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Shehan Karunatilaka

Dead Man Talking

The Seven Moons of Mali Almeida is a unique work that demonstrates the majestic creativity of its writer, Sri Lanka-born The Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka

Julie Banerjee Mehta | Published 23.10.22, 05:35 AM

“Our beginnings never know our endings,” T.S. Eliot famously stated. He might have been speaking of the current flavour of the publishing industry — the urbane, endearing, Sri Lankan novelist, favourite of the Booker Prize judges who unanimously rooted for the irreverent and commanding Shehan Karunatilaka.

The 47 years young, Colombo-born writer walked away with the trophy presented to him by Camilla, the Queen Consort, in one of her first official public engagements, at a ceremony hosted by comedian Sophie Duker at the Roundhouse in London. The winner of last year’s Booker prize, Damon Galgut, who wrote The Promise, handed over the £50,000 to a visibly ecstatic Karunatilaka.


Where Galgut had written about how individual and collective trauma, muddied by the burden of racial terror, may be negotiated in the context of South Africa in his novel The Promise, Karunatilaka in The Seven Moons of Almeida presents an interrogation of human rights and history that is outlined by the paradigm of trade —not materially, but in terms of philosophy — what blood must be shed, what lives must pay, what is owing to the juggernaut of brutal mass killings of the Sri Lankan civil war.

It seems the judges of literary prizes, especially the Booker, are slowly rewarding writers who raise and grapple with complex issues of ethics and egregious demons of divisive politics that plague once colonised nations. Galgut and Karunatilaka both confront unresolved disparities of race, economic, religious and linguistic oppression. In a unique and apolitical approach, using the most accessible and yet nuanced registers of language that undergirds the complexities of gender, sexual orientation and class, Karunatilaka catapults an ordinary narrative to extraordinary universality.

What makes The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida unique is its appeal to readers across cultures, generations, histories and geographies, because it speaks to the primordial human spirit — of kindness and the essence of human rights to live in solidarity and peace. Coupled with a wicked sense of the comic, and the macabre, irreverence and a racy pace, this ghost story, set in the blood-soaked land of Sri Lanka in 1989, might become the most read novel of this decade, or even this century, because it echoes the strong sentiments against war as a tool of indomitable destruction of the human race with a refreshing new use of the English language. (Seven Moons was published in India titled Chats with the Dead in 2019, but it was not working out with an international reach.) So what made Karunatilaka’s story trump the others? The Booker judges liked the “ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques”. Chair of the judges Neil MacGregor said “it’s a book that takes the reader on a rollercoaster journey through life and death right to what the author describes as the dark heart of the world… And there the reader finds, to their surprise, joy, tenderness, love and loyalty”. Ian MacGregor paid tribute to the refreshing idea of a deadman telling the story of his life. He called it a “metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west”.

Those who are the living stars of our current century’s literary firmament, like the South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee, and the inimitable raconteur Michael Ondaatje, each found new ways to examine war and defilement of human rights: “The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based,” wrote J. M. Coetzee in Giving Offense.

Britain’s Queen Camilla speaks with shortlisted author Shehan Karunatilaka at the Booker Prize for Fiction 2022 awards ceremony in London. She would hand him the coveted prize later in the evening.

Britain’s Queen Camilla speaks with shortlisted author Shehan Karunatilaka at the Booker Prize for Fiction 2022 awards ceremony in London. She would hand him the coveted prize later in the evening.

The story of Seven Moons is stunning: a combat photographer and closet homosexual wakes up after his death in Beira Lake, in 1990, and realises his body is sinking. He wakes up in an astral bureaucratic office where his papers are being processed. He is confused and has no idea who has killed him. All he is aware of is that he is on a timebound quest: he has seven moons to find the two people he loves most and tell them where his priceless war photographs are hidden. These images would shake the very bastions of Sri Lanka.

Karunatilaka’s content of the brutality and abjectness of being a witness to the slow, tumultuous, relentless war is in contrast to the almost sensual writing style. The absorbing narrative makes the reader want to turn the page. You can see how Karunatilaka’s skill as a feisty copywriter works its insidious charm in his conversations between homosexual gambler and a young woman who is alone and vulnerable.

Little wonder then that Karunatilaka found positions in several top-notch advertising agencies from Sri Lanka to Singapore and Europe. Perhaps that is why his effortless ease comes through in how he constructs conversations between Maali and Jaki. The reader can almost pick up on the social status, the body language and the emotional quotient of the characters.

What makes the story unputdownable is its addictive use of language; sometimes quirky, sometimes banal, but always compelling:

“There was something brazen about her, something odd. Something beyond the make-up and the hair and the ill-fitting dress, she spoke with the squeak of a child but with the authority of a parent.

“If you want me to come back, you need to stop calling me ‘girl’ or ‘sister’ or ‘sweetheart’.

‘You have a boyfriend?’

‘I’m saving myself for my wedding night, so don’t get any ideas.’

‘That’s fine with me girl’.

“First you became her gambling buddy, then her agony aunt, then her clubbing partner. You told her how to handle the creeps at work and the aunts at home and her new uncle visiting her room without knocking.

“In exchange, she kept you from the things you’d photographed in the war zone. She got you into parties at embassies and hotels thrown by rich Colombo International School classmates, among who were confused boys with perfect skin. Jaki didn’t mind that you disappeared from parties, Jaki didn’t mind if you talked to boys, though she hated you talking to girls. And Jaki didn’t care that you didn’t touch her”.

The other titles on the shortlist were: Glory by No Violet Bulawayo, The Trees by Percival Everett, Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout.

