This week I have at last come to the end of two reading marathons, one has been spectacular, the other has been a slog. Almost two months after the winner of the Booker Prize was announced, I have at last finished the sixth book from the shortlist, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, the book which in fact won. I started this book on 26th September, but found it very difficult to get into, so I switched to one or two others. It was the only book I did not manage to complete in time for the announcement of the winner. I have to say that I am somewhat surprised that it won. But then that is not unusual for the Booker, or any literary prize for that matter. Reading pleasure is such a subjective thing that I am sure there are very few works that are unanimously loved. There are also books that you just ‘know’ are good, but which are not that enjoyable to read. For me, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida perhaps falls into that category. I can appreciate the achievement, but it just wasn’t for me.
The book is set in Sri Lanka (the author’s homeland) at the time of the brutal civil war in that country, which started in 1983 and last more than 25 years. I am ashamed to admit that I knew very little about this piece of history. Some of the information had a familiarity; I was aware for example of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, though I had no idea that the regime was so brutal or repressive. Sri Lanka has also been in the news recently after the terrible economic situation there led to nationwide street protests and the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Clearly, it is a country where corrupt members of the ruling classes (many of whom have been related to one another) have at various times pocketed the nation’s wealth for their own enrichment and to the detriment of the wider population.
Seven Moons has been described by the author as a ghost story and in addition to the history lesson and the expose of the corruption, repression and factionalism which characterised the authorities at that time, it is said to weave in myth and folklore surrounding death and the afterlife in Sri Lanka. It reminded me very much of a previous Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which won in 2017. It concerns that period of transition where the spirit is in a kind of limbo between life and death.
Maali Almeida is the central character and the book opens with him having just died and in the process of entering the afterlife. The ‘seven moons’ relates to the period of time he has left to tie up unfinished business from his life. Maali was a photojournalist and in the course of his work he gathered together photographic evidence of some of the crimes of military leaders against the rebels and against other journalists reporting on the civil war. As such, the book becomes a bit of a murder-mystery as the nature of Maali’s ‘evidence’ becomes clear. Some people had a powerful interest in the material never seeing the light of day. Maali knew this of course and concealed what he had in an elaborate trail involving playing cards and his two best friends: Jaki, with whom he slightly masqueraded as a couple, and DD, the son of a government minister who was his lover. Homosexuality was not accepted in the culture at that time, hence the concealment, but Maali had many lovers and rebelled against the prevailing homophobia and this is another complication which made him a target.
There is a wide cast of characters in the book (not dissimilar to Lincoln in the Bardo actually), and many of the more colourful or fantastical ones exist in the spirit world. There is a real contrast between the passages which take place in the earthly world and those in the heavenly realm where Maali is floating, plotting, and whispering instructions in the ears of those he has left behind. I found some of these characters difficult to keep track of and those at the centre (Maali, Jaki, DD) I just found hard to warm to.
The novel is quite fast-paced with some strong action sequences, but for me the flitting between the earthly and heavenly realms was just too bitty. I found it hard to keep a grip on what was going on. That can be true of a lot of books that I have loved, but I’m afraid this one just did not sustain my interest. Had I not been the sort of person who has to finish a book I have started (I can count on one hand the number of books I have abandoned) I would probably have given up on this after the first or second moon.
Moons feature heavily in the other marathon book I have just finished – 1Q84. This was quite a different undertaking and my feelings about it could not be more different. I’ll save my review of that for next week!
So, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, well it won the Booker, but…I’m struggling to recommend it, sadly, unless you are a student of Sri Lankan recent history.