For months I had been hearing tantalizing, incredibly incongruous details about this novel, which is only now being published in the United States. It’s all true: “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” is a mystery novel and a wacky comedy about military atrocities.
And it’s told by a dead man.
Such a novel does not seem to be lucky, but Karunatilaka has a habit of defying the odds. Like Salman Rushdie, whose fiction clearly influenced him, Karunatilaka started out in advertising. He self-published his first novel, ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’, only to have it picked up later by Penguin (UK) and win the Commonwealth Prize.
“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” followed an even more tortuous path to fame. The manuscript, then titled “Devil Dance”, was shortlisted for a Sri Lankan award in 2015. Five years later, it was published by Penguin India as “Chats With the Dead”. The positive response to “Chinaman” should have opened all doors, but international publishers balked, fearing that the book’s Sri Lankan politics and mythology would be too confusing for Western readers.
Finally, a small London publisher called Sort of Books agreed to take over the novel – with further revisions. Karunatilaka said in a recent interview that he spent two years “tinkering” to make sure “someone who doesn’t know anything about Sri Lanka and Eastern mythology” could follow the story. The result of his perseverance is this bizarre and oddly moving political satire that now finds readers around the world.
The year 1989 has just come to an end when our dearly missed narrator shows up with a disappointing revelation:
“You wake up with the answer to the question everyone is asking. The answer is yes, and the answer is just like here only worse. That’s all the insight you’ll ever have. So you might as well go back to sleep.
That voice – which stings you in the face with its brash cynicism – belongs to the ghost of Maali Almeida, who was, until very recently, a reckless photojournalist, chronic gambler and unreliable boyfriend in Colombo, Sri Lanka. At first, the afterlife looks like an LSD trip to a poorly staffed customer feedback center. But once Maali gets to the start of a queue, he learns that he is dead. To prepare his spirit for eternity with The Light, he has one week – “seven moons”.
It makes for a tight schedule for Maali and a breakneck pace for readers as he is a ghost with an attitude and a lot of unfinished business. For one thing, Maali doesn’t know how he died, and watching goons hack up his corpse with a cleaver doesn’t provide as much clarity as one might expect. After all, in life, Maali accepted photography gigs from anyone who wanted to pay him – government officials, foreign journalists, human rights organizations, even (possible) spies. . And he freely took pictures of things not we wanted him to see.
“They say the truth will set you free,” Maali notes, “although in Sri Lanka the truth can put you in a cage.” Knowing how dangerous his homeland is, Maali has always prided himself on his discretion, a quality honed as a closeted gay man in a violently homophobic society. But apparently someone wanted to guarantee his silence.
Now reduced to aerial thinness, Maali will only find justice if he can release a secret cache of his most incendiary photos, ‘photos that will bring down governments’, he says, ‘photos that could stop wars’ . Amid its stash of erotic images is evidence of horrific crimes the Sri Lankan military would kill to keep it a secret.
As nervous editors suspected, the context of these horrors will be obscure to anyone who has not followed the complicated details of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, involving government officials, Tamil Tigers, Marxist activists, Indian peacekeepers and more. But Karunatilaka addresses this confusion early on by reproducing a cheeky “cheat sheet” that Maali regularly gave to clueless Western journalists to unravel his country’s deadly alphabet soup, for example:
“LTTE – The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. You want a separate Tamil state. Prepared to slaughter Tamil civilians and moderates to achieve it.
“IPKF – The Indian Peacekeeping Force. Sent by our neighbor to preserve peace. Are ready to burn villages to fulfill their mission.
That eerily comic voice bears the imprint of Kurt Vonnegut, whom Karunatilaka calls “the genius I stole the most.” In an essay for the Booker Prize Foundation, he said Vonnegut’s ability “to see tragedy through the prism of the absurd, to blend genres and moods, and to be harrowing and hilarious in the space of ‘a sentence, is the gold standard’. we all yearn.
But there is nothing simply ambitious or derivative in “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida”. Karunatilaka’s story drifts through Sri Lankan history and culture with a spirit all its own. As his last week on Earth ticks away, Maali must come to terms with the kind of friend and lover he used to be, even as he flies around Colombo, battling a host of clinging ghouls and demons. to each car and build like ectoplasmic kudzu. Some of these vengeful phantoms, victims of tortures, assassinations or massacres, want to help him; others want to devour it. Maali must find out who is who as he struggles to solve the mystery of his own death.
Its biggest challenge, however, is that it’s not easy to influence human events or communicate with the living once you’ve moved into the spectral realm. Maali can see and hear the growing peril of her friends as they approach the truth of what happened to her. But how can he lead them to the secret photos that will expose the officials who used him and terrorized his countrymen?
And would it be of any use anyway? Has evidence ever stopped a massacre or brought satisfaction to the dead?
As “The Seven Moons” swings wildly from absurd comedy to grotesque tragedy, Karunatilaka upends all grandiose naivety about the power of journalism to effect political change. It’s a story in which demons – even snarling hellhounds with faces trapped under their hairy hides – aren’t as scary as respected military commanders. What’s most surprising, however, is how poignant the book is amidst all its mythological antics and tears. Again and again, a crazed madman crashes into a burning village, a murdered child, a cremated woman. These cacophonous tones remind us that the real world can also be a terrible farce.
The deeper themes of the novel go beyond politics to the problem of evil that runs through every theology and moral code. What, Karunatilaka asks, is our responsibility in the face of cruelty that God could not or would not stop? His answer isn’t reassuring, but given the irreducible tension between revenge and forgiveness, that’s all you’ll ever have.
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
The seven moons of Maali Almeida
WWNorton. 400 pages $18.95
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