2022 Booker Prize Winner
Just off of the southeastern coast of the Indian subcontinent is the island nation of Sri Lanka. It has a civilization that stretched for millennia. The Balangoda Man, the earliest human remains recovered on the island, was estimated to be around 38,000 years old. At one point, it was culturally united with its neighboring India; it is no surprise that the history between the two nations has been intertwined. For centuries, it has been divided into different kingdoms, with some of these kingdoms originating from the subcontinent, another testament to how the destinies of India and Sri Lanka have been interconnected. During the rise of colocalization, the island’s strategic location gave it an advantage in the establishment of trade routes between the East and the West. From Portuguese colonizers, it was won over by the Dutch before it became a British colony.
Shortly after the end of the Second Worl War in 1948, Ceylon, as it was called back then, finally gained its independence. From Ceylon, it was renamed Sri Lanka in the 1972 constitution, a name that it would be known for. But just like most modern nations, Sri Lanka’s contemporary history has been marred by insurgency and civil and political unrest. Cultural, social, and religious divides continued to threaten the stability of the young nation. This tension kept brewing for years, a murmur on the surface but as the country enter a new decade, the 1980s, the tension percolated into a full-blown civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as they were more popularly known, the Tamil Tigers went on a head-to-head clash with government forces. For years, the two forces wreaked havoc across the country.
The war saw its end in 2009 but the memories of violence and bloodbath remain fresh in the minds of the country’s denizens. The impact of the war cast a vast net across the country and in true literary fashion, the war has been memorialized in many a work of literature. Pivotal and often bloody parts of a country’s modern history have become the fibers of contemporary literature. Vietnamese writers and their exploration of the legacy of the Vietnamese War or Filipino writers transporting readers to the Martial Law era are prominent examples. The same can be said for Sri Lankan writers and the Sri Lankan civil war. Among the recent examples of this is Anuk Arudpragasam’s 2021 Booker Prize shortlisted work, A Passage North, a meditative work that walks the reader through the atrocities of war.
“History is people with ships and weapons wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilisation begins with a genocide. It is the rule of the universe. The immutable law of the jungle, even this one made of concrete. You can see it in the movement of the stars, and in the dance of every atom. The rich will enslave the penniless. The strong will crush the weak.”~ Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Another recent example is Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. At the heart of Karunatilaka’s sophomore novel – he made his debut with Chinaman in 2010 – is the titular Maali Almeida, full name Malinda Albert Kabalana. When we first meet Maali, it was 1990 and he was rousing himself from the deep embers of sleep. However, it was not in his bed that he woke up in. Rather, he found himself in a celestial office of some sort. It was clear that he was dead: “You wake up with the answer to the question that everyone asks. The answer is Yes, and the answer is Just Like Here But Worse. That’s all the insight you’ll ever get. So you might as well go back to sleep.” What an eye-catching way to capture the readers’ attention as the most logical questions pop up: who is Maali Almeida and what happened to him?
Like the reader, Maali wanted to know what happened to him. He wasn’t even sure who he was. As the story moved forward, Karunatilaka slowly unpeeled the story’s many layers. Maali was born to a Sinhalese father and a burgher mother. Before he found himself in the afterlife, Maali Almeida worked as a photographer, with a piece of Nikon 3ST as his most prized possession. From the story’s present, the timeline jumps to Sri Lanka in the 1980s. With the political unrest unraveling all throughout the country, Almeida used his profession to take pictures of how the civil war was inundating the country. With his trusted Nikon, Almeida rounded the country, snapping pictures and capturing the aftermath of the debauchery and bloodbath. His lenses saw captured the devastation of the war and how it was changing the landscape of his country.
Maali and his camera was a witness to the brutality sweeping the country. These atrocities were perpetrated by the government and the insurrectionist. Karunatilaka then proceeds to give a subtle lecture on his country’s modern history. There was a section titled ABBREVIATIONS where Karunatilaka kept the readers abreast of these militant factions. Readers are already familiar with the militant separatist group Tamil Tigers as they are ubiquitous in news reports related to Sri Lanka. The novel also mentioned the Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People’s Liberation Party, another separatist group that went against the Sri Lankan government. Members of these two insurrectionists wanted to overthrow the capitalist state and had no scruples about killing anyone getting in their way, including working-class civilians. As he navigates the underworld, Maali would cross paths with the victims of the violent actions that have riddled Sri Lanka, including a Tamil university lecturer gunned down for speaking out against the LTTE and a group of five Tiger child soldiers who were brought to Colombo for rehabilitation and interrogation but were instead made to drink poison.
