It’s always exciting to see Sri Lankans make a splash globally, and 18 October was no exception when news broke that Shehan Karunatilaka had won the Booker Prize 2022 for his novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,’ published in the Indian subcontinent as ‘Chats with the Dead’.
Booker Prize Chair of Judges Neil MacGregor spoke of it as “an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, East and West”.
‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ explores life after death in a noir investigation set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war. In Colombo, 1990, war photographer Maali Almeida is dead and has no idea who has killed him. He has seven moons to try and contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka.
‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ is Karunatilaka’s much-anticipated second novel, with his debut, ‘Chinaman’ (2011), winning the Commonwealth Prize, the DSL, and the Gratiaen Prize. It was also selected for the BBC and The Reading Agency’s Big Jubilee Read last year.
Karunatilaka started his acceptance speech by thanking the Booker Prize Foundation, the Booker Prize, and the judges for an inspiring, rich, and brilliant longlist and a spectacular shortlist. “It’s been a hell of a ride and I’ve been expecting to get off at each stop. No such luck; I mean, we are at the final stop,” he said, adding that it was an honour and privilege to be shortlisted alongside NoViolet Bulawayo (‘Glory’), Percival Everett (‘The Trees’), Alan Garner (‘Treacle Walker’), Claire Keegan (‘Small Things Like These’), and Elizabeth Strout (‘Oh William!’).
Karunatilaka’s acceptance speech was speckled with the humour readers so loved in ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,’ with the author saying: “Without meaning to sound trite, we are all winners of this, we’ve been part of this magnificent shortlist, though perhaps I might pocket the extra cash, if that’s okay. Just wondering, can I get that in crypto? Just because the British Pound is doing marginally better than the Sri Lankan Rupee at the moment.”
In honour of Karunatilaka’s win, take a walk down memory lane to an interview Karunatilaka did with The Sunday Morning Brunch’s Jennifer Anandanayagam when he was first announced to the longlist for the Booker Prize.
Following are selected excerpts from the interview:
‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ is being called ‘educational’ (from the breakdown in acronyms, the testimonials giving different perspectives of the Sri Lankan war, time stamps, etc.), among other things. Was this intentional when you started writing the book?
Not when I started. But when several readers and editors said the politics and mythology confused them, I had to explain things like who the IPKF were and what a Yaka is. If enough people tell you you’re drunk, you need to sit down.
Tell us about the cover illustration of the book. What is its significance?
Peter Dyer from Profile Books is a maestro. Usually, the cover takes a few rounds but this was nailed on the first go. I’ve never spoken to Peter and he probably hadn’t read the final version when he produced the cover design. But he takes a familiar symbol of a Sri Lankan devil mask and bathes it in unusual colours and shapes and perfectly captures both the sinister and playful tone of the book.
Why a story based in the afterlife, a ghost caught in the in-between – someone waking up disoriented on a different plane of life, so to speak?
Sri Lankans still argue over how many innocents were killed in our many wars and whose fault it was. The premise for this story is simple. Why don’t we let the dead speak and hear what they have to say?
The book explores the themes of ‘remembering’ (not forgetting) and ‘leaving a legacy’. Are these things you are concerned with as a person?
I suppose we all are. But in the books, the underlying hope is that the nation can address its past, especially the less than pleasant remembrances, and can leave it better than they found it for the next generation. Every generation since independence has failed at that, including my own. Let’s hope the millennials, Gen Zs, and the Aragalaya generation can save us all.
Are you a believer in the afterlife and ghosts?
[I’ve] never met a ghost, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I don’t believe in left-arm spinners, but I can still write books about them.
Plans for the future?
Read more, write more, play more, sleep more, and work less.