Even though it’s the winner of last year’s Booker Prize, I have to admit that after the first few pages I thought Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida might be unbearable slapstick. I had to get used to the kind of macabre humour that is put into contrast with the murderous chaos of Sri Lanka’s civil war. In the end, it is precisely this humour that makes the book special. The protagonist Maali Almeida has spent his life photographing human atrocities, of which there were more than enough in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. He gambled away the rest of his time in casinos or – as he says – with “beautiful boys” and “happy pills”. The novel begins with him realising that he is dead. In the afterlife that is similar to an overburdened bureaucratic institution, he is told that he has seven moons – seven nights – before he must take the next step and go “into the light”.
Maali does not trust the machinations of the bureaucracy of the In Between and still has several things on his to-do list: He wants to find out who killed him. Many suspects come into question, since as a photographer he considered himself apolitical and worked for competing groups – Tamils, Sinhalese and British. He also had sex with many men, whom he never called again, in a country where homosexuality is illegal. His second venture is to make sure that the world gets to see the crimes he has captured on his camera – a pursuit in which not only demons and devils get in his way. So, even though he is dead, Maali almost goes off the rails once more, putting DD, his on-again-off-again relationship, and Jaki, his best friend, in danger.
As a ghost, Maali cannot touch or speak to the living, but he can observe what happens after his death, and readers learn about his life story – and its consequences – piece by piece. The wind carries Maali to where he has been before or where his name is spoken. And since he has disappeared from the world “down there”, those who love him or whom he has angered are looking for him. Maali wants to intervene and make things right. Demons promise him the ability to whisper in people’s ears if he then works for them and causes mischief among the living with them. The different dimensions overlap, and Maali doesn’t have much time to decide to go into the light, or miss his chance. Time pressure and the lack of clarity about Maali’s killer keep the tension high in this caustic tale of personal and political events. In the end, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won me over with its combination of absurd scenes, magical realism, and critical engagement with the civil war in Sri Lanka.
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