The driving force behind Maali’s journey across the violent plagued nation was not only to document the cruelties. He had a deeper resolve: he was hoping to capture pictures that would eventually bring forth the downfall of governments and end wars. With this goal in mind, he has been sending his photographs to various organizations, primarily the Canada Norway Third World Relief (CNTR, pronounced as center), a non-government organization (NGO). As history has shown, nations and places identified as centers of conflict often attract international NGOs and forces. They were also listed by Karunatilaka in the ABBREVIATIONS chapter and included the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), the United Nations (UN), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and the ever-present Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“Humans believe they make their own thoughts and possess their own will. This is yet another placebo that we swallow after birth. Thoughts are whispers that come from without as well as within. They can no more be controlled than the wind. Whispers will blow across your mind at all times and you will succumb to more of them than you think.”~ Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
As history has also shown, outside forces often meddle in the affairs of other states, deliberately defying the sovereignty of the host nation. Rather than providing reassurance, the presence of these forces only aggravates the situation. Karunatilaka was scathing while also being candid in his commentaries related to these forces and organizations. The UN, for instance, are “arseholes to work with” while the IPKF “are willing to burn villages to fulfil their mission.” Maali briefly summarized it in his letter to Andre McGowan, a young American journalist: “It’s not complicated, my friend. Don’t try and look for the good guys ’cause there ain’t none. Everyone is proud and greedy and no one can resolve things without money changing hands or fists being raised.”
While some of his works were already published, Maali’s most powerful but most graphic images were stored underneath a bed in his family home. Most of these photos captured not only the devastation of the war but also the ugly side of humanity. It exposed how the war has skewed the values of many, ugly realities that Maali wanted to be exposed throughout Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital. To do so, he was given a week to accomplish this, while also trying to solve his own murder. The seven days correspond to the seven moons of the title: “every soul is allowed seven moons to wander the In Between. To recall past lives. And then, to forget. They want you to forget. Because, when you forget, nothing changes.” Maali was in a race against time lest his pictures will be lost to memory, lest his exposé will be buried in the deep embers of time. Moreover, other greedy and corrupt forces are working overtime to retrieve these pictures and completely get rid of their every trace.
The images Maali kept are incriminating pieces of evidence of their cruelty and atrocity. Maali’s death is in itself a testament to the violent nature of the conflict between the government and the separatist groups. This makes Maali all the more determined not to have the images he captured buried and forgotten by the passage of time. Despite being set in the 1990s, the book’s message is all the more relevant in the contemporary when the distortion of history and the scrutiny of memory have increasingly become more prevalent. As also cited by Karunatilaka, there has been “no acknowledgment of July ’83”. The incident started with the ambush and killing of 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the Tamil Tigers in the town of Thirunelveli,. In retaliation, the ruling UNP party organized massacres and pogroms all over the country. July 1983 is often referred to as the starting point of the Civil War.
On a broader scale, Maali’s story is a reminder of the importance journalism play in documenting pivotal and historical moments. As a ubiquitous modern phrase has enshrined, “if there are no pictures then it did not happen.” Many of the younger generations adhere to this. This makes the journalist’s job all the more relevant. However, it must be noted that journalists covering conflicts are precariously on the edge. It is no surprise that places of conflict are often listed as the most dangerous places for journalists. Among the stash of photographs that Maali kept hidden are “portraits of disappeared journalists and vanished activists, bound and gagged and dead in custody”. Maali, a pseudo-journalist, was also a subtle reminder of this.
“How else to explain the world’s madness? If there’s a heavenly father, he must be like your father: absent, lazy and possibly evil. For atheists there are only moral choices. Accept that we are alone and strive to create heaven on earth. Or accept that no one’s watching and do whatever the hell you like. The latter is by far easier.”~ Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Maali Almeida was one of the novel’s achievements. He was a complex character. Beyond his life as a photographer and journalist, he spent part of his time gambling in high-stakes poker. He was also patently homosexual and an atheist. He was unfaithful and slept around with different men not his partner. He was no black-and-white character. He was also disillusioned by the government and was distrustful of any political organization. His complexity and his flaws gave the story a different texture. He was also surrounded by an interesting set of characters which included the deceased. In the underworld, Maali encountered ghosts, ghouls, pretas (hungry ghosts), the devil, and yakas (demons): “You have one response for those who believe Colombo to be overcrowded: wait till you see it with ghosts.”
