Cross Dante with Kafka, mix in an eastern version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, add a dash of woke sensibility, and you have something like The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. When the novel by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka won the 2022 Booker Prize in October, it capped off an impressive year for south Asian literature. Combined with Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (reviewed here in The Dispatch), which won the International Booker in May, Karunatilaka gave the region a sweep of the UK’s two most prestigious literary awards.
The basic hook of Seven Moons is both simple and clever. As the novel opens, Maali Almeida, a hotshot photographer and closeted gay man in civil war-torn Sri Lanka, wakes up one day to discover that he is dead, waiting in line at a kind of bureaucratic processing area where souls are being directed to their next destination. Not only is he dead, he has apparently been murdered, though he has no recollection of how he met his end. A “helper” dressed in white attempts to direct him toward “the Light,” while other murdered souls vie for his assistance in a plot to gain revenge on those who tormented them in life. Almeida has to decide whether to throw in his lot with these conspirators in the hope of discovering his killer. But he must make up his mind quickly: if he does not travel to the Light in seven days (the seven moons of the book’s title), he will be stuck in limbo forever, haunting the earth with other discontented ghosts who have preferred revenge to rebirth.
This spin on the detective novel generates a fair amount of suspense as well as frequent opportunities for dark humor. When Almeida’s helper warns him that “revenge is no justice,” for example, her rival for his allegiance retorts, “Typical government office. Take a number and sit down until you forget why you came.”
The book also offers a depressingly bleak glimpse at the atrocities of a Sri Lankan civil war with which few Western readers are likely to be familiar. On Karunatilaka’s telling, there are no innocent parties in this conflict. Early in the book, he provides a brief “cheatsheet” identifying its main players. (He presumably added this as part of the extensive revisions he made to the original Sri Lankan version of the novel so that it would be more accessible to an international audience.) We learn that the rebel Liberation Tamil Tigers, seeking a separate Tamil state, are “prepared to slaughter Tamil civilians and moderates to achieve this.” The JVP, a Marxist group working to “overthrow the capitalist state,” are “willing to murder the working class while they liberate them.” And the government’s own Special Task Force “will abduct and torture anyone suspected of being or abetting” either of the other two groups. As we learn at the end of this roster: “Don’t try and look for the good guys ‘cause there ain’t none.”
Yet despite the suspense, humor, and wry political cynicism, the book is not entirely successful. The plot is convoluted and at times difficult to follow. More importantly, it vacillates philosophically. For most of the book, Almeida appears inclined toward a nihilistic denial of any real order or meaning in the universe. He doubts the helpers’ sincerity and is prepared to sell his soul for a chance at revenge. But by the novel’s conclusion, he swings toward an existentialist refusal to despair that, while more admirable, seems insufficiently motivated. It is never entirely clear just what he believes or why he believes it.
The frequent and occasionally crude reminders of Almeida’s homosexuality also become somewhat tiresome. To be sure, they are not merely gratuitous, for his homosexuality ultimately proves relevant to the mystery’s resolution. But Almeida, in life, has been remarkably promiscuous. Though in an ongoing relationship with another of the book’s main characters whom he describes as the love of his life, he seems to have been eager to get it on with just about anyone who breathes and is in possession of a male member. (For a book whose Booker Prize might be seen as an important victory for literature about gay protagonists, Seven Moons ironically ends up confirming the most harmful stereotypes of male homosexuality.)
I have pondered whether I would find these ongoing reminders equally tiresome if Almeida were heterosexual. Perhaps not entirely, if I’m honest (though I feel no great need to be reminded constantly of a character’s sexual promiscuity in either direction). Some readers will no doubt take this as a sign of literary narrowmindedness on my part, while others may view it as evidence of my healthy moral sensibility. Since these are not mutually exclusive, perhaps it is a bit of both. I suspect, however, that it is ultimately evidence of a deeper problem with the book: we are, it seems, supposed to like Almeida, but in the end he is just not especially likable.
His habitual infidelity toward his partner is only one aspect of this. Almeida has also played all sides as a war photographer, taking pictures for the Sri Lankan government, the rebels, and also the British government. He works for whoever will pay him. And he then immediately squanders away his earnings as an inveterate gambler. (On the book’s very first page, Almeida tells us—he has, at any rate, few illusions about himself—that if he had a business card, it would read, “Photographer. Gambler. Slut.”) He apparently hopes that his photographs might one day help expose the civil war’s injustice, but he makes no effort to act on this hope until after his death. The picture that emerges is of someone who in life has been deeply egotistical. Yet by the book’s end, we are supposed to believe that this person, who seems always to have been pursuing his own interests and desires, is really, when push comes to shove, committed to the good of others. Perhaps. But in the real world, moral formation rarely works that way; people do not simply slough off the accumulation of past habits. (Karunatilaka’s greater forerunner, Dante, would have agreed with this.) In the end, Almeida is an entertaining but not entirely persuasive character.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is not a bad book. But the best novel written in English and published in the UK or Ireland in 2022, as the Booker judges would have us believe? Probably not. I myself preferred two of the other selections from this year’s Booker shortlist. For those who want the social and political criticism of Seven Moons, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These offers a moving look at a dark episode from Irish history, the story of the Magdalene Laundries. These were homes for “fallen women” that were run by the church, ostensibly as charitable institutions, but that were revealed to be terribly abusive. Keegan depicts a father who accidentally stumbles upon the abuse and decides, at some risk to his family, to help one of the women he finds there.
Those who are drawn to Karunatilaka’s fantasy, on the other hand, might try Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker. In it we meet a young boy who lives alone and wears a patch over his weak eye. After he swaps his old pajamas for a strange cup and stone from a mysterious rag-and-bones man, he gains a new kind of vision in his bad eye, meets some other magical figures, and plunges in and out of adventures from the pages of his comic books. Garner playfully explores the thin line between imagination and reality in the mind of a child. The Keegan and Garner books have another thing going for them as well. Neither exceeds 150 pages. Since The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida comes in at just under 400, you could read both of the others in less time than it would take you to complete the former. In this case, I would recommend that you opt for the two-fer.