Read With Us Selection
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
by Shehan Karunatilaka
Shehan Karunatilaka’s brilliant, Booker-shortlisted new novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, is a rollicking magic-realist take on a recent bloody period in Sri Lankan history, set in an unpeaceful afterlife. It is messy and chaotic in all the best ways. It is also a pleasure to read: Karunatilaka writes with tinder-dry wit and an unfaltering ear for prose cadences.
– Kate McLoughlin, Times Literary Supplement, September 16, 2022
From the Booker Prize reading guide:
Colombo, 1990. Maali Almeida, war photographer, gambler and closet queen, has woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. His dismembered body is sinking in the Beira Lake 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 try and contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s rip-roaring epic is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.
Information About the Author
Shehan Karunatilaka © Deshan Tennekoon
Shehan Karunatilaka is considered one of Sri Lanka’s foremost authors. In addition to his novels, he has written rock songs, screenplays and travel stories.
Karunatilaka emerged on the world literary stage in 2011, when he won the Commonwealth Prize, the DSL and Gratiaen Prize for his debut novel, Chinaman. His songs, scripts and stories have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic.
Born in Galle, Sri Lanka, 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.
‘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.
‘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.’
— Shehan Karunatilaka, from the Booker Prize reading guide
Where is Sri Lanka located?
From World Atlas:
Sri Lanka, an island nation in South Asia, lies to the south of the Indian subcontinent, separated by the narrow Palk Strait. It shares maritime borders with the Maldives to the southwest and India to the northwest. Ultimately, the country spans a total area of about 65,610 km2 (25,332 mi2).
Background on the Sri Lankan Civil War
The following brief summary of the origins of the Sri Lankan tensions is from the Harvard International Review, The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History: Revisited in 2020, Nithyani Anandakugan, August 31, 2020. (Click the link for the entire article.)
Sri Lanka is 74.9 percent Sinhalese and 11.2 percent Sri Lankan Tamil. Within these two groups, Sinhalese tend to be Buddhist and Tamils tend to be Hindu, displaying significant linguistic and religious divisions. However, the strife between the grounds purportedly began much further back in Sri Lanka’s ancient settlement history. Though the Sinhalese people’s arrival in Sri Lanka is somewhat ambiguous, historians believe that the Tamils arrived on the island both as invaders and traders from India’s Chola Kingdom. These origin stories suggest that the Sinhalese and Tamil communities have experienced tension from the very beginning—not out of cultural incompatibility, but rather out of power disputes.
During British imperial rule, the tensions between the two groups worsened. The CIA suggested in 1985 that the Sinhalese community felt threatened by the Tamil group’s prosperity partly due to the British favoritism of Tamils during the British occupation of Sri Lanka. Because Tamil communities also existed in several other British colonies like India, South Africa, and Singapore, Sri Lankan Tamils benefited from broader commercial networks and a wider range of opportunities. Moreover, British colonial authorities often placed English language schools in predominantly Tamil areas, providing Tamils with more civil service and professional opportunities than their Sinhalese counterparts. This pattern of Tamil favoritism left Sinhalese people feeling isolated and oppressed. Despite the tension between these groups before British colonization, the events that followed Sri Lankan independence suggest that imperial rule had provoked the ensuing conflict. Indeed, soon after British occupiers left the island in 1948, these patterns of Tamil dominance changed dramatically.
This article from the New York Times on April 21, 2019 – For Sri Lanka, A Long History of Violence – is quite helpful in understanding the conflict. (The link is “gifted,” so you shouldn’t encounter a paywall if you are not a New York Times subscriber.)
And if you’re really interested in digging deeper, you might find this essay from amacada.org on the origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War by Sumit Kumar Ganguly (Spring 2018) helpful.
The author has cleverly embedded a list of relevant abbreviations and “main players” in the body of the book on pages 22-24 (in the hard copy of the book I have in my library). I found it helpful to bookmark these pages and refer back to them as I read.
Join Us For the Book Discussion on Zoom
Tuesday, September 19, 2023, 7:00 pm Eastern time
Questions will also be posted on our blogs: Highly Reasonable, Carole Knits, Dancing At the Edge.
Please RSVP to receive Zoom link information by emailing Kym Mulhern (email in sidebar) by September 18, 2023. Thank you.
“All stories are recycled and all stories are unfair. Many get luck, and many get misery. Many are born to homes with books, many grow up in the swamps of war. In the end, all becomes dust. All stories conclude with a fade to black.”
— Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
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