The winner of the 2022 Booker Prize.
The novel opens with our protagonist, Maali Almeida, dead and already in the afterlife. An afterlife that seems very much like a hospital waiting room. Everybody is shouting at the same woman situated behind a fibreglass counter. Not much of an afterlife. The trouble is Maali, when questioned by the woman for details cannot remember when or how he died. In life Maali, was a war photographer, he still has his camera, cracked lens and all, with him.
The woman behind the counter yells to the queue,
“YOU ALL HAVE SEVEN MOONS”.
Seven moons before they can enter the light. He asks around, what is the light? The answer is elusive, nobody is certain, not even the woman behind the counter.
It is then that he realizes he recognizes the woman. She is/was a university lecturer killed by Tamil extremists. Her death was in all the papers in 1989. She tells him that he needs to have his ears checked before he can “enter the light”. “Ears checked”? This must be a dream.
Almeida is not the most likable of characters. He sleeps with just about anything that moves, he gambles away everything he earns, and ironically seeing as he wakes up in the afterlife, he is an atheist. But we never truly find out if there is a god or not. It is all about entering the light before your seven moons are up.
Almeida has been covering the interminable civil war that has raged through Sri Lanka during the eighties. He is freelance and works for all sides in the conflagration. He has taken shots that if exposed will have him “disappeared” like so many others. Perhaps why he is in the afterlife waiting room?
Underneath his bed he has a stash of photo’s that will bring down a major player in the war. It is these photos that he wants to expose to the public. So, he must figure out a way to do that before his seven moons are up. There are ways to do it. There are ways to “whisper” to the living, and ways to manipulate physical objects.
Karunatilaka seems to have covered his bases with religion, with elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism. Every soul is at liberty to fly around, ghosts travel by catching the wind, putting their affairs in order, before they must enter the light or stay trapped, marooned forever in this world. Some choose to stay becoming ghosts or ghouls. Unhappy souls choose to remain and whisper evil thoughts into people’s heads, the cause for much of our misery.
It is a wonderful world that Karunatilika has created. Evil, sin, even sickness, caused by disillusioned, vengeful ghosts. Souls that do not want to move on but stay and cause as much pain and sickness to the living as they can.
One thing I was deliriously happy to find out is that in this novel, animals have souls as well. And there is a hilarious passage where Almeida puts his foot in his mouth not realizing that two ghost dogs can talk. He is surprised when the female dog asks him for directions. When he tells them he didn’t realize that dogs could talk, she replies,
“We didn’t know apes could hear. So condescending. If I am ever reborn human, I will swallow my umbilical”.
In a book with such a dark, melancholic backdrop, this humour saturates the pages.
Told in the second person each chapter is a moon, and the novel moves at a frantic pace, with each new moon bringing Maali closer to being trapped, forced to remain in this liminal world.
The novel also brings to light the horrible acts of violence and genocide that took place during the civil war. The staggering number of innocents who lost their lives simply because of being on the wrong side that currently had the upper hand. It staggers the mind how cruel, how violent we can be to ourselves.
If I am ever reborn human, I will swallow my umbilical as well.
Shehan Karunatilaka 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.
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 songs, scripts and stories have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic. He has worked as an advertising copywriter and played guitar in a band called Independent Square.
Here is an interview from The Federal.