Colombo, 1990, the capital of Sri Lanka. Maali Almeida — intrepid war photographer, obsessive gambler, closeted gay man and atheist — wakes up in a government office, a bureaucratic nightmare of long lines and procedural formalities. Initially, Maali assumes he’s dreaming or suffering from the after effects of the “silly pills” he and his best friend enjoy taking from time to time. Soon, our protagonist wishes he were simply dreaming, as he realizes he’s moved on from the land of the living. He’s dead — with an unnerving inkling that his death was no accident.
After his stellar debut novel, “The Legend of Pradeep Mathew,” Shehan Karunatilaka returns with his second novel, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” which is shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. Set amid the ruthless butchery of Sri Lanka’s civil war, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” delivers a mordantly funny satire concerning love, obligation and conflict. With its sardonic humor and magical realism, the novel unfolds as a deliciously thoughtful take on a classic whodunit murder mystery.
As our protagonist is confronted with a less exciting afterlife than most would hope for, he learns that before he can go into “the Light” he has to wander through seven moons (or seven nights) in the “In Between,” a world that lies on top of our mortal reality, a blanket for misery and despair, traversed by ghosts but ruled by demons. In the In Between, Maali recalls his past life by stalking his loved ones, still amid their grief, from behind a screen, unable to manipulate the living world yet still able to feel its pain.
But the thing is, Maali wasn’t ready to move on. He dreamed of his photos changing the world, unveiling the truest horrors of war to bring attention to the immeasurable — yet unbelievably tangible — suffering spread across his country. His obsession with his work — to bring something good out of utter despair and destruction — ruined relationships with his family and left him harboring secret emotions in a life of scant intimacy. Yet Maali had recently developed new friends, better friends — people that cared for him and people he found himself caring for in ways he’d never encountered. But he’s dead now, regretting the things he left unsaid and the work he was never able to finish.
“My pictures. They need to be seen. And I have five more moons. Enough time … if you step into The Light, it is not the forgetting that you fear, but the things that will step in there with you.”
While Maali lived his life bearing witness to the continuous cycle of violence plaguing Sri Lanka, he maintained no power to influence it. Before his death, he was still waiting for a chance for his photos to make a difference. Now, as a ghost, he desperately tries to sway events in a last-ditch effort before his seven moons run out. As Maali will confess himself, although he’s had many failures in life, photography is not one of them. He lived a dangerous lifestyle — fearing death or the unwanted attention of the state, he hid his best work, the most incriminating and pertinent shots of the war. Shots of covered-up state-sponsored pogroms, secret meetings between leaders of warring factions, tortuous deaths in custody, war crimes and countless shots of pure, unfiltered violence capturing the darkest side of humanity. All sitting, awaiting publication and a chance to change the world. And as his hidden treasure, in many ways his life’s work, comes under threat of confiscation or worse, being forgotten, Maali scrambles to prevent his legacy from withering away while simultaneously solving the mystery of his murder — how it happened and whodunit.
Karunatilaka delivers his story fizzing with energy and creative imagery. Rich with irony and vexed comedy, what emerges is a blunt, honest and scathing commentary on conflict — its origins, implications and the way we confront it. “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” sets you in front of a mirror to inspect the choices you’ve made, the excuses you’ve told yourself and the direction you’re going. Yet Karunatilaka doesn’t leave you in a state of dejected existential crisis. Instead, just like Maali, you’re guided on a path to acceptance, hope and perspective.
Daily Arts Contributor Noah Lusk can be reached at email@example.com.