Himali McInnes reviews this year’s Booker Prize winner, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.
Sri Lanka, as depicted in this year’s Booker Prize-winning novel, is far removed from all the gorgeous things – lapidarian oceans, ancient ruins, misty tea plantations – that catapulted it into Lonely Planet’s number one tourist destination a few years ago. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set in Colombo in 1989, starts with its eponymous protagonist Malinda Kabalana Almeida (Maali for short) inconveniently dead, with no recollection of who killed him but plenty of possible assassins. Maali, a gay, atheist photojournalist in a rather macho culture, tells us that if he’d had a business card, it would have read: “Photographer. Gambler. Slut.” This sets the timbre of a character who is droll, sarcastic and restless in death. In life, he slept with men from across the strata of conservative Lankan society. He shot photos for multiple players in its messy and complex political landscape. Now he has seven moons (seven nights) to lead the two people he loves most – DD, the rich son of a Tamil parliamentarian, also the “beautiful boy” who is Maali’s ebony-skinned lover; and Jaki, DD’s cousin and Maali’s pretend-girlfriend – to the cache of explosive photos that tell the true story of the Lankan civil war. He also really wants to find out how he died, even as he watches his own hacked-up corpse being thrown into a lake.
The afterlife that Maali finds himself in is dispiritingly bureaucratic, with endless counters, harried staff, and wailing customers – so typical of all those subcontinental government departments that took British red tape and added a whole lot of chaos and spice. It’s also a blended, pluralistic afterlife. There’s a bit of reincarnation, a bit of Purgatory, and some rather beastly demons – the Mahakali, speaking in the voice of a legion of lost souls and wearing a belt of severed fingers, is particularly gruesome. Colombo is crowded with ghouls that hang off buses and gather on rooftop terraces to bemoan their former lives. The eyes of suicides shift from green to yellow, while other ghosts influence the living by whispering nasty things in their ears. The minister of justice has a swaggering, thuggish demon protecting him, while a dead communist insurgent plots revenge against the powerful.
I found this book compulsive: a familiar and profoundly unsettling read. Absurd witticisms leaven the darkness of death squads and suicide bombers. Maali muses that one advantage of being dead is being able to hop on a breeze and whizz past Colombo’s interminable traffic. The story is vividly told, with a multiplicity of details that made me ache with nostalgia. When Maali recalls eating chocolate biscuit pudding, it transported me back to dinners at various relatives’ homes, often served at 10pm at night (by which time I had given up on my furious hunger and was ready for bed). The siri-siri bags – plastic bags named for their onomatopoeic rustle. The devilled squid eaten by DD and his father at their posh sports club. Slave Island, Vihara Mahadevi Park, Beira Lake – all those places in Colombo with their centuries of bustle, places I’ve visited many times as a child and later as an adult, places I’ll never look at the same way again.
There is no doubt that reading a story written by someone from the same cultural background as yourself is a spine-tingling, validatory experience. Yet readers of all backgrounds will find resonance and recognition in this book, especially perhaps in Maali’s complicated personal relationships: his absent father, his cold and clinical mother; his loyal platonic friend Jaki, who Maali loves but takes for granted; and DD, the love of his life who he can’t stop cheating on. Then there’s Maali’s self-deprecating gallows humour; his apparent inability to control his addiction to sex, alcohol and gambling; and his constant and very human desire to mean something to somebody. A complex, fascinating and likeable protagonist.
Much like Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, this novel doesn’t hold back on describing the blood that soaks the soil of a stunning island adrift in the Indian Ocean. Where Ondaatje writes with lyrical beauty, Karunatilaka writes with gutsy street-side patois, laced with a humour as deadly as the cyanide capsules worn by Tamil Tiger cadres. None of the powers-that-be in the political sphere are depicted kindly, and for good reason – the minister of justice masterminds the torture and murder of ordinary Lankans, often on false accusations; the Tigers kill moderate Tamils and blow up packed buses and temples; the Indian Peace Keeping Force, deployed in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990, kills people “in order to keep the peace”; and the JVP, a marxist group, systematically knocks off influential Lankans in order to further their cause. While the characters in this book are fictional, they are instantly recognisable and thus very real.
Author Shehan Karunatilaka, at 47, is one year younger than me. His teenaged memories of Colombo mirror my own – his as a local, mine as an annual visitor from abroad. We both saw burning bodies lying on the street in the late 1980s, smouldering tyres around their necks. Some of the photos that Maali wants shown to the world are of the awful Tamil pogroms of 1983, when Sinhalese mobs armed with electoral lists (indicating cooperation from the government) systematically targeted Tamil homes and businesses, killing thousands. I spent decades feeling alienated from the country of my birth, appalled by all that cruelty steeped in pride, the nationalistic bombast that seemed to rubbish anyone who wasn’t male and Buddhist. It’s only in recent years that I’ve fallen in love with my Lankan heritage again.
Karunatilaka muses on the causes of Sri Lanka’s misery. He notes that other countries that birthed their independence in 1948 – Burma, Israel, apartheid South Africa, North Korea – are also rife with inchoate injustice. 1948 was perhaps, he writes, an inauspicious year. He casts his net further back, to the ancient history of Lanka’s beginnings as written in the Mahavamsa: “If the Mahavamsa is to be believed, the Sinhalese race was founded on kidnapping, rape, parricide and incest. This is not a fairytale.” Of course, violence and blood are not the sole domain of that island. There’s been plenty of the same in New Zealand, and as in Sri Lanka, there is still much public discourse, acknowledgement, and restoration that needs to happen before old wounds can start to heal.
Despite all the carnage, there is a strong heart throbbing inside this book, and it is clear that Karunatilaka loves his homeland and wants a clear-eyed reckoning of injustice. The story is a fast-paced, entertaining romp feathered with magical realism; a ghost story peopled with souls who are exaggerated versions of their former selves; a political satire that cuts deep to the bone; and a love story. Like real life, it is painfully sad and gloriously messy, and there are no clear winners. The author’s hope is that in 10 years’ time, his book will be read as fantasy fiction by his compatriots, “because the Sri Lanka that they live in does not resemble this.” Machan, I hope so too.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, (Sort of Books, $49) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland. Read Brannavan Gnanalingam’s interview with Shehan Karunatilaka on The Spinoff.