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Book Review | Narrating the Lankan experience in guise of a supernatural thriller

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Soumya Bhattacharya

Published on: November 12, 2022 | Updated on: November 12, 2022

Cover photo of 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' by Shehan Karunatilaka (Photo by arrangement)

It is 1989. A brutal civil war is tearing Sri Lanka apart. Maali Almeida, the narrator of Shehan Karunatilaka’s remarkable, Booker Prize winning novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, is a "photographer, gambler, slut", a closet gay, and fixer. He works with the insurgents, the government and foreign journalists and documents, through photographs, the atrocities of war.

He also happens to be dead.

As the novel opens, we find our dead narrator inhabiting the In Between — a sort of afterlife where people go before rebirth. The In Between is full of ghosts and ghouls, suicides, people killed and maimed in the war, and a bureaucracy as tedious as the one in the world he has left behind. "The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate."

Setting a novel in this kind of an afterlife is not without precedent. George Saunders did so in his masterful Lincoln in the Bardo. From the ghosts, vicious or helpful, who use the wind "like public transport for dead people" to travel from the In Between to the earth, to the talking animals, the shadow of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie falls large.

But Karunatilaka’s biggest self-confessed influence is Kurt Vonnegut. "The disgust Vonnegut felt for humanity and history’s barbarism resonated with the disillusion I felt for my beautiful island and the myopic fools who destroyed it. And his ability to view tragedy through the lens of the absurd, to blend genres and moods, and to be heart-breaking and hilarious within the space of a sentence, is the gold standard we all aspire to," Karunatilaka has said.

Maali is told that "every soul is allowed seven moons [seven days and nights] to wander the In Between. To recall past lives. And then, to forget. They want you to forget. Because, when you forget, nothing changes." But Maali does not want to forget. He knows he was murdered. He wants to remember who killed him, and why. And he wants things to change, for the killings to stop, for the war to end.

Over the years, he has taken thousands of photographs of the carnage, pictures of torched homes, brutal beatings, executions, disappeared journalists and vanished activists. Maali believes that "these are photos that will bring down governments. Photos that could stop wars." His fervent hope is that these images — stored in a shoe box beneath a bed in his mother’s house — will "do for Lanka’s civil war what naked napalm girl did for Vietnam".

To this end, he dedicates his seven moons to trying to get in touch with his lover and his best friend (his lover’s woman cousin) and direct them towards the photographs. From here on in, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida becomes a state-of-the-nation satire in the guise of a thriller.

The violence is remorseless, relentless, and all pervasive. Scathing in his assessment of all parties involved, Karunatilaka absolves no one of blame. As Maali writes in a cheat sheet he draws up for an American journalist to explain the complexities of the civil war: "Don’t try and look for the good guys ’cause there ain’t none. Everyone is proud and greedy and no one can resolve things without money changing hands or fists being raised."

The subject of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida — to borrow from the poet Wilfred Owen — is "war, and the pity of war". In this bold, ambitious novel, ferociously funny and steeped in gallows humour, Karunatilaka conveys that pity with power and precision.

In an author’s note, Karunatilaka acknowledges that an earlier version of the book was published in India under the title, Chats with the Dead. But this is not the same book. As he edited and revised the text for a wider audience unfamiliar with Sri Lankan politics, mythology and folklore, the edits turned to rewrites.

Despite all that, though, the second person narrative is jarring and sometimes disorienting. The writing is lazy on occasion. "Endless" — never an evocative adjective, especially when applied to finite spaces such as corridors — turns up many times. And the novel is burdened by the sag and flab from the overlong sequences in the In Between.

Yet, in a novel so drenched in blood and gore, Karunatilaka — as well as his dead narrator — is always alert to the beauty in the quotidian. In the end, Maali’s pictures neither topple the government nor stop the war. The images — like Maali — meet an unfortunate end. No surprise. "The photos that remain… show sunsets and sunrises, hills of tea and crystal beaches, pangolins and peacocks, elephants with their young… This island is a beautiful place, despite being filled with fools and savages. And if these photos of yours are the only ones that outlive you, maybe that’s an ace you can keep."

This sort of homage to beauty in the face of savagery, this tribute to the immutable workings of nature amid the senseless cruelty unleashed by human beings, makes The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, sing the joy of life, and of being alive, in defiance of the howls of death.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
By Shehan Karunatilaka
pp. 400, Rs 399