‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ wins Booker Prize

Shehan Karunatilaka

Shehan Karunatilaka at a Booker Prize 2022 shortlist event held in partnership with Waterstones at the Shaw Theatre in London.

Photo credit: Pool

The Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka has won the Booker Prize 2022 for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, published by the independent press Sort of Books, explores life after death in a noir investigation set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.

In Colombo, 1990, during the height of the Sri Lankan civil war, Maali Almeida, war photographer, gambler and closet gay, has woken up dead in what seems to be a celestial visa office.

His dismembered body is sinking in the Beira Lake in central Colombo and he has no idea who killed him.

At a time when scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long.

But even in the afterlife, time is running out for Maali. He has ‘seven moons’ to find out who killed him and to try and contact the man and woman he loves most in order to lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka.

The author was presented with his trophy by The Queen Consort in a new-look ceremony held at the Roundhouse in London, featuring a keynote speech by singer-songwriter Dua Lipa and hosted by comedian Sophie Duker on October 17.

Karunatilaka received £50,000 presented to him by last year’s winner Damon Galgut, a designer-bound edition of his book, and the £2,500 given to each shortlisted author.

As the winner, he can expect instant international recognition and a dramatic increase in global sales. He is also the recipient of a newly designed trophy.

The Booker Prize has worked with Factum Foundation to reinstate the original 1969 Booker Prize trophy in memory of its creator, the beloved children’s author and illustrator Jan Pienkowski, who died in February this year.

“My hope is that in the not too distant future... Sri Lanka has understood that these ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work,” Karunatilaka said in his acceptance speech.

“I hope it’s in print in 10 years... 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.”

Karunatilaka disclosed that he had “self-censored” a couple of short stories after author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in August this year, having faced years of death threats for his novel The Satanic Verses, which some Muslims see as blasphemous.

“I was in the process of publishing a collection of short stories when this incident happened, and I discovered a couple which I don't think was offensive to any religion,” Karunatilaka said.

“But my wife said, can you not do that? You've got two young kids. This story is not that good. Just leave it out.”

He added that “this is something that hangs over all of us if we're writing in South Asia, especially writing about politics or religion.”

The Booker Prize 2022 shortlist included: Glory, written by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto and Windus, Vintage, Penguin Random House); The Trees, written by Percival Everett (Influx Press); Treacle Walker, by Alan Garner (4th Estate, HarperCollins); Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan (Faber); and Oh William!, by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, Penguin General, Penguin Random House).

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida has been described by the Booker Prize judges as “whodunnit and a race against time, full of ghosts, gags and a deep humanity.” 

Neil MacGregor, chair of the 2022 judges, says: “Any one of the six shortlisted books would have been a worthy winner. What the judges particularly admired and enjoyed in The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was the ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques.

This is a metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west.”

“It is an entirely serious philosophical romp that takes the reader to ’the world’s dark heart’ — the murderous horrors of civil war Sri Lanka. And once there, the reader also discovers the tenderness and beauty, the love and loyalty, and the pursuit of an ideal that justify every human life,” MacGregor adds.

MacGregor was joined on this year’s judging panel by academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari; historian Helen Castor; novelist and critic M. John Harrison; and novelist, poet and professor Alain Mabanckou. 

“Beneath the literary flourishes is a true and terrifying reality: the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Karunatilaka has done artistic justice to a terrible period in his country’s history,” said, Tomiwa Owolade in The Guardian newspaper.

Commenting in The Times newspaper, Lucy Popescu concurs, “Karunatilaka respects the conventions of all the genres that he piles up so extravagantly. The whodunnit part leads to a suitably unguessable final revelation of the culprit. The thriller-like quest for the photos serves up several properly exciting cliff-hangers. However wild it becomes, the magic realism takes place within a well-thought-out framework of what is and isn’t possible.”

In an interview for The Booker Prizes’ website, Karunatilaka said: “I began thinking about it in 2009, after the end of our civil war, when there was a raging debate over how many civilians died and whose fault it was. A ghost story where the dead could offer their perspective seemed a bizarre enough idea to pursue, but I wasn’t brave enough to write about the present, so I went back 20 years, to the dark days of 1989.”

“1989 was the darkest year in my memory, where there was an ethnic war, a Marxist uprising, a foreign military presence and state counter-terror squads. It was a time of assassinations, disappearances, bombs and corpses. But by the end of the 1990s, most of the antagonists were dead, so I felt safer writing about these ghosts, rather than those closer to the present,” he added.

“I’ve no doubt many novels will be penned about Sri Lanka’s protests, petrol queues and fleeing Presidents. But even though there have been scattered incidents of violence, today’s economic hardship cannot be compared to the terror of 1989 or the horror of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms,” Karunatilaka says.

“I borrowed from a lot of mythologies and also the idea that the spirit hovers around for seven days — you see that in different forms of Buddhism and other eastern religions,” he adds.

“We have this illusion that all our questions will be answered when we breathe our last; you close your eyes, open them and it suddenly all makes sense.” he further adds. 

Karunatilaka is one of Sri Lanka’s foremost authors. In addition to his novels, he has written rock songs, screenplays and travel stories. 

He emerged on to the global literary stage in 2011 when he won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSL and Gratiaen Prize for his debut novel, Chinaman. The book was declared the second-best cricket book of all time by Wisden.

Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan-born author to win the Booker Prize following Michael Ondaatje (1992).

Born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1975, Karunatilaka grew up in Colombo, studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore.

He currently lives in Sri Lanka. His work has been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic.