'A murder mystery and a ghost story' about Sri Lanka's civil war wins Booker Prize
Shehan Karunatilaka, author of "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida," is winner of the 2022 Booker Prize. Karunatilaka talked with The World's host Marco Werman about the ways in which Sri Lanka's grim history of civil war — along with a bit of "gallows humor" — shaped the ideas in his award-winning novel.
Heavily armed Tamil Tiger rebels walk down a street in Achchuveli village, north east of Jaffna City, Sri Lanka, on Nov. 4, 1987.
"The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida," by Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the Booker Prize 2022.
Courtesy of WW Norton & Company
Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka's acclaimed novel, "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida," has clinched the 2022 Booker Prize — one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English language.
The book is a whodunit and a satire set against the backdrop of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war in the 1980s and '90s.
The main character in the novel has woken up dead and what seems to be a celestial visa office. The cynical narrator helps him come to grips with his new reality.
"If you had a business card, this is what it would say:
Maali Almeida Photographer. Gambler. Slut.
If you had a gravestone, it would say:
Malinda Albert Kabalana 1955–1990.
But you have neither. And you have no more chips left at this table. But you now know what others do not. You have the answer to the following questions: Is there life after death? What's it like?"
Shehan Karunatilaka sat down to talk with The World's host Marco Werman about the ideas behind "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida" and what inspired him to write it.
Marco Werman: Shehan, why did you use what is essentially a ghost story to describe Sri Lanka's civil war?
Shehan Karunatilaka: If I was writing this as a thriller, I would say too many plots — because you had a ethnic conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army that was happening in the north and the east and it's a tiny little island shaped like a hand or a teardrop. So that was happening. And then meanwhile down south there was a working class Marxist-Leninist insurrection where the counterterror unit would abduct a lot of campus radicals and disappear them. So there was that happening, simultaneously, and also they had the Indian peacekeeping force who came to keep peace, as the name suggests, but ended up embroiled in a war with the Tigers. And then we had different sides arming each other. So this was the reality we lived in. But I was a teenager at the time. Later, when I look back on it, I thought, this is the perfect setting for a ghost story because there's plenty of victims and corpses, but no one knows who killed them. So a murder mystery and a ghost story seemed the perfect way to set it.
Well, the main character in your novel is a war photographer. How did that character come to you?
I looked at the victims of '89, and there was quite a well-known character called Richard de Zoysa, who was not a war photographer, but he was an activist and a journalist. So I researched his life and he was a closeted gay man. Making him a war photographer, it was just that I realized our memory of the war, and Sri Lankans have very short memories because we've sorted through so many crises, and I just thought, I'm sure there were photographers roaming these war zones. What happened to them and what happened to their photographs? So, this idea that there was this box full of photographs of unseen atrocities under this guy's bed. It was just an intriguing conceit to base a mystery around. And so the "seven moons" in the title is him. A, he's trying to find out who murdered him because he was in cahoots with all of these factions that I outlined. But also, he has this box full of photographs, which he thinks if he exposes to the world — the war, all the atrocities would end.
Well, as you said, Shehan, you were a teenager during the civil war. What do you remember about 1989 in your homeland?
I do remember seeing bodies burning on the side of the road. But, you know, the threat wasn't as immediate as it was for, say, my wife's family. She grew up in the plantations, in the tea plantations. And there, there was a lot of violence and a real threat. Her dad was in charge of a tea plantation and there was a real threat to his life and so on. So I think they feel much more traumatized. And of course, during the civil war, I have many friends who were Tamils living in Jaffna, in the East, who had to flee the country. And they tell me some harrowing stories. So my experience is really second-hand and that's something that's in Maali Almeida's character. I mean, he feels this guilt that he's living in this Colombo bubble while there are wars being fought not too far from where he is.
"Seven Moons" deals with so many universal themes: corruption, race-baiting, cronyism. But there must be elements in your novel that are purely Sri Lankan events or characters that just could not be found anywhere else, right?
I had to envision the afterlife — if it's a ghost narrating it. And I borrowed from a range [of ideas]. I mean, the idea of the light is seen in near-death experiences and in Western mythology — walking into the light. This idea of seven moons, that the spirit hovers for seven days before it goes to its next destination. I mean, that's seen in Tibetan Buddhism and in Hinduism and it's even practiced. We have seven days, after the wake, we have an almsgiving, but also Sri Lanka — if you look at the Sri Lanka tragedy, there's a lot of absurdity to it and a lot of pointlessness to it. And I think this is something, maybe it's my sensibility, certainly the Sri Lankan sensibility, we tend to crack jokes. I mean, even during this last year where times have been quite challenging, the memes on the internet and yeah, just the jokes shared in the petrol queues, it seems like that's our coping mechanism. So there was a fair bit of gallows humor in it.
Shehan, you write for everyone. You've also said you write especially for Sri Lankans. I'm wondering, though, if you can tell us about some of the potential readers you're especially keen to reach?
Look, you write it for Sri Lankans, I mean, that's primarily who you write it for, and I suppose, readers like yourself, and we have three languages: Sinhalese, Tamil and English, but something that would be read across all [three], and so there's plans afoot to now get the translations out. But I just wanted, I guess, Sri Lankans to ponder the question of whether we should face our past or whether we should ignore it. And so this book forcefully argues that maybe we should revisit the grim chapters in our history and at least learn lessons from them rather than repeat them.
I read, some years ago, a memoir by Virginia Woolf's lesser-known husband, Leonard Woolf, about his time working in British colonial Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. I mean, that had been my only exposure in literature to your country. And I imagine for many readers of English literature around the world, theirs as well. How do you see your mission as a writer, if I can be so grandiose in this postcolonial era?
Leonard Woolf is more famous in Sri Lanka than his wife. "Village in the Jungle" is considered a classic, and that's a big chasm — from Leonard Woolf's "Village in the Jungle" to "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida." There's a lot of Sri Lankan writing that's happened since the '90s. Michael Ondaatje, he wrote "Running the Family," which was one of the first books where I really saw myself, it was talking about my neighborhood. But when he won the Booker Prize for the "English Patient," he created the Gratiaen Prize, which has encouraged writing. And so there's numerous voices, but that's just in English. I mean, across the other two literatures as well, there's, there's so many stories. It's a range of voices. And if I do have a mission, it's to encourage more and more voices. But also, I hope the success of this book will encourage publishers also to look at stories coming out of the island. Because up until recently and even with myself, Sri Lankan writers expect perhaps to be published in India, but no further than that. So maybe this can open the island's many stories to more readers.
This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.