Review: The Sri Lankan civil war story told through poetry, humor and murder mystery
In an interview for The Booker Prizes website, Shehan Karunatilaka says he first started thinking about his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, “when there was a raging debate over how many civilians died and whose fault it was” and he “decided to write a ghost story where the dead could offer their perspective.”
That perspective gives the novel its unique flavor. It echoes elements of several all-time classics, including The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland and almost everything by Kurt Vonnegut, whose voice and vision can be felt throughout.
Karunatilaka won the Commonwealth Prize for his debut novel, Chinaman. His second novel, The Seven Moons (originally titled Chats with the Dead), received the 2022 Booker Prize. Considered fiction’s most respected award, the Booker is given to novels of superior quality written in English and published in England or Ireland.
According to the Booker Prize judges, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida “dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west.”
Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan-born author to win the prestigious award, following Michael Ondaatje (1992) whose Booker-winning novel, The English Patient, was an end-of-World War II romance. The Seven Moons, which is set in the midst of the 25-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, contains little that could be called romantic, although it has its moments.
According to this year’s Booker Prize judges, the novel exhibits “tremendous imagination and verve” as it “dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west.”
With its story line based partly on the killing of journalist photographer Richard de Zoysa during the Sri Lankan civil war, The Seven Moons is part murder mystery and part historical novel.
The story begins in 1990 in the city of Columbo. Fought from 1983 to 2009, the civil war had two sides—the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the minority Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The insurgent Tamils tried to establish a separate state in the south of Sri Lanka. Revolting against the government, they killed 13 soldiers. This incited Sinhalese mobs to mass violence resulting in 3,000 deaths, one of which was de Zoysa’s.
A reference to de Zoysa’s poem “Good Friday, 1975,” with its odd mix of reverence and blasphemy, leads the story. A line from the poem that is especially telling with its black humor (“Father, forgive them, for I will never”) serves as the epigraph for Part One of Karunatilaka’s novel—and also suggests its background.
The poem itself is a gloss on the crucifixion, connecting the last moments of Jesus to 20th-century atrocities. The latter bring to mind the atmosphere of the Sri Lankan civil war, with its share of “blood flows murmuring, congeals turning black upon the purpling flesh,” in de Zoysa’s words.
In The Seven Moons, the main character, Maali Almeida, is based on de Zoysa. To an extent, the novel resembles de Zoysa’s poem. But there is a twist. The poem is told from the perspective of the dying Christ, while the novel is told from the perspective of Almeida—who has died and is trying to figure out who killed him, when and why. While he’s doing that, he experiences the afterlife, which as an atheist he does not believe in—at first.
The story starts with these words: “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.”
Readers must deduce the question (Is there life after death?) and decipher how much worse by following Almeida, a 34-year-old war photographer, as he realizes he is dead and now exists (or not) in the “In-Between,” which is a kind of purgatory. He must journey to “The Light” (à la “The Divine Comedy”), which he does by bringing to view photographs that could end the civil war. He has seven days (or moons) to do so.
While on this journey, he (as a ghost) accompanies the police who visit a (fictional) Canada Norway Third World Relief center. He clings to the roof of the car, “thoughts prodding him like infected needles.” He remembers that as a freelancer, he took photographs of the dying and maimed for a newsletter. One photograph, in a box marked “Queen,” shows a police massacre of 600 Tamils. Almeida only vaguely remembers the photograph and those people working at the relief center. Nor is he able to communicate with them—yet.
Almeida experiences absurd adventures in a nightmarish wonderland where playing cards—kings, queens and jacks—flutter “in a mad swirl.” A being dressed in black garbage bags with yellowish green eyes seems like a monster but may be a friend. A “Dead Atheist” with a decapitated body (his head bearing an uncanny resemblance to our hero) comes to The Light every so often “just to see if you guys have anything new to offer.”
Drenched in poetry, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida fuses the detective genre with magic realism, and the macabre with absurdist humor.
Almeida sees a book that contains “wisdom of the millennia, insight from when the universe was first audited.” (I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what the wisdom is.) “Screaming souls and fools [dressed] in white” surround Almeida. But there is also a kind of tea party where he has the opportunity to choose how, where and with whom he spends eternity.
Drenched in poetry, the novel fuses the detective genre with magic realism, the macabre with absurdist humor and the political with philosophical speculations about the afterlife, as well as occasional off-putting biblical references, as in: she “has her arms spread out like a martyred Christ.” Heavy with figures of speech, the narrative at first is difficult to understand. The frequent puns are sometimes annoying. But as one reads, the sheer luminosity and audacity of the language generally work their spell.
Ultimately, Almeida experiences ghosts, ghouls, a Hindu goddess who eats souls, a Beatrice-like friend from his past life and other non-bodily inhabitants of this place. He tries to communicate with his mother and his significant other, a boyfriend named DD. He wants to tell them about a stash of his photographs in which he has documented the war’s murder and mayhem. These photos, he hopes, will bring down politicians in high places, including some in the government, and may bring justice to ordinary Sri Lankans.
But will they? With humanity revealing its weaknesses as it does continually in this novel (and in life, as Karunatilaka implies), there are no assurances of justice or anything else.