By Stuart Cosgrove
Crude as it may seem, I have always treated literary prizes much like a big sporting event, cheering on my favourites and punching the air when a victory is announced.
As a Scot married into a Sri Lankan family, the last few years of the Booker Prize have delivered big results. In 2020, Scottish author Douglas Stuart won the Booker with ‘Shuggie Bain,’ an emotionally-warming story of a young boy surviving against horrendous odds in dystopian poverty in a council home in Glasgow.
Then only a few joyful months ago, Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka was named the winner of the Booker Prize 2022 for his second book ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,’ a supernatural satire about a war photographer murdered in the country’s civil war.
My wife, Shirani, who had not yet read a single page, leapt off the settee, whilst I studiously remembered a brilliant summer travelling from Colombo to Kandy reading Karunatilaka’s earlier book, the satirical cricketing odyssey ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’.
As a Scot, hard-wired to be suspicious of the deeply-English game of cricket, I had confounded myself by falling in love with a book about a long-overlooked Sri Lankan rogue who had majestically delivered the greatest innings in his country’s history whilst a student at Southampton University, before recklessly porking the Sports Minister’s wife and being cast into obscurity.
A long, adventurous journey to discover an evasive truth
Karunatilaka’s two books are so different and yet share a structural similarity; both are based on a long, adventurous journey to discover an evasive truth. One is the search for what had happened to the long-lost cricketer while the Booker winner is an amazingly innovative search for a series of photographs, which not only carry shocking glimpses into some of Sri Lanka’s darkest sectarian days but also hold a clue to the narrator’s death.
Set in the Sri Lanka of 1990, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ features ghosts, spectres, and deranged spirits in the afterlife. It follows gay war photographer Maali Almeida after he wakes up dead. He decides to find out who was responsible and has ‘seven moons’ to reach out to friends and family and guide them to hidden photos he has taken depicting the brutality of the island’s conflicts, the JVP uprising, the LTTE’s war in the north, and the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Jaffna Peninsula.
The sometimes sniffy and overly serious panel of judges hailed Karunatilaka’s novel as “a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war,” adding that the book was a “whodunnit and a race against time, full of ghosts, gags, and a deep humanity”.
Great books have the unique capacity to transport you from one place to another. As I write, I am looking out on Loch Duich in the misty Scottish Highlands, but with every turning page, I’m transported to my spiritual home, the sun-drenched wooden chairs at the Kinross Swimming Club on Marine Drive, Wellawatte, Colombo 6 where men laden with whisky bottles escape from their families by the sands of the Indian Ocean.
I bought an apartment in Wellawatte for no other reason than it looks down on Kinross Beach, the sands named after my hometown in Scotland. It’s a great place to read – cheap Lion Beers, devilled prawns, and sufficiently hidden away from the big tourist hotels to enjoy a holiday incommunicado.
Macabre twist on a modernist concept
What is astounding about this book is its form and the central notion that the narrator is already dead and is investigating his own death from the spirit world. It is a macabre twist on the modernist concept of the unreliable narrator. Neil MacGregor, who chaired the judging panel, called it “an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, East and West”.
Karunatilaka said at the time of the awards ceremony that he had high hopes for the book’s longevity. “My hope for ‘Seven Moons’ is that in the not-so-distant future… that it is read in a Sri Lanka that has understood that these ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work.”
“I hope it’s in print in 10 years but if it is, I hope it’s written in [a] Sri Lanka that learns from its stories, and that ‘Seven Moons’ will be in the fantasy section of the bookshop… next to the dragons, the unicorns [and] will not be mistaken for realism or political satire,” he added.
Cleverly, Karunatilaka made changes to the book to prepare it for success. Originally called ‘Chats with the Dead,’ it was given a new title more attuned to a sophisticated readership and the hardback bookshop market. The cover was redesigned to accentuate its studied exoticism.
It’s a book that spans multiple genres, from murder mystery to ghost story, with elements of magic realism and dark comedy, and with pop culture references throughout.
The author claims a whole host of literary influences: “I grew up reading Agatha Christie and Stephen King. I still read a lot of Stephen King, for the plot. His voice is very different, and it’s all in the service of the plot,” he told a Sri Lankan newspaper.
He admires writers who can talk about big ideas in simple language and frequently references Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Cormac McCarthy, and William Goldman among those he holds dearest.
Although it is an impressive and self-positioning list of famous writers, there are two that are significant by their absence.
At times, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ resembles the all-time city odyssey of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Joyce’s magnum opus takes the reader on a voyage across Dublin – the story of Maali Almedia traverses the city of Colombo from the colonial aftermath of Slave Island to Beira Lake, a dumping ground for dead dissidents and enemies of the State and on to a satirical portrayal of Cinnamon Gardens as a protected colony of wealthy gays.
Another familiar reference point is Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold,’ for two reasons, first in the way it plays with the timeline of death and second because it pulls the story away from a conventional crime procedural to the more challenging cadences of magical realism, where ghosts and spirits look down on the clunky predictability of the Bambalapitiya Police.
Success breeds success – and pressure
What is now unclear is what victory will mean for Karunatilaka. Already distracted by the demands of being a musician and a copywriter in the advertising industry, he has much on his plate.
It took Karunatilaka 10 years to complete ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ and he will now be expected to travel internationally and fulfil the demands of publishers and agents. That will mean attending major literary festivals around the globe, the salon parties of Europe, and the demanding world of media rights and contract talks. It will be a very tolerant publisher that will wait 10 years for a follow-up. Success breeds success, but it also breeds increased pressure to deliver again and again.
(The writer lives in Scotland and Sri Lanka. His trilogy of books ‘Detroit 67,’ ‘Memphis 68,’ and ‘Harlem 69’ focus on the social history of soul music. ‘Memphis 68’ won the prestigious Penderyn Music Book Prize. His recent book ‘Cassius X’ is now a film to be released by the Smithsonian Channel in early 2023. His most recent book ‘Hey America! The Epic Story of Black Music and the White House’ was published by Polygon in October 2022.)