“We are all winners for being on this wonderful shortlist, although I might be able to pocket the extra money if it suits you,” reads an excerpt from Shehan Karunatilaka’s acceptance speech as he won the this year’s Booker Prize for fantastic satire. The seven moons of Maali Almeida. (read more about how we predicted his victory in July).
Writer, publicist and even bassist for several groups, Karunatilaka becomes the second Sri Lankan writer to win the first literary prize awarded to English-speaking writers from Commonwealth countries. The first time a Sri Lankan achieved this feat was when Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje won the Historiographical Prize in 1992. The English Patient. A more recent case is that of Anuk Arudpragasam, originally from Sri Lanka, who was selected last year for the philosophical novel A passage to the north.
Receiving the award from Camilla, Queen Consort of the United Kingdom, Karunatilaka thanked her family, friends and editors and ended her speech with a special mention to all the journalists and civil rights activists who lost their lives in the Sri Lankan Civil War since 1990 (the year her novel takes place). Naming the late journalist Richard de Zoysa (who was killed and abducted in 1990), he added that if he continued to individually offer the many lives lost at that time, the whole night could last.
Finally, he concluded his speech by saying how he wanted to see his book and his country in the future.
“My hope for Seven Moons is it in the not too distant future… that it is read in a Sri Lanka that has understood that the ideas of corruption, racial baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work… and that it is read in a Sri Lanka that learns from its stories.”
Accompanied by thunderous applause, his last words led him to speak in his native language, Tamil (with a certain T20 reference that even the ceremony host picked up) ending his speech with a ”nanny” (thank you in Tamil).
Set amidst the chaos of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1990, The seven moons of Maali Almeida deals with the afterlife of the titular protagonist, a locked-up war photographer. After his death, Maali still has seven moons to close with the woman (and man) he loves and give them photos that would change the course of the conflict in the country. The book has been praised for its surreal take on a political crisis with the Booker Jury describing it as “it’s Sri Lankan history like a thriller, a thriller and an existential fable teeming with the boldest of minds”.
This is Karunatilaka’s second novel after his successful cricket-centric debut Chinese which was published in 2010.
Held at the Roundhouse in London, this year’s ceremony was the first large-scale Booker event since 2019, as the pandemic prevented any physical ceremony. The evening brought together not only the Queen Consort but also British popstar Dua Lipa who gave a speech about her love of reading
Tributes were also paid to two-time Booker winner Hillary Mantel, who died aged 70 last month. Mantel was famous for the hall of wolves trilogy, a series of historical fiction novels set during the reign of King Henry VIII.
All nominees except Alan Garner (who would have been Booker’s oldest winner had he won for Molasses walker) were present at the event, with Garner attending the ceremony virtually.