Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars – and identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer, Maali Almeida.
But this is no grim realism of a novel. Almeida himself is our narrator and, in finding himself, in 1990, in the afterlife bureaucratic waiting rooms awaiting his fate, discovers he has just seven moons left before his eternal fate is determined. He is dead for real and not, as Almeida first suspected, simply hallucinating from pills taken. This high-stakes gambler, gay man and atheist has been murdered by some faction or high ranking official. His dismembered body is, with so many other victims of the wars, sinking in the Beira Lake.
Those seven moons must be used wisely to identify his killers, contact the man (DD) and woman (Jaki) he loves most to help them find his body and to lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will expose the highest levels of corruption. Only there’s plenty of threatening distractions, lost souls and violent spirits getting in the way, as well as time needed to find out exactly what he can and cannot do as a dead body.
Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set in the In Between before proceeding toward The Light seven days later when the Tigers, the Army, the Indian peacekeepers, the JVP terrorists and state death squads were all killing each other at a prolific rate. A time of curfews, bombs, assassinations, abductions and mass graves, the afterlife offices are busy: bloodied activists, politicians, intellectuals, journalists mingle with civilians and the military minus arms, legs. The waiting room is not for the faint-hearted.
Embroiled in afterlife red tape, mirroring his friends’ attempts to discover his whereabouts (not helped by the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the photographer before his demise), Almeida reflects on personal memories of war, the photographs he took, his own moral and ethical dilemmas as well as an awkward relationship with his mother. Jaki was seen by many as his official girlfriend yet DD, son of a government minister, was the love of his life – even if he constantly cheated.
It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing. Karunatilaka’s prose is informal, jagged and, in content if not style, he channels George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. A refreshing sophomore novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida unexpectedly won the 2022 Booker Prize, lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques.