By Avantika Sharma
“Evil is not what we should fear. Creatures with power acting in their own interest: that is what should make us shudder.”
Shehan Karunatilaka’s, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, has become a sensation after winning the 2022 Booker Prize. An unsettling grotesque satire, this mysterious novel delivers a spine-chilling story of a Sri Lankan alcohol-soaked photographer who wakes a dead man amid the Sri Lankan Civil War. He has “woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office”. Seemingly funny towards the beginning, the narrator addresses himself in the second person “you” throughout the book.
This book is undoubtedly thrilling as well as horrifying to an extent, however, the protagonist, Almeida, does not leave his readers devoid of dark humour and witty sarcasm. He makes you laugh, smirk, cry and wonder, hell-bent on creating an impression on you. Alas! Though here, I am talking in the second person – an impression seems likely.
Karunatilaka has penned this exuberantly, promising narrative of how far one country and its countrymen can go in order to ignore flaws and hide truths. Rather courageously, the author has, through comedy and sarcasm, brought to light the brutalities of his own country, Sri Lanka.
The story begins on a mysterious note; the satire mostly overwhelming as Almeida describes how he wakes up dead only to find his dismembered body sinking in the famous Beira Lake. Unapologetically, he goes on, “On this day, the Beira Lake smells like a powerful deity has squatted over it, emptied its bowels in its waters, and forgotten to flush.”
At one point, the book fills readers with a sense of wonder at this fantastically well-written book. They may even ponder on how the author did not land in trouble for writing “so highly” about his country. At several turns, readers are left unsure – praises are good but what about the deadpan silence of those reading the book, particularly in Sri Lanka?
Well, the book in no way spins a trail of lies, Karunatilaka is right there narrating his country’s dark past but one cannot help but think about the people involved if any.
“At a time when scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long, as the ghouls and ghosts who cluster around him can attest.”
Almeida presents visuals of the war’s clasp – poverty-stricken people; parents sobbing in police stations desperately looking for their missing children; the politicians’ atrocities; and youngsters lulling themselves under the orders of cruel men.
Fearlessly, Karunatilaka uses moot words to describe himself – “war photographer, gambler, slut, closet gay”.
From the first page itself, he intends to have the reader hooked, delivering a humorous and macabre narrative of how he (Almeida) utilises the time granted to him in his afterlife. “He has seven moons to try and contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka.”
The author has portrayed Almeida as a spoilsport, his life tumultuous, relationships grim, but friendships strong. The protagonist, who works as a war photographer, has left behind powerful photos hidden in a secret box… enough to dissolve the Sri Lankan government, while revealing the dark side of the country and justifying certain events and deaths.
Karunatilaka follows a conventional style of writing, controversial if you may, yet he does not stop. He reveals a lot and meets the fellow dead, among whom, some he witnessed dying when he was alive but did nothing to help. However, the victim has seven nights to discover how he died, and why.
The powerful writing may even remind readers of the celebrated Netflix original series, Stranger Things, at this point. Almeida, just like Will Byers, tries to talk from the ‘In Between’ – a space that lets him visit places he had been to when he was alive. Similar to how his friends try to bring him back in the hit show, the protagonist’s dead comrade, Sena, helps him whisper to those alive.
Imagine, a spirit or ghoul whispering thoughts into your ears. I don’t know about you, but I got chills!
Almeida, post-death, hangs under buses and cars, and travels the country, aiming to solve the mystery behind his ill fate. He also goes through an “ear test” – mandatory for those dead, only to get his result informing he has killed, committed many sins, and lived 39 lives. To his utter shock, the frenzy kicks in and he, curious to unravel the truth, contacts his friends through one blind Crow Uncle, who can speak to the dead, and once again sets on his bizarre journey to justice.
Giving the show away, Karunatilaka engages the reader in this gut-wrenching, surprisingly mind-boggling and mysterious sequence of events, through his war journalist, who stands as testimony to the country’s insurrections and civil unrest, and does his best to converse with his friend, Jaki and lover, DD – his only pathway to reveal his stash of photos and expose the viciousness of his country.
The novel comes at a time when Sri Lanka is fighting its worst economic crisis, which resulted in a series of mass protests against the government, leading to the ousting of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. We cannot help but notice the uncanny similarity between frequent unrest and civil disobedience in the country. Striking enough, isn’t it?
The in-charge of the dead explains to Almeida that he needs to forget because “when you forget, nothing changes.” But can one forget?
Can he (Almeida) forget that he died a mysterious death? Can he let Sri Lanka do away with another ‘frequent’ death? Or, can he let the possibility of revelation just fade? You know the answer and hence, the wonderful, gripping novel.
Through absurd scenarios, dark humour, and comedy, Karunatilaka smoothly manages to divert one’s attention to the ground reality – the carnage of civil war and the fragility of life. The author has justified a difficult phase through 386 pages, and well, the book beautifully stands out.
It is a marvel, and deservedly so, the winner of the Booker Prize.