And while accepting the award, though Karunatilaka, addressing Sri Lankans in Tamil and Sinhalese, said: “I write these books for you…. Let’s keep sharing these stories,” and that he hopes that one day the political situation in Sri Lanka will be such that his novel will “sit on the fantasy shelves of bookshops”, as readers who face the daily bludgeoning of weaker states by behemoths, or human beings on the fringes of patriarchy and state-run brutality in every continent, we know that is wishful thinking. And we understand it takes death and the sorrow of dying to understand that there is love and light beyond the darkness of life.

Julie Banerjee Mehta is the author of Dance of Life and co-author of the bestselling biography Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen. She has a PhD in English and South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, where she taught World Literature and Postcolonial Literature for many years. She currently lives in Kolkata and teaches Masters English at Loreto College.

Pictures: Agencies and The Telegraph

Who is Shehan Karunatilaka?

Shehan Karunatilaka was born in Galle, grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and was educated at St. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Kollupitiya, Sri Lanka, and Massey University, New Zealand. He also writes children’s books, illustrated and designed by his wife and brother-in-law, and articles for The Guardian, Newsweek, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Wisden, The Cricketer and The Economic Times. He has played bass with Sri Lankan bands Independent Square and others, and confessed at a literary festival some years ago to being a left-arm leg spinner, nursing narcissistic fantasies of being picked up by a coach who might draft him into a World Cup cricket team.

The module of the Booker website describes him as a “Booker-shortlisted writer of punchlines, manifestos, and calls-to-action. Failed cricketer, failed rockstar, failed vegan. Observer of people, machines and markets. Karunatilaka recently listed his favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novels: Lincoln in the Bardo, Cloud Atlas, The Handmaid’s Tale, Girl and Woman.

What resonated with me most about this writer is the unabashed love he expressed publicly at his Booker acceptance speech: for his wife, daughter, mother and father, who lives with dementia. The fact that he looks forward every night to read to his daughter before she goes to bed is one of the things that I will remember about this majestic writer who pays homage to how death might teach us about life what we never learned while we were alive.

In August Company

War is foremost in the mind of most Sri Lanka-born authors. In that respect, Karunatilaka is in august company.

Michael Ondaatje perhaps more than any other, has tattooed the horror and pain of the terror of the civil war in Sri Lanka in Anil’s Ghost and later located his extraordinary novel of war and love — The English Patient — in the blasted heath of the Second World War.

Shyam Selvadurai, the Canadian-Sri Lankan novelist, best known for his coming-of-age and coming-out story of adolescent, gay Arjie Chelvaratnam, has the civil war of the 1980s as a strong backdrop to his powerful story, and unveils the heartbreak of leaving his embattled homeland, a tale that is hauntingly autobiographical.

Booker prize nominee Romesh Gunesekera, applauded for being among the most eminent of postcolonial writers, who excavates communist insurgency and uprising in Reef, which causes the master Salagado and young protagonist Trinitron to leave their homeland and emigrate to the UK.

When I asked Romesh Gunesekera what his thoughts were on the new kid on the Booker block, he said: “I’m delighted that 30 years after my debut with Monkfish Moon, the moon has turned up trumps with Shehan’s Seven Moons, a sharp and wildly inventive novel of sadly troubled times. It’s great news and that I hope will give a lift to other Sri Lankan writers.”

It does appear that the moon is a recurrent trope in the titles of these Sri Lankan writers: There is Shyam Selvadurai’s newest novel Palaces of the Moon (2021), and Romesh Gunesekera’s first book, his collection of short stories Monkfish Moon, and now Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almedia. Perhaps an inventive scholar is already researching the possibilities of the moon having a common shaft of light that threads contemporary Sri Lankan fiction.

CHINAMAN: A quest to track down a missing cricketer

Karunatilaka’s first published novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, employs the game of cricket to examine and analyse, observe and comment on Sri Lankan culture. It is an absorbing read that unpackages a journalist’s goal of tracing Pradeep Matthews, a Sri Lankan cricketer known in the 1980s, who had vanished. In 2012, “the same year that the civil war was officially over in Sri Lanka, in May”, as Karunatilaka points out.

He did a great stint of pleasurable research between 1996 and 1999, which included “hanging out with drunk old men, armchair critics and watching test matches”, back to back, before he wrote Chinaman. “I also did a bit of a foolish thing during those years: I got married and I had children,” he said.

“Chinaman really took life when I realised it had to be told by a drunk and that was when I saw two uncles fighting at a wedding. Men in their sixties don’t fight about women or politics. But they do about cricket.”

Chinaman was narrated typically by an alcoholic, an extremely intelligent, sensitive and avid cricket aficionado, fan, and the book and won a slew of prizes. It was announced as the regional winner for Asia of the Commonwealth Book Prize. It then bagged the overall Commonwealth Book Prize announced in June. Karunatilaka seemed to be favoured by Lady Luck and it received the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and the Gratiaen Prize, an award set up by the titan of Sri Lankan writers himself, multi-Booker winner living legend Sri Lankan-Canadian Michael Ondaatje, who had established an endowment in his mother Doris Gratiaen’s memory to encourage excellence in new Sri Lankan writers.

But it was not always this way. In 2000, Karunatilaka had written The Painter to critical acclaim and had won the Gratiaen prize for this first novel. But it remained unpublished. Some authors might claim a thunderous win with a first novel carrying the Booker stamp. Not Karunatilaka. Unpretentious and humble, he praised the other nominees for the Booker prize and in his acceptance speech stated quite simply that the list of contenders was “rich and long”.

Last updated on 23.10.22, 01:50 PM

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