Review | ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ is a Booker-winning ghost story


Seeing a big literary award go to a book you loved is satisfying but, let’s face it, a little dull. How much more exciting when a prize draws your attention to a great novel you’ve never heard about.

That’s the special service provided to most readers in the United States this year by the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary honor. “Oh William!,” by beloved American novelist Elizabeth Strout, was the bookmakers’ favorite, but at the ceremony last month in London, the judges chose “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka.

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For months, I’d been hearing tantalizing, impossibly 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 murder mystery and a zany comedy about military atrocities.

And it’s narrated by a dead man.

Such a novel doesn’t sound like it has a ghost of a chance, but Karunatilaka is used to beating the odds. Like Salman Rushdie, whose fiction clearly influenced him, Karunatilaka started in advertising. He self-published his debut novel, “Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew,” only to see it picked up later by Penguin (U.K.) and win the Commonwealth Prize.

“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” followed an even more tortuous route to fame. The manuscript, then called “Devil Dance,” was shortlisted for a Sri Lankan prize in 2015. Five years later, it was published by Penguin India as “Chats With the Dead.” The positive response to “Chinaman” should have opened every door, but international publishers balked, worried that the book’s Sri Lankan politics and mythology were too confusing for Western readers.

Finally, a small publisher in London called Sort of Books agreed to take on the novel — with further revisions. Karunatilaka said in a recent interview that he spent two years “tinkering with it” to make sure “someone who knows nothing about Sri Lanka and eastern mythology” could follow the story. The result of his persistence is this weird and weirdly moving political satire that’s now finding readers around the world.

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The year 1989 has just ended when our dearly departed narrator introduces himself with a disappointing revelation:

“You wake up with the answer to the question that everyone asks. The answer is Yes, and the answer is Just Like Here But Worse. That’s all the insight you’ll ever get. So you might as well go back to sleep.”

That voice — poking you in the face with its brash cynicism — belongs to the ghost of Maali Almeida, who was, until very recently, a reckless photojournalist, a chronic gambler and an unreliable boyfriend in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Initially, the afterlife feels like an LSD trip at a poorly staffed customer return center. But once Maali gets to the front of a queue, he learns that he’s dead. To prepare his spirit for eternity with The Light, he has one week — “seven moons.”

That makes a tight schedule for Maali and a breakneck pace for readers because this is a ghost with an attitude and a lot of unfinished business. For one, Maali isn’t sure how he died, and watching goons chop up his corpse with a cleaver doesn’t provide as much clarity as you might expect. After all, in life, Maali accepted photography gigs from anybody who would pay him — government officials, foreign journalists, human rights organizations, even (possible) spies. And he freely snapped pictures of things no one wanted him to see.

“They say the truth will set you free,” Maali notes, “though in Sri Lanka the truth can land you in a cage.” Knowing how dangerous his homeland is, Maali always prided himself on his discretion, a quality perfected as a closeted gay man in a violently homophobic society. But apparently, somebody wanted to guarantee his silence.

Now, reduced to airy thinness, Maali will find justice only if he can publish a secret cache of his most incendiary pictures, “photos that will bring down governments,” he says, “photos that could stop wars.” Mixed in among his stash of erotic images is evidence of horrific crimes that the Sri Lankan military would kill to keep secret.

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As nervous publishers suspected, the context of those horrors will be obscure to anyone who didn’t follow the complicated details of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, involving government officials, Tamil Tigers, Marxist militants, Indian peacekeepers and more. But Karunatilaka addresses that confusion early on by reproducing a cheeky “cheatsheet” that Maali routinely gave to clueless Western journalists to unravel his country’s deadly alphabet soup, e.g.:

“LTTE — The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Want a separate Tamil state. Prepared to slaughter Tamil civilians and moderates to achieve this.”

“IPKF — The Indian Peace Keeping Force. Sent by our neighbour to preserve peace. Are willing to burn villages to fulfill their mission.”

That grimly comic voice carries the imprint of Kurt Vonnegut, whom Karunatilaka calls “the genius I have robbed from the most.” In an essay for the Booker Prize Foundation, he said that Vonnegut’s ability “to view tragedy through the lens of the absurd, to blend genres and moods, and to be heart-breaking and hilarious within the space of a sentence, is the gold standard we all aspire to.”

But there’s nothing merely aspirational or derivative about “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.” Karunatilaka’s story drifts across Sri Lankan history and culture with a spirit entirely its own. As his last week on Earth slips away, Maali must come to grips with the kind of friend and lover he was, even as he flies around Colombo, contending with a host of ghouls and demons who hang off every car and building like ectoplasmic kudzu. Some of these vengeful phantoms — victims of torture, assassination or mass killings — want to help him; others want to devour him. Maali has to figure out which is which, as he struggles to solve the mystery of his own death.

His greatest challenge, though, is that it’s not easy to influence human events or communicate with the living once you’ve transitioned to the spectral realm. Maali can see and hear his friends’ growing peril as they approach the truth of what happened to him. But how can he lead them to the secret photos that will expose officials who used him and terrorized his countrymen?

And would that do any good anyhow? Has evidence ever stopped a mass killing or brought satisfaction to the dead?

As “The Seven Moons” swings wildly from absurd comedy to grotesque tragedy, Karunatilaka knocks down any grandiose naivete about the power of journalism to effect political change. This is a story in which the demons — even the snarling hell-hounds with faces trapped beneath their hairy hides — aren’t nearly as scary as the respected military commanders. What’s most surprising, though, is the book’s poignancy amid all its antics and mythological caterwauling. Again and again, some loony pratfall crashes into a burned village, a murdered child, an incinerated woman. These cacophonous tones remind us that the real world, too, can be a ghastly farce.

The novel’s deeper themes reach beyond politics to the problem of evil that threads through every theology and moral code. What, Karunatilaka asks, is our responsibility in the face of cruelty that God couldn’t or wouldn’t stop? His answer isn’t reassuring, but given the irreducible tension between vengeance and forgiveness, that’s all the insight you’ll ever get.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

W.W. Norton. 400 pp. $18.95

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