Karunatilaka’s sophomore novel grappled with a plethora of dark and sensitive subjects. He balanced it with his execution. In a stroke of brilliance that saw him ditch writing norms, he employed sardonic humor to examine the state of his nation. The novel is riddled with humorous but thought-provoking lines: “Do animals get an afterlife? Or is their punishment to be reborn as human?”. Karunatilaka built the story from strength to strength. His writing vividly captured the maladies of his country while, at the same time, evoking the masters of magical realism such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. The interplay between culture, history, and magical realism, coupled with the dream-like quality of Karunatilaka’s writing made Maali Almeid’s story more compelling.
With its unconventional storytelling, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida has captivated readers and literary pundits alike. It was even adjudged the winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction, capping what has been a landmark year for South Asian literature at the Booker Prizes. Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand became the first work of Hindi literature to win the International Booker Prize. Interestingly, Tomb of Sand also examined a pivotal juncture in India’s contemporary history. What also stood out in the two books is how they explored seminal subjects while deviating from the conventions of formulaic novels.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a pivotal work of contemporary fiction that cast a vast net over history and the art of storytelling. It was a reminder of many things that are slowly losing meaning in the contemporary such as the importance of memory and history, the atrocities of war, and the corruption of governments and even humanity. Karunatilaka was scathing in his commentaries on the current state of his nation as Sri Lanka is still undermined by political unrest. The humor and wit that the book was riddled with belie the devastation caused by the Sri Lankan Civil War, a seminal part of the country’s modern history. Overall, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was a strange read but it was also a compelling and immersive mix of history and fantasy.
“Even the afterlife is designed to keep the masses stupid. They make you forget your life and push you towards some light. All bourgeois tools of the oppressor. They tell you that injustice is part of some grand plan. And that’s what keeps you from rising against it.”~ Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 28%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
If there was one book I was badly looking forward to, it would have to be Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Had it not been for the Booker Prize, I would have never heard of the Sri Lankan writer. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was among the first books that piqued my interest when the longlist was released. There was something about the book’s title that I fancied. There was just something different about it. My interest in the book ballooned when it won the prestigious literary prize. Obtaining a copy of the book was another subject. When the opportunity arose, I did not hold back. As expected, there was nothing normal about the book. Magical realism is a realm of the literary world that I always find strange but also interesting. The novel was very graphic. After all, the main character was a photographer and he was capturing the atrocities of the war. What also stood out was Karunatilaka’s writing. Sri Lankan writers are slowly winning me over. However, and more importantly, the book shed light on a tumultuous section of Sri Lanka’s contemporary history with humor.
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Publisher: Norton Books
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 388
Genre: Historical, Magical Realism
Colombo, 1990. Maala Almeida – war photographer, gambler, and closet queen – has woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. His dismembered body is sinking in the serene Beira Lake and he has no idea who killed him. In a country where scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers, and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long, as the ghouls and ghosts with grudges who cluster round can attest. But even in the afterlife, time is running out for Maali. He has seven moons to contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to the photos that will rock Sri Lanka. A rip-soaring state-of-the-nation epic from one of Sri Lanka’s foremost authors, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a “thrilling read” (Rebecca Jones, BBC) that offers equal parts mordant wit and disturbing, profound truths.
About the Author
Shehan Karunatilaka was born in 1975 in Galle, southern Sri Lanka. He grew up in Colombo where he was educated at S. Thomas’ Preparatory School in Kollupitiya, one of Colombo’s major neighborhoods. He moved to New Zealand to study at Whanganui Collegiate School and Massey University where he earned a degree in English literature, against his parent’s wishes. They wanted him to study business administration. Post-university, Karunatilaka worked in advertising at McCann, Iris, and BBDO.
He also started writing about a vast area of interest such as sports, music, and travel. His works have appeared in prestigious publications such as the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Wisden, GQ, Conde Nast, The Cricketer, Economic Time, and National Geographic. In 2000, Karunatilaka’s first manuscript, The Painter, was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize. The manuscript, however, was never published. A decade later, he published Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, his debut novel. It was a critical success as it won a bevy of awards such as the Commonwealth Book Prize, the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and the 2008 Gratiaen Prize. After his first novel, Karunatilaka published a children’s book, Please Don’t Put That In Your Mouth in 2019. In 2022, he returned to adult fiction with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida; it was originally published in India in 2020 as Chats With the Dead. Just like his first novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was a literary sensation. It won the Booker Prize.
Aside from writing, Karunatilka has a deep interest and talent in music. He has played bass with Sri Lankan rock bands Independent Square and Powercut Circus and the Brass Monkey Band. Karunatilka is currently residing in Colombo and Kurunegala with his wife and their two children.
I’ve ordered this book from the library and looking forward to reading it. Thanks for your review.
I finished it recently too and was very impressed. Excellent review from you..!!!