Sam King in The Weekend Australian, 29 January 2023, where the title reads thus “Exploring the Boundaries” …. with highlighting emphasis imposed by the Editor, Thuppahi
Don’t let Shehan Karunatilaka sell himself short. “Until a month ago, I was just a dude who wrote a cricket book in 2010,” he says. That cricket book was Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, declared one of the best cricket books of all time by cricketing authority Wisden. But it’s his latest effort, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Allen & Unwin) that has, in his words, changed everything.
The book started life as Chats With The Dead, which struggled to find a publisher outside the Indian subcontinent. After spending two years reworking it, Karunatilaka emerged with the novel that went on to pick up the 2022 Booker Prize. A surreal tale of life after death set during the 1980s and the Sri Lankan civil war, the ambitious cocktail of political thriller, murder mystery, ghost story and historical novel is brought together by Karunatilaka’s sizzling wit.
“Winning the Booker has been a big change,” he says. “Suddenly my publishers all return my emails, where it used to take them a few weeks to get back to me.
“I talked to Damon Galgut, the great South African writer who won last year, and he looked exhausted. He said, ‘my friend, you’re not going to write another word in the next 12 months, so don’t expect to’.
“So far, since I’ve won it has been completely crazy with all the interviews and media attention, but these are good problems to have.”
The shock still hasn’t worn off for Karunatilaka, who describes himself as a “failed cricketer, failed rockstar, failed vegan”.
“My cricket aspirations are all gone now. When I was young I wanted to play cricket for Sri Lanka, then in my 20s I wanted to be in a band that was on the telly. But I never practised those things. With my writing, I’m compelled to do it all the time. I feel like if I don’t write at least a paragraph that I’ve wasted a day.”
The Booker is a rewarding payoff for a writing career that traditionally had to fall into place behind his job as an advertising copywriter. After an extended gap between his first two novels, he’s more aware now of the pressure to capitalise on momentum.
“It’s taken 15 years to write two books. I get all of this attention now, which hopefully means renewed interest in my work, but it doesn’t make it easier to write another book.
“I would love to be able to produce a book every year, like Lee Child and the great thriller writers who seem to be able to crank it out on schedule. But it takes as long as it takes.
“Luckily, my UK publishing agent said to make sure I take my time with the next one, not to rush and try to capitalise on the win.”
The journey towards one of literature’s most coveted awards was a series of surprises for Karunatilaka, who didn’t yet feel he could call himself an author.
“That first book won a couple of awards, and it got published widely, but that’s no guarantee that your second one is even going to find a publisher, especially if you’re writing from Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“When this book came out, it got a Booker long list, so I thought, ‘OK, people are going to review it and maybe it will get on some shelves’. Then it got to the shortlist. By that stage, I was just grateful for that, but I didn’t dare think of the next step. It’s a one in six chance, a dice roll.
“I’ll admit I found it really interesting seeing all the bookies placing bets on who would win. I watched all the Book-Tubers and BookTokkers ranking them, but I never thought too much about my own chances.”
He may downplay his eagerness, but Karunatilaka is a scholar of the award and its winners. When George Saunders won in 2017 with his surreal account of life after death in Lincoln in the Bardo, Karunatilaka was worried it would stand in the way of his own chances.
“When Lincoln in the Bardo won the Booker, I was still in the midst of writing this book, and it was a mess. I remember being quite dismayed thinking, a talking ghost book has won the Booker, they’re not going to give two talking ghost books the Booker.
“I was a bit demoralised, but then I read Lincoln in the Bardo, and it’s a masterpiece. I realised my book is nothing like this, but if this guy can turn such a complex idea into a novel this good, maybe I can too.”
Karunatilaka is upfront about his influences, which range from Saunders to Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood and Douglas Adams. After only two books, he has established a unique style, yet says he still struggles to give himself due credit.
“But who knows what the Booker will do to me, maybe I’ll start believing the hype!” he laughs.
The success of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a stark turnaround for a novel that had to be reworked in order to find a Western publisher.
“The publishers I took it to said it was too confusing, there were too many ideas, and I think that’s probably true.
“We take for granted the chaos of the subcontinent, the absurdity of the politics and the mythology. Things like demons and hungry ghosts don’t need explaining in the subcontinent, but they probably do in the West.”
Integral to the novel’s rich world-building is its use of second-person narration, a rarity in fiction.
“I initially wrote it in the first person, but I was thinking, what is the thing that survives the death of your body, if anything survives? I figured it would be the voice in your head,” Karunatilaka said.
“I don’t know what’s in other people’s heads but the voice in my head is in the second person. Most of the time it’s some coach telling me, ‘you shouldn‘t have said that, you shouldn’t have done that, why didn’t you do this?’”
It’s clear to see where another of the book’s most compelling traits, its cynical sense of humour, comes from. Karunatilaka is not afraid to admit to suffering impostor syndrome.
“I think that’s healthy though, isn’t it? When you call it a syndrome, it starts to sound more like something I should get checked.”
It meant that when the time came to rework Chats With the Dead into The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, he was prepared to see its flaws.
