Shehan Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan to win the Booker prize (Michael Ondaatje won it in 1993 for The English Patient). Unfortunately, Karunatilaka’s winning novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, is one of only a few Booker prize winners I didn’t really enjoy, despite the overwhelming praise it has received: despite the fact that looking at it objectively, it is a good book. But I found myself becoming impatient with it. It failed to draw me in as fiction, even though its background of civil war in Sri Lanka is important and of interest, in itself. As a caveat, I admit that my reading of the novel was quite distracted. I began another book I enjoyed more, and I never seemed to quite get a good stretch of time to read this one. Nevertheless, I think I had some legitimate issues with the novel, too. I think other Western readers may have difficulty with the book, as I did: with some of the unfamiliar history, culture and even its language, perhaps even with narrative style. Karunatilaka first published the book in India under the title Chats with the Dead, but Western publishers mostly passed on the novel because they believed it would be inaccessible to Western readers. Karunatilaka spent two years during lockdown, trying to tighten the novel and provide more guidance to Western readers as a concession to his publisher, but my feeling is that this effort has had mixed results.
Maybe – hopefully – others will have a better reading experience with it. I really wanted to enjoy it more than I did because I could see the idea of the book – against corruption, racism, cronyism and violence in the context of the civil war in Sri Lanka – was a compelling one.
One of the most obvious features of the novel is that it is written in second person. The narrative addresses Maali Almeida as ‘you’. While this is striking to begin with, I found I soon became familiar with it and it didn’t bother me. The opening of the novel is quite brilliantly achieved, and the second person narrative is an aspect of that. Maali Almeida’s violent end and the disposal of his body in Beira Lake, is confronting and captivating because of the strength of the writing and the personalising ‘you’. Later, however, I reflected that second person narratives are common for books heavily involved in plot, like second person choose-you-own adventures, which was a thought that weighed on other aspects of the novel that did bother me.
On the matter of the novel’s historical context – the internecine religious and racial conflicts that resulted in tens of thousands dead over more than a quarter of a century of conflict in Sri Lanka, ending in 2009 – Karunatilaka’s approach is somewhat different to other authors of historical fiction. In fact, while the novel draws upon historical events as the backdrop for its drama, it doesn’t read much like historical fiction at all. Rather, it reads like an urban fantasy novel written for teenagers, because the narrative is so plot driven, except that its historical context is detailed and would not appeal to that market. The book is well written, but it rarely has a passage that stands out. Instead, I felt the novel was spoiled for me by an overburdening of plot and exposition. There was little character development while it was far more detailed about the historical context, with more references to a myriad of people and incidents from the period of conflict than it needs, cluttering the narrative rather than enlightening it.
Why did this novel win the Booker? My guess is that it addresses the civil war in Sri Lanka and the atrocities that resulted against civilians, along with the conditions that led to that in an individual, though not unique, manner (think Lincoln in the Bardo, The Lovely Bones or even the film, Ghost) which has popular fiction appeals. Nevertheless I have read the entire Booker shortlist this year and I would have placed this book lower in the shortlist field (although it gets my vote for best cover!)
The titular character, Maali Almeida is dead, killed from the start for reasons and by people unknown, which the plot will eventually reveal. Maali is – or was – a photographer covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. He has a cache of photos hidden in a shoe box and the negatives hidden separately with a clever clue for his flatmates to follow. He is a compulsive gambler – was this anything to do with him dying? – and he is gay, a fact he finds hard to admit. Also, he has just awoken in the afterworld in a kind of bureaucratic waystation. Here, the spirits of the recently dead are advised on how to proceed to the Light, once they’ve been processed, which includes having their ears examined by pretas, a kind of ghost from Eastern mysticism, which evaluate the status of the spirit and the life they have led. Maali must move into the Light, whatever that is, by the end of the seventh moon after his death, which is seven days rather than seven months as one might mistakenly suppose, or risk being eternally trapped in the In Between.
Dr Ranee Sridharan is one of the ‘Helpers’ in this In Between place who assists spirits like Maali to progress to the Light. In life, Dr Ranee was a lecturer. Like many of the characters in the novel, she is based upon a real person, Rajani Thiranagama (Karunatilaka admitted this in an interview) who was a Tamil human rights activist assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1989 after she criticised them for their atrocities. This processing waystation in the afterlife is currently overwhelmed by mass arrivals of the recently dead after the slaughter of civilians by the Tigers and army. While Dr Ranee urges Maali towards the Light, Sena Pathirana encourages him to resist. Sena tells Maali he was formerly a chief organiser for the JVP, an organisation that sought to overthrow the capitalist state. He urges Maali to stay away from the Light and join him on a campaign of revenge against his still-living enemies. Sena is another character based upon a real person. Daya PathiranaIt was a student activist who was abducted, tortured and killed in 1986. In real life it is believed Daya was killed by pro-JVP activists, and his death precipitated an uprising that led to the deaths of nearly 60,000 people. In Karunatilaka’s novel Dr Ranee and Sena act like an angel and devil, trying to pull Maali towards or away from the Light (another early title for the novel was Devil Dance). It is a situation bound to divide Maali, because he feels he still has unfinished business in the world of the living. He wants to find out who killed him and why, even though it will do him no good. More importantly, he wants to find a way to guide his friend, Jaki, and his boyfriend, Dilan Dharmendran – or DD – to the cache of photographs he has hidden away. He believes that by having them made public, he can expose powerful players in government for their part in the violence and killing in the civil war. In short, he believes his photographs will create a scandal large enough to bring the conflict to an end. And there you have the beginning of the story: notwithstanding its many details, you should be able to discern where it is going.
