Shehan Karunatilaka at the
Booker ceremony in London, October 17, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
“Like many Sri Lankans, pangolins have big tongues, thick hides and small brains. They pick on ants, rats and anything smaller than them. They hide in terror when faced with bullies and get up to mischief when the lights are out. They are hundreds of thousands of years old and are plodding towards extinction.”
These lines appear more than halfway through Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (published in India as Chats with the Dead in 2020). They hint at just what Karunatilaka sets out to do with this audacious murder mystery; deal with big ideas—sectarianism and violence—in a light way. The pangolin metaphor also shows us that this is a weird book. And weird not in an idiosyncratic way but in its very premise—using chattering spirits and full-bodied gags to describe the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars.
Karunatilaka distills weighty issues to their essence in the novel. What is history? “History is people with ships wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilisation begins with a genocide.” What is the purpose of a photographer? To bring into existence all those sunrises and all those massacres. How has the international world dealt with the Sri Lanka crisis? The Chinese have bought them over, the Yanks and Soviets “own their thoughts” and the Indians have “taken care” of the Tamil problem.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida uses dark humour to tell of terrible truths. It borrows from mythologies, and near-death experiences to create a world where spirits hover around for seven moons after death. Karunatilaka’s novel is horrific and heartbreaking, absurd and real, of this life and the next—and all of this at the same time.
It is this “ambition of scope,” that allowed Karunatilaka to emerge the winner, and take home £50,000 prize money, from a competitive Booker Prize shortlist. As Neil MacGregor, chair of the 2022 judges said, “This is a metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, East and West. It is an entirely serious philosophical romp that takes the reader to ‘the world’s dark heart’—the murderous horrors of civil war Sri Lanka. And once there, the reader also discovers the tenderness and beauty, the love and loyalty, and the pursuit of an ideal that justifies every human life.”
At the glitzy prize ceremony, after Karunatilaka received the trophy from Queen Consort Camilla, he made an impassioned speech, which went beyond the typical long list of thank yous. He said that he had planned to “read all the names of all the journalists, the activists, politicians, the civilians, the innocents who were murdered by the state, or those opposing it” in his lifetime in Sri Lanka. But he knew that the night was too short for that.
He started writing The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida in 2014-15, at a time when he asked himself questions about the end of the civil war of 2009, in which countless civilians died. His starting point was, “let the dead speak because the living doesn’t have a clue”. His lead character is loosely inspired by the Sri Lankan activist Richard de Zoysa, who was murdered in 1990 and whose murder was never solved.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida uses dark humour to tell of terrible truths. It borrows from mythologies, and near-death experiences to create a world where spirits hover around for seven moons after death. Karunatilaka’s novel is horrific and heartbreaking, absurd and real, of this life and the next—and all of this at the same time
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Even prior to the Booker, Karunatilaka had won attention and awards in South Asia as his 2010 debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Prize, the DSC Prize, the Gratiaen Prize and was adjudged the second greatest cricket book of all time by Wisden. Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan author to win the Booker Prize after Michael Ondaatje in 1992 for The English Patient. Last year, Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel, A Passage North, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is young writers like Karunatilaka (around 47) and Arudpragasam (34) who are creating novels that are both universal and specific. They bring to the fore the ravages of the island nation and their own disappointment with it. They write about recent events with the wisdom of hindsight and the sensitivity of a citizen. In their own unique way, these novelists are expanding the scope of the political novel, by embedding it in Sri Lankan soil. There is no attempt here to explain names and places and associations to a foreign readership. These are novels produced out of both trauma and confidence. The trauma of what the country has undergone and the confidence of a skilled writer.
In many interviews, Karunatilaka has mentioned a number of writers who he feels indebted to, such as Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, but most of all, “Uncle Kurt”. His own disillusionment resonated with Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical dark humour. He says, “The disgust Vonnegut felt for humanity and history’s barbarism resonated with the disillusion I felt for my beautiful island and the myopic fools who destroyed it.”
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is about the destruction of a beautiful island by fools in power. The lead character Maali Almeida (1955-89) is a “photographer, gambler, slut” and a closeted gay man who is murdered. The novel unfolds in Colombo in 1989, when Almeida wakes up dead in a government-like office (which is the afterlife) crowded with ghosts. He has “seven moons” to figure out who killed him and where his explosive photographs might have landed up.
As a war photographer, Almeida takes photographs for different factions, Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan army, Marxists, and the BBC. He has a tendency to be at the “wrong place at the right time”. Most of the other photographers didn’t have the stomach for more than two massacres. But he was “hooked,” because he believed that he could shoot the photo that would turn those in power against the war; “do for Lanka’s civil war what naked napalm girl did for Vietnam”. His photographs chronicle the horrors of the Sri Lankan war—burning cars, burning shops and then the “lady in the pink salwar being doused with petrol,” and then the photos that were considered too gory to be published, “a boy and his mother beaten with sticks.”
Almeida belongs to a mixed family. His mother is half-Burgher and half-Tamil. His father is Sinhala. And he identifies only as Sri Lankan. That is the hope of the novel, and the hope for any country scarred by strife. That the future generation will look beyond sectarian divisions and find solidarity.
A single line repeats twice in the novel and it is: “the kindest thing you can say about life. It’s not nothing.” Almeida may or may not find out who murdered him, his photos may or may not change the course of war, but this much is clear—his life meant something, because he wanted better.
As Karunatilaka said at the end of his Booker Prize acceptance speech, “My hope for Seven Moons is this: that in the not-too-distant future, 10 years or whatever it takes, that it is read in a Sri Lanka that has understood that these ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked, and will never work,” he added, “I hope it’s read in a Sri Lanka that learns from its stories. My hope is that in the future Seven Moons will be in the fantasy section of the bookshop, near the dragons and unicorns, and will not be mistaken for political satire.”