“I know even from my day job, you don’t like it when someone else changes your ad copy. But it was an incredibly valuable experience.
“Natania Jansz, my editor and publisher, took the book on when no one else wanted it. She’s very polite and very sweet, but also quite brutal. She said, ‘I think it’s terrific, but I’m afraid we need to fix the middle and maybe beginning and also the end. Have you got another six months?’”
Perhaps the most obvious addition to the reworked book is the “cheat sheet”, a letter from the titular character outlining the major combatants of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
“It was such a complex situation,” Karunatilaka says. “If that whole situation was a thriller and I were writing it, an editor would say there were way too many plots, it’s too complicated, but that was the reality.
“I needed to do more to help the reader understand it. You shouldn’t need to be a scholar of the Sri Lankan conflict of the last 30 years to read the book.”
Karunatilaka succeeds in conveying this vast, complex conflict in unflinching detail for the uninitiated reader. More importantly, he sees both sides of the devastating ethnic conflict.
“That’s my natural tendency, because I don’t feel sympathetic towards any side.
“I try to be empathetic with the characters I write, to see the world from their viewpoint. They all started with worthy causes, but then you see what they all become.
“It’s the same with successive governments in Sri Lanka, every government gets elected and we think, ‘OK, there’s a new hope that they’re going to change things, it’s going to be a fresh start’, but I’ve lived through too many of those.”
Far from jaded, however, Karunatilaka’s inspiration comes from a profound love and fascination for his home country. Despite having gone to school in New Zealand and spending several years living in Singapore and London, his writing remains grounded in Sri Lanka.
“I’ve never felt able to write about those other countries, even though they’re all fascinating. Maybe I haven’t got permission.
“I’d like to write about other places some day, and I hope I might, but it just seems that there’s too much happening in Sri Lanka.”
Sam King is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is out now.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a 2022 novel by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka. It won the 2022 Booker Prize, the announcement being made at a ceremony at the Roundhouse in London on 17 October 2022. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was published on 4 August 2022 by the small independent London publisher Sort of Books (ISBN 978-1908745903). An earlier, unrevised version of the novel was originally published in the Indian subcontinent as Chats with the Dead in 2020.
The novel is set in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and written in the second person. The central character, Maali Almeida, is a dead photographer who sets out to solve the mystery of his own death and is given one week (“seven moons”) during which he can travel between the afterlife and the real world. In this time, he hopes to retrieve a set of photographs, stored under a bed, and to persuade his friends to share them widely to expose the brutalities of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Background and publication
Karunatilaka wrote his second novel in various versions with different titles. When the first draft was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2015, it was titled Devil Dance. It was originally published in the Indian subcontinent as Chats with the Dead in 2020 by Penguin India‘s Hamish Hamilton imprint. Karunatilaka struggled to find an international publisher for the novel because most deemed Sri Lankan politics “esoteric and confusing” and many felt “the mythology and worldbuilding was impenetrable, and difficult for Western readers.” The independent British publishing house Sort of Books agreed to publish the novel after editing to “make it familiar to Western readers.” Karunatilaka revised the work for two years due to its publication being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. He has commented: “I’d say it’s the same book, but it benefits from two years of tightening and is much more accessible. It is a bit confusing to have the same book with two different titles, but I think the eventual play is that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida will become the definitive title and text.”
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won the 2022 Booker Prize, announced at a ceremony at The Roundhouse in London on 17 October 2022, the award being presented to the author by Camilla, Queen Consort. The judges – the panel comprising Neil MacGregor (chair), Shahidha Bari, Helen Castor, M. John Harrison and Alain Mabanckou – said that the novel “fizzes with energy, imagery and ideas against a broad, surreal vision of the Sri Lankan civil wars. Slyly, angrily comic.”
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was characterised by Charlie Connelly in The New European as “part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire … a wonderful book about Sri Lanka, friendship, grief and the afterlife”. The verdict of The Sydney Morning Herald was: “Original, sensational, imaginative, political, mysterious, romantic: it is obvious why this novel won the prize. …It has the bleak power of Solzhenitsyn‘s The Gulag Archipelago. And unlike that great book it is relentlessly, shockingly funny.”
The review by Randy Boyagoda in The New York Times said that the novel “offers a very palatable combination of literary-political-ethical challenges, enjoyments and validations to its readers, including a sense of timeliness.” The Literary Review observed: “Witty, inventive and moving, Karunatilaka’s prose is gloriously free of cliché, and despite the apparent cynicism of his smart-alec narrator, this is a deeply moral book that eschews the simple moralising of so much contemporary fiction.”
Describing the novel as “brilliant”, the TLS review continued: “It is messy and chaotic in all the best ways. It is also a pleasure to read: Karunatilaka writes with tinder-dry wit and an unfaltering ear for prose cadences.” The Financial Times reviewer concluded: “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is an ambitious novel, epic in scope (mixing tropes from thrillers, crime fiction and magic realism) and a powerful evocation of Sri Lanka’s brutal past.”