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The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida book review: In war-torn Sri Lanka, a ghost probes into his own death

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel after Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, has won the 2022 Booker Prize.

October 18, 2022 / 10:26 AM IST
The story begins when Maali wakes up dead, trapped in a place of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the In Between. (Representational photo: Alexander Grey via Unsplash)

The story begins when Maali wakes up dead, trapped in a place of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the In Between. (Representational photo: Alexander Grey via Unsplash)

‘Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living,’ wrote Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi author who made Sri Lanka his home for several decades. From 1983 to 2009, the island nation saw a bitter civil war. According to estimates, the dead numbered around one lakh – making it a place overpopulated with troubled spirits. This underworld forms a parallel universe in Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel, The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida.

Ten years ago, his sparkling debut, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, won a slew of prestigious awards – the Commonwealth Prize, the DSC Prize, the Gratiaen Prize – and was adjudged second among the best cricket novels ever written by Wisden. It told the tale of an alcoholic retired sports journalist’s efforts to track down a talented left-arm spinner of the 1980s who disappeared from the cricketing scene without a trace. Using the seven moons of maali almeidaisland’s cricket culture as a prism, Chinaman provided an insightful portrait of Sri Lankan society.

The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida, winner of the 2022 Booker, is also the tale of a quest. Set against the backdrop of the conflict-ridden Sri Lanka of the 1990s, it refers to several historical and political events of the period. Its eponymous protagonist is a ghost – the spirit of a thirty-nine-year-old war photographer who, before his mysterious death, was an inveterate gambler, a closet homosexual and an atheist.

In short, Maali who was an outsider in his earthly existence continues to remain one in the afterlife.

Life in the Afterlife

The story begins when Maali wakes up dead, trapped in a place of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the In Between. ‘You look around. Behind you, a queue weaves around pillars and snakes along the walls. The air is foggy, though no one appears to be exhaling smoke or carbon dioxide. It looks like a car park with no cars, or a market space with nothing to sell.’ This In Between is peopled with other victims of violence, ‘figures that look blurry-edged with talcum skin and eyes that blaze in colours not customary for brown folks. Some are dressed in hospital smocks; some have dried blood on their clothes; some are missing limbs.’

Meanwhile, in the real world Maali’s mother and his friends are trying to convince the police to start an investigation into his inexplicable disappearance. Simultaneously, Maali, getting used to a spectral existence, is mingling with other dead. Among the people he meets are Ranee Sreedharan, a Tamil academic who was gunned down for being a moderate by Tamil extremists; Sena Pathirana, a member of the militant Marxist organization, JVP, involved in an anti-government uprising, the spirits of suicide bombers and a woman lawyer who has turned into a ghoul. ‘In the flickering moonlight, her skin looks made from snake.’

He also learns the rules of spirit travel – which are all about blurred boundaries through time and ether. For instance, he can hitch rides on the wind, ‘the public transport for dead people’, and go wherever his name his spoken, but he can’t travel abroad unless his corpse is taken there. Maali needs to know all this because he is a ghost with a mission: to recover a hidden stash of photographs that will expose the brutalities of war to the world and to figure out how he died and why. For this purpose, he has been granted a period of seven moons, or one week, before he must reach The Light. Yes, the dictates of Time apply even in the afterlife.

His first task is to find a way of connecting with the living, his friends Jaki – who loves him – and her cousin Dilan, whom he has secretly, ardently loved. Enlisting their support is a challenge: While Maali moves in a familiar world, those still living in it are unaware of his existence as a ghost and oblivious to his efforts to connect.

Pitch-perfect Voice

Karunatilaka’s storytelling is enriched by its introduction of Sri Lankan cadences in the dialogues. It is noteworthy for its dry wit and, in places, grim graveyard humour; for its bitter and sometimes gory reflections on life, death and the tapestry of memories in between. Sample this: ‘For atheists there are only moral choices. Accept that we are alone and try to create heaven on earth. Or accept that no one is watching and do whatever the hell you like. The latter is by far easier.’ And this: ‘Who hasn’t seen a photo of themselves and realised how much chubbier and uglier they actually are. Mirrors lie as much as memories do. Why lie: you were a gorgeous creature. Trim, neat, with good hair and decent skin. And now you are a carcass on a slab sucked clear of breath and colour.’

While Chinaman used the first-person narrative voice, this story is told in the second person. The constant use of ‘you’ to address the protagonist is a risk in a long read of nearly 400 pages, but in this novel it pays off. It creates the right amount of distance between the reader and the disembodied protagonist. The In Between world Maali inhabits becomes as real as the one he leaves behind, yet it retains a strange sense of drift. It also provides the right note of pathos to what is essentially a war narrative documenting the horrific acts committed by all the sides involved in the conflict.

If there is a flaw, it is in the length, which tends, as long stories do, to a Middle Pages slump. While the humour doesn’t flag, the entry and exit of an assortment of characters, from this world and other worlds, is bewildering. The way to remedy it is to give yourself the necessary time to read it slowly. It will be an immensely rewarding experience.

Madhavi S. Mahadevan is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.