The civil war in Sri Lanka that lasted 25 years from 1983 to 2009 has inspired numerous writers including Shyam Selvadurai, Anup Arudpragasam, Nayomi Munaweera, Romesh Gunasekhara, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Michael Ondaatje and others.
The ethnic tensions that precipitated the war began before 1983 and the war may have officially in 2009 but its aftereffects are still experienced by Sri Lankans. Karunatilaka published this novel almost ten years after his brilliant Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew which was a darkly humorous novel about cricket and a fictional player. He won the Gratiaen prize and a Wisden award for that novel. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won him the Booker in 2022.
Originally published as Chats with the Dead (2020) in South Asia, the author revised the novel for a cosmopolitan audience less familiar with Sri Lankan history and politics. His protagonist is Maali Almeida, a photo journalist and fixer, who has been abducted and murdered. He now has seven moons during which to solve the mystery of his own murder. Modeled after Richard de Zoysa, a journalist and human rights activist, who was abducted and murdered in 1990 by a government sponsored death squad, Maali Almeida is of mixed Tamil, Sinhala, and Burgher heritage.
He finds himself in an in-between world of spirits where pretas, ghosts, ghouls and other dead wander around and endlessly confront their violent ends. There are factions in the afterlife as in the material world and Maali has to make choices—will he go toward the Light at the end of his allocated seven moons or will he choose to wander in this in-between world for an eternity. Two spirit guides, Sena and Dr. Ranee, pull him in opposite directions. Sena tempts him with vengeance and justice while Dr. Ranee pushes him toward the Light. (Dr. Ranee is modeled on Rajani Thiranagama, a Tamil human rights activist, who was murdered by the Tamil Tigers for criticizing them.)
Maali is desperate for his supposed girlfriend, Jaki, and his lover Dilan Dharmendran (DD) to retrieve his hidden photographs and negatives which document the deep corruption and alliances between the government, the death squads, the LTTE, and foreign powers. He wants them to unmask the truth for the public and to ensure that his life’s work of documenting the horrors of the war from all sides leads to justice.
Karunatilaka takes the reader through a complex narrative of violence and corruption. The story is both savagely violent and brilliantly funny. Maali is self-indulgent, unfaithful to DD and yet deeply in love with him, adores Jaki yet takes her for granted often, and he hooks us to his quest of solving his murder.
The narrative is filled with absurd characters — soulless assassins, corrupt policemen, spies and arms dealers masquerading as journalists, and a plethora of ghosts. Karunatilaka is deft in his handling of the narrative and creates memorable episodes from Maali’s life that range from the profound to the sentimental and silly. This novel is without a doubt one of the most important books to come out of Sri Lanka about the civil war and should be on everyone’s reading list.