Karunatilaka provides a ‘cheat sheet’ outlining the various stakeholders in the Sri Lankan conflict early in the story, which Maali is supposed to have made for an American journalist, Andrew McGowan. This is welcome and needed, especially for Western readers, who will mostly likely have only a rudimentary understanding of the conflict, at best. Karunatilaka had difficulty publishing the book, which was deemed to be too confusing for Western readers due to its unfamiliar subject matter, and this ‘cheat sheet’ is no doubt a part of the concession Karunatilaka made to his publishers for a Western audience. But this also reveals a problem with the novel, as we now receive it. By choosing to look back at the conflict and make the minute details of that central to the plot, Karunatilaka is pressed repeatedly to overburden the reader with exposition. Added to that burden, is the constant exposition needed to understand the wholly fictional world of the afterlife, its various spiritual creatures drawn from Eastern mysticism, as well as the rules of this particular brand of afterlife. The story shifts between the living and dead world, which comingles with the living without their knowing it, apart from characters like the Crow Man who is aware of the dead and acts as a conduit between them. Added to this are time shifts to deliver backstory, as well as tangential moments which seem to fill out Karunatilaka’s fictional afterworld with even more detail.
I thought the burden of detailed exposition and plot-driven story resulted in a neglect of characterisation, somewhat. For the reader, it is obvious how Maali’s story must progress, while backstories provide the bulk of character development for characters like Jaki and DD, without progressing their character arcs much, apart from what happens in the present. Because the novel is part urban fantasy it is heavily invested in setting and its world. Because it is part detective fiction – how to find the negatives and who is behind Maali’s death etc – it is heavily plot driven. Because it is part historical fiction, it is heavy with exposition. But characters remain an adornment to the world or the historical backdrop.
The novel often refers to events from the civil war, particularly the massacre of Tamils in 1983, which Maali has photographed. Despite the overburdening of detail, I still think this is the most interesting aspect of the novel, since my own tastes are not usually for urban fantasy. Karunatilaka’s story may veer towards plot driven fantasy and detective fiction, but there are moments in the novel that become more interesting, both for its clever use of contemporary culture as well as the way it addresses questions its story encourages. First, I genuinely enjoyed references to Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury (as well as Jim Reeves), not because they were familiar, but because as popular figures they were a clever way to define the period the book addresses (think of the period between Presley and Mercury’s deaths as a rough approximation for the war in the timeframe of the novel) as well as providing a neat aspect to the ‘detective’ plot.
Given that Karunatilaka accepts the possibility of an afterlife in the story, the inevitable questions about God and religion are also implied. But the implication of an ordered universe and divine purpose are adeptly swatted away: “I have a superb name for God. Whoever”, Maali tells Dr Ranee. The narrative also offers a critique of the influence of religion, both Eastern and Western. Sena tells Maali, “All religion keeps the poor docile and the rich in their castles. Even American slaves knelt before a God that looked away from lynchings.” He also tells Maali, “karma does not balance things.” God is either incompetent or absent; the universe does not care, according to Sena. Sena comes at the point of the novel from the other direction. His dsire for revenge acknowledges the reality the novel deals in: the source of Sri Lanka’s problems.
There is a hint of antipathy in the writing for traditional culture, here, which is steeped in religion and the divisions of race, rather than the burden of a Colonial past. For all its focus on the past, the novel mostly overlooks colonialism, dismissing the possible exploitations of colonisers with the more immediate problem, the civil war: “We have fucked it up. All by ourselves.” As a critique of the war, Karunatilaka’s narrative seems mostly to eschew the issue of a post-colonial history, instead to focus on the war as a product of the country’s own internal divisions. This is the purview of satire, and it is true to say that there is an element of satire in Karunatilaka’s novel. I have read criticisms by Sri Lankan intellectuals, questioning historical facts or objecting to Karunatilaka’s stance on any given topic, but it was this aspect of the book, found mainly in ‘Fourth Moon’ section, that I found elevated the narrative above what was sometimes a humdrum urban fantasy. Karunatilaka’s Sri Lanka’s problems are wholly its own, and in its own fantastical manner, they are the lot of Sri Lankans to address. If Karunatilaka’s fantasy works, it is on the basis that the hellish aspects of the after world are a metaphor for the corrupt and violent predilections of its fractured society: that the mythical curse of a doomed queen finds its correlative in the realities of modern Sri Lanka.
The Seven Moons of Malli Almeida has a lot to offer many readers and it is highly readable. It is quite probable, given the popularity of the book, that many will find my own quibbles irrelevant or wrong. But I still think it is an imperfect novel that could have done better with its subject matter. Other books dealing with civil war and/or colonial pasts offer an example: Half of a Yellow Sun or The Shadow King are two reviewed on this site, along with Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others (My personal pick from the 2014 Booker shortlist). My suspicion is that Karunatilaka wanted to write a novel around the events of the civil war, particularly the atrocities which Maali’s photographs document, but his story was too invested in the source material to fashion a narrative that worked well for someone unfamiliar with the history. Perhaps in trying to address that problem, the problem of catering for a Western audience, he has overcorrected, resulting in a novel that is overdetailed and still somewhat inaccessible in relation to its historical background. That is my opinion at least, which would seem to be wrong based on the preponderance of evidence saying otherwise: the praise it has received and its accolades. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida has a lot to recommend it, but it probably needs more time and patience than I was able to give it.
There are many references to real people in the novel, including some of the characters who are dead versions of real people. In some cases, Karunatilaka changed names on the advice of lawyers. His portrayal of a Sri Lankan afterlife reflects the sense that Sri Lanka, itself, has descended into a hell of violence and corruption. The following are just a few examples of Karunatilaka blending fantasy and reality.