Ten years after his debut novel, Chinaman, novelist Shehan Karunatilaka has returned with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a Booker-longlisted, wisecracking satire set in 1980s Sri Lanka. Many of Karunatilaka’s concerns remain the same. Can a country move on from its civil war? What traces does a life leave?
The novel starts with its hero waking up dead. Maali Almeida, a self-described “Photographer, Gambler, Slut,” has spent his career bearing witness to the brutalities of Sri Lanka’s war. Now in the underworld, he has only a week—seven moons—to direct his friend Jaki, and his lover DD, to a box of photographs stored under his bed. These images could “bring down governments”: they depict bodies, carcasses of Tamil homes, faces of “vanished activists.” He must also work out the cause of his own death. He is both victim and detective in this story.
Even though the “worst has already happened,” the dramatic stakes are still nail-bitingly high. Almeida often compares his gambling to the roulette of life. “Rich and poor all equal before the law,” says the policeman investigating Almeida’s death. His mother simply responds: “Good joke.”
Mordant humour is the book’s greatest asset—and Karunatilaka’s prose crackles with it. And what an ear he has for dialogue: discussions dance between a large cast of demons, dead bodies and corrupt NGOs. He writes in the second person, a choice that feels initially removed, but subtly brings the reader into that exchange.
Such polyphony does not always make for the easiest read. But this is part of the book’s reward, which parcels philosophy, magical realism and political commentary into one. It’s a remarkable work.