are summits of a kind which can never be scaled again in adulthood. At the end of the book, when Clara hands Sunny a light meter he has left behind, the gesture seems like an indication of his success in calibrating the precise quality of his life and aspirations.

Gunesekera's style has a self-denying plainness and clarity throughout. The strongest emotional charges are those drawn from moments of obliquity and carefully placed understatement. The business of fixing a plot within the lines of a historical time frame is always more difficult than it looks at first. Many a novelist,
drizzling throwaway contemporary references over the text, looks clumsy and laboured in the attempt. Here the forty-year narrative arc is traced across a sequence of precisely judged topical allusions, embracing everything from Skants underwear to Cherie Blair's late baby. Each emerges quite naturally from narrative and dialogue. Time never hangs too heavily on the story, but we are encouraged to value the experience of its passing. Few novelists have so skilfully underlined the beauty of patience as a redeeming virtue. A slow run-up to the wicket brings its own rewards.

by Jonathan Keates

17 March 2006

The Scotsman

Fine legs and sticky wickets

This is a most engaging novel, written with wit, good humour, intelligence and an agreeable lightness of touch. It's a rites-of-passage story about dislocation, exile and the hero's struggle to find a place for himself in the world.

Sunny Fernando is a Sri Lankan, though he thinks of the island as Ceylon. The son of an alcoholic PR man and a failed pianist, his adolescence is spent in the Philippines in the last years of the Marcos regime. The title comes from a cricket match Sunny organises with a team made up of his father and other men of his age, Sunny's own friends (whom he has had to school in the game), a couple of Australians and a gorgeous girl named Tina, whom he lusts after, but scarcely dares to approach. This is all charming and convincing, but his mostly happy youth ends when he discovers the true circumstances of his mother's death, and is consequently estranged from his father.

So he takes off for England to study engineering, the course picked almost at random. It is 1973, the year of power cuts and the three-day week, a bad year to be a foreign student in London cooped up in a bedsit.

But he makes friends with a fellow Sri Lankan, Ranil, a theology student, who takes him up to the family home in Liverpool for Christmas. Ranil's father Tifus (he should have been christened Titus, but the registrar made a mistake) came to England to study medicine and ended up as an undertaker. He is a fine creation, admirable and comic. On this visit Sunny meets Clara, whom Ranil thinks is his future wife. Clara, however, has different ideas, and ends up with Sunny.

Engineering is no go. Sunny becomes a photographer, starting off by specialising in black-and-white pictures of babies after their own son Mikey is born. He has already renewed contact with a childhood friend, Robbie, whose nature, however, he completely misunderstands until Clara puts him right. From time to time he thinks of making a visit to Sri Lanka, but the island seems so unhappy, with bombs, massacres, civil war. Diligently, he makes a career for himself in England, while never becoming an Englishman. The novel is suffused with nostalgia, with the sense of what is missing in Sunny's life: a centre.

Reconciliation with his father is almost effected when his honorary uncle, Hector, who turns out to be an old mentor of Tifus, pays a visit to Liverpool. But even this is prevented. One begins to wonder if Sunny will ever be truly at ease. "The need to fix the past, to plug the holes, felt intolerable." It seems to him "like everything changes too fast". Maybe there is nothing for him even in London, where he has made his home. But Uncle Hector is wiser: "things are not so easily lost, Sunny, except for money." What you have in your head is what you are.

In the end it is cricket that offers Sunny the reassurance he needs: matches on the Sri Lankans' first tour of England. Somehow this allows him to bring his past and present together, to fix his pasts in a coherent whole. He wants "to photograph hope embedded in love. Or love embedded in hope. Something promising despite the true nature of the world ... Something that could be found, just as it was lost, like life itself ..."

Sunny comes through to affirmation, and this is an affirmative novel. Romesh Gunesekera has that essential gift of the novelist: the ability to make words live, to create life on the page; and he does so with grace and good humour. This is as enjoyable a novel as you are likely to come across this year.

by Allan Massie

24 March 2006

The Scotsman