Book - The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka ... 

“Didn’t like that guy. The politer an Englishman is, the bigger the liar.”

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel and it is the story of Maali Almeida, photographer, gambler, gay man and dead man. Karunatilaka uses Maali’s story to tell a bigger, uglier story about Sri Lankan history. The book is set in Sri Lanka in 1989, during the ongoing civil war, but the focus is on the riots of 1983, which began after the Tamil Tigers had killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. In the aftermath Sinhalese youths attacked Tamil homes, business and people. An estimated 3,000 people died. The Sri Lankan government stood by and did nothing.

Almeida is dead. Killed by someone. He can’t remember who. And he finds himself in a waiting room of the afterlife where he is told he has seven moons to prepare himself and enter the light to be re-born. He can wander the living world, as a ghost. The interesting thing is that in this part of the after life the ghosts aren’t perfect versions of what they were before their deaths instead what you see reflects how they died:

“Sena hands the last of his leaves to a beast made from severed limbs. It is a bomb-blast victim who spits in your direction. You have seen plenty of them on your short sojourn.”

Sena is another dead man, who offers to help Maali but for reasons of his own. He helps him learn rules or partly helps him. There’s also Dr Ranee Sridharan, one of the people assign to help people on their journey. There are also demons. Some of which are hunting souls. Some of which sit on the shoulders of living people and give them, well, bad advice.

It is a fascinating journey to travel on as Maali tries to find out why he was murdered and who did it. Karunatilaka does a superb job of bringing time lines together and taking us through Maali’s relationships. And the final reveal of who killed him is a genuine surprise.

But this core story is used to weave a whole history of Sri Lanka’s civil war and it is a terrible, bloody story that we don’t know enough about. Despite Sri Lanka being an ex-British colony. Sometimes fiction is the best place to tell these stories. Someone is – probably – more likely to pick up a novel than read a history book. Especially when it is about, to butcher Chamberlain, a far away land about which we know little. And, of course, this book is out at a time where Sri Lanka is undergoing a new economic crisis. Fiction can reach spots that history sometimes can’t. The writer, once again, as witness.

“Despite all speeches made to the contrary, the naked bodies of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers are indistinguishable. We all look the same when held to the flame.”

Is this magic realism? Is it a ghost story? A horror story? Or all three. Does it – should it have a label? Does it – should it – matter? It is well-written and moving. It would make an excellent double-bill with The Trees by Percival Everett as novels dealing with historical injustices through unusual use of genre.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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