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Shehan Karunatilaka wins Booker Prize for ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’


Shehan Karunatilaka in London last month. His second novel received the Booker Prize on Monday.

By Alexandra Alter


As a boy living through Sri Lanka’s civil war in the 1980s, Shehan Karunatilaka thought of political violence as part of the landscape. War was a constant backdrop to daily life, more mundane than frightening at times.


So when he had the idea for a novel about a Sri Lankan war photographer who wakes up dead, in an underworld populated with victims of political violence, he conjured up what felt like the most realistic version of the afterlife: a tedious, dysfunctional bureaucracy, where hordes of confused ghosts are waiting to be processed.


Earlier this week, that novel, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” was awarded the Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.


“We admired enormously the ambition and the scope and the skill, the daring, the audacity and the hilarity of the execution,” Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum and the chair of this year’s judges, said during a news conference. “It’s a book that takes the reader on a roller coaster journey through life and death.”


“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” was one of several political satires recognized by the Booker judges this year. The six finalists also included Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel “Glory,” a parable about an African dictator that features a cast of talking animals, and “The Trees,” Percival Everett’s blistering and darkly funny novel about a pair of Black detectives who investigate a series of murders that echo the lynching of Emmett Till.


The judges, who were unanimous in choosing “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” were won over by “the variety of registers it was deploying, the skill with which language was used, and the confidence with which it shifted genre,” from noir to philosophical reflections to comedy, MacGregor said.


Karunatilaka was born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1975, and grew up in Colombo, the capital. He studied in New Zealand, and went on to work and live in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. He has worked as an advertising copywriter, and played guitar in an alternative rock band, Independent Square. He currently lives in Colombo, where he still writes ad copy during the day and works on his fiction in the early morning.


He appeared on the international literary scene in 2011, with the publication of his debut novel, “Chinaman,” about a hard-drinking journalist who goes searching for a famous missing cricket star. It put him on the map as a gifted comedic novelist, and won the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012.


He first had the idea for the novel that became “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” in 2009. It was in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, as Sri Lanka was undergoing a national reckoning over the causes of the conflict and the unfathomable number of civilian casualties. Karunatilaka wondered what processing the lingering trauma of war would feel like if the dead could speak, and thought about writing a ghost story.


Although he was hesitant to write about the war, he started working on it years later, around 2014. For a long time, he struggled with the tone. He eventually cracked the narrative open as a dark comedy when he imagined the afterlife as a bland bureaucracy: “The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate,” he writes.


“Maybe that is a plausible explanation for why Sri Lanka seems to go from tragedy to tragedy, that there are all these restless spirits and ghosts wandering around, confused, not sure what they’re supposed to do, and they amuse themselves by whispering bad ideas into people’s ears,” Karunatilaka said in a video posted on the Booker website. “I thought, this is a useful way of exploring this grim subject matter, but having a bit of lightness and a bit of playfulness also.”


Written in the second person, the novel unfolds in Colombo in 1989, when a war photographer named Maali Almeida wakes up dead, without a clue as to how or why he was killed. He sets out to solve the mystery of his own murder, and figures he has been targeted for his explosive photographs. A gambler, an atheist and a closeted gay man, Almeida tries to navigate the afterlife, and is told he has “seven moons” to learn who killed him and to uncover his cache of photos. Along the way, he encounters maimed and mutilated victims of sectarian violence.


The novel, which was published in Britain in August by Sort of Books, an independent British publishing house, drew comparisons to magical realist works by Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. (It will be published in the United States next month by W.W. Norton.) “Karunatilaka has done artistic justice to a terrible period in his country’s history,” critic Tomiwa Owolade wrote in The Guardian.


Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan-born author to win the Booker Prize since it was founded in 1969, following Michael Ondaatje, whose novel “The English Patient” won in 1992. (Last year, Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam was shortlisted for “A Passage North.”)


The Booker, which comes with a cash prize of 50,000 pounds, or roughly $57,000, is awarded annually to the best novel written in English and published in Britain or Ireland. Past winners include literary giants such as V.S. Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel, and the prize has launched the careers of debut novelists such as Douglas Stuart, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga.


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