I am exhausted: extremely jet-lagged and just submitted materials for my first major deadline of 2023. So what better to do than to review the last book I read in 2022 (finished at approximately 9:30 PM on New Year’s Eve, yes I know how to party), the Booker Prize-winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?
2022 was actually my best year when it comes to attacking the Booker longlist; I read three of the nominees, and all of them were really excellent novels, in extremely divergent ways. (The other two I read: Audrey Magee’s The Colony and Claire Keegan’s Things Like These.) The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida skews closer to The Colony in terms of dealing with internecine violence in a country riven by the legacy of British colonialism, but now it’s Sri Lanka instead of Ireland. This is a novel that where, if you aren’t familiar with the history of South Asia, you’re going to want to keep Google close at hand, because Karunatilaka’s story of a closeted and very dead Sri Lankan photojournalist trying to piece together the circumstances of his murder and determine the course of his afterlife does not pause to hold your hand. (This is not a flaw or complaint: it would derail the story if Karunatilaka had the dead Maali repeatedly and patiently stop to explain to you, the poor dumb reader, details of conflicts he knows as intimately as the photographed genitalia of his lovers. It’s never so opaque that you can’t muddle your way through; I’m just a sucker for context, so I did a reasonable amount of searching.)
That is, more or less, the plot: Maali Almeida comes to awareness in the afterlife, realizing he is dead. His “helper” in white robes seeks to guide him into the afterlife, but Maali, who has spent his adult life photographing the horrors of Sri Lanka’s civil war, can’t move on until he remembers how he died, and as he discovers, the world is positively riotous with the spirits of the dead who have refused to move on, some of which pursue their own agendas of power and vengeance that are altogether too much like those of the living. Rounding out the story: Maali is a quasi-closeted gay man (for survival rather than denial), living with his two best friends: DD, the much-more-closeted son of a government minister, and kind of the love of Maali’s very messy life, and Jaki, DD’s cousin, who sort-of loves Maali and is very much his beard and also has sexual confusion of her own. It’d be a cute romantic drama if it wasn’t playing out against the backdrop of a deeply violent, ethnically-driven civil war, the documenting of which has gave Maali profound PTSD in life and haunts him in death even as he haunts the living, trying to figure out how he died.
Also, the novel is in the second person: you are Maali, you were murdered, you have to figure out if you’ll go into the Light in seven moons or not. This device can be really irritating in other novels: here, where the plot is so weird, I felt like it worked, creating immersion in this strange purgatorial world without needing to invent another, blander character to hold the reader’s hand.
The novel is, to say the least, dark as hell in many places. What Maali has witnessed is, of course, horrifying, and despite his messy personal life, he desperately yearns for the truth of the conflicts he photographed to be spread through the world, which animates him as much as the mystery of his own death. This is a fascinating sort of posthumous whodunnit, in many ways, while also being populated with a wildly sprawling cast of both the living and the dead. While one review I read sneered a bit at the “dash of wokeness” to the novel, suggesting the queerness of it appealed to the jury, Karunatilaka’s novel is one of the more inventive, daring, and weird ones I read in 2022. Does every single one of his gambits work? I’m still mulling that over. Is it one of the more ambitious, unrestrained, maximalist works of my past year’s reading list? Hell yeah. Is it also weirdly, bitingly funny in numerous places? Very much yes. (“That’s the problem with arms dealers. They make shit movies.”)
If you liked Lincoln in the Bardo for its blurring of the lines between the worlds of the living and the dead, but are prepared for more of the horrors of the twentieth-century to invade that atmosphere, this might be a good one for you. And if you like books that take big, bold swings, this also might be one for you. If you are tired of understated novels about the woes of people with money, maybe give this a shot. Do you like Kurt Vonnegut? Karunatilaka has acknowledged him as a major influence, so maybe this is for you. (In a Booker video he also namechecks Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie.)
“History is people with ships and weapons wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilisation begins with a genocide. It is the rule of the universe. The immutable law of the jungle, even this one made of concrete. You can see it in the movement of the stars, and in the dance of every atom. The rich will enslave the penniless. The strong will crush the weak.”
And yet, somehow, this kind of bitter observation doesn’t get the last word–and the fact that it doesn’t feels, in fact, mostly earned. Seven Moons is never dark for the sake of mere darkness; Karunatilaka holds out a bare glimmer of hope for Maali, and for us, that there is something more underneath all the horror, and within each of us.
(Also, did you know Arthur C. Clarke was queer and spent most of his adult life in Ceylon/Sri Lanka? I did not! but I do now after reading this novel and doing a little googling.)