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It’s 1990 in Colombo, Sri Lanka where a brutal civil war continues to rage and our protagonist is dead. He provides his eulogy, “If you had a business card, this is what it would say. Maali Almeida. Photographer. Gambler. Slut.” And so begins our introduction to the Maali and his awakening in the afterlife, which is as bureaucratic and chaotic as the world he has suddenly departed from.
As Maali begins to navigate the forms and regulations of the afterlife’s waiting room, he can’t remember how he died. The white-robed helpers are obtuse about what comes after, reminding him that rules are rules, and that he has seven moons (a week) to get his affairs in order before he enters “The Light” to be reborn.
Within the wider organising structure of the seven moons that the book is segmented into, there are vignettes scattered through each chapter that flicker between past and present. While most ghosts only have memories of their lives, our licentious narrator had his faithful Nikon 3ST and a box full of hard proof of the horrors he has seen. Photos that could, in his view, “bring down governments. Photos that could stop wars.” If only they weren’t in a white box under his bed. In seven moons he must, somehow, bring these images to Sri Lanka’s attention otherwise, he reflects, his life’s work will have been for nothing. Not only that, but he has to find out who killed him. A busy week, indeed.
Karunatilaka’s Booker-shortlisted novel is not easily categorisable. It is predominantly a bitingly wry satire of the violence and corruption of the Sri Lankan civil war, which blazed from 1983-2009. The novel’s action takes place in these early years, focusing on the riots of 1983, in which the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tigers) killed 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers. The aftermath inflamed anti-Tamil sentiment resulting in mass violence at the hands of Sinhalese mobs. An estimated 3,000 people died and hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamils fled the pogroms. The Sri Lankan government is said to have done nothing. This government had the power to torture and disappear dissidents and has since been accused of state terrorism, but didn’t intervene.
Against this relentless violence, Maali was embedded in the queer community, leaving behind a litany of lovers. While there is romance here, it is mystery that drives the plot, as he seeks his killer from the afterlife. Karunatilaka also paints broad strokes with magical realism; ghosts in various states of decay bicker, animal ghosts talk, and a particularly chatty leopard wants to harness electricity. As the author says, there are many thematic balls to juggle, but he sees “a love triangle at the heart of this, some tender relationships and a fair bit of ghostly philosophising.”
While it may feel like a lot to wrap your head around, Karunatilaka’s vivid characters and snappy vignettes add to his ability to effortlessly weave multiple threads of time. Whether we are wandering the “In Between,” in the aftermath of a brutal massacre, or playing blackjack in his favourite casino, we root for Maali despite, or perhaps because of, his flaws. He is a master of bluffing and is still trying to beat the odds as the stakes get increasingly high in the afterlife.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida moves at a thriller pace with a James Bond-esque cast of corrupt villains, both living and dead, who make deathly deals in the shadows. Yet while the pacing makes Seven Moons unputdownable, the way in which Karunatilaka explores the afterlife and the physicality of the unseen world make this story all the more gripping.
Firstly, the second-person narrative draws us into Maali’s quest, which twists and turns like the winds that carry his ghostly form around Colombo. The narrative ‘you’ helps to draw the multiple selves of Maali’s past and present together, both his ghost self and the self that witnessed the unspeakable violence that splintered his psyche. It is little wonder he leans towards hedonistic sex and gambling after all he has photographed and, more importantly, did not or could not prevent. As part of Karunatilaka’s “ghostly philosophising”, the reader, too, joins Maali as he contemplates life’s existential questions that are not neatly resolved.
While “Helpers” guide newly lost souls towards “The Light,” there are darker forces in the afterlife looking to consume them to unfavourable ends. On top of it all, Maali is dogged by the Mahakali, a terrifying shape-shifting Hindu goddess who eats souls. In one disconcerting interaction, she is disguised as a dead priest who laments the state of Sri Lanka. Prompted by their woeful conversation, Maali feels pain, despite not being alive. The pain is both emotional and existential turned bodily: “And, suddenly, the cold transforms into something familiar. Not something, perhaps more of an absence of thing, an emptiness that stretches to the horizon, a void that has known you forever.” It is by tapping into this deeply human pain of questioning the ‘point’ of things, especially in a country plagued by corruption and bloodshed, that the Mahakali traps her victims. She lures them to give up their souls and become part of her ever-changing form, ensnared forever.
But the ghosts are not completely powerless. If they’re savvy, they can trade with the witch doctor Crow Man to whisper to the humans on earth. Maali realises that the dead have far more impact on the events of the living than they are given credit for: “Ghosts are invisible to those with breath, invisible like guilt or gravity or electricity or thoughts. Thousands of unseen hands direct the course of every life. And those being directed call it God or karma or dumb luck or other less than accurate names.” And so, of course, demons impact corrupt political figures and a ghost army is being formed to seek revenge on the human world, as the scarred political landscape transcends Sri Lanka’s physical plain.
The bureaucracy of the afterlife is almost a welcome breath of fresh air. Between getting your ears checked and visiting Level Forty-Two (a nod to Hitchhiker’s fans), the waiting room may be crowded but at least there’s a system. When Maali asks a Helper what The Light looks like, she mysteriously replies, “Whatever You Need It To Be.” Seven Moons is also like that. Whether you need a romance, a comedy, a satirical political history, horror, or the absurd, Karunatilaka defies genre and invites us to imagine the world beyond to ask how, and if, we could make this one better for this life or from the next.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
By Shehan Karunatilaka
Sort Of Books, 368 pages
Jennifer Brough is a slow writer from Birmingham, UK. Her work includes fiction and personal essays exploring the body, gender, pain and disability, art and literature. She is slowly writing her first essay collection and is a member of resting up collective, an interdisciplinary group of sick artists.
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