Book Review: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida — Shehan Karunatilaka
One of the more popular tropes I’m finding in my occasional voyages into literary fiction is the “purgatory journey.” This is nothing new, of course — Dante and the Ancient Greeks were quite into this sort of thing — but it’s definitely had an upsurge of late. Lincoln in the Bardo, the Booker winner from 2017, put Abraham Lincoln’s son in the Tibetan “intermediate space” between one life and the next. This year’s nominee Treacle Walker takes place in a timeless purgatory world reconstructed from its author’s childhood. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida follows suit, only unlike the other two, it is much more concerned with the real world.
When Maali regains consciousness, he finds himself in a dull office building filled with the souls of the dead. As a reader, you prepare yourself for a wearied satire on how the afterlife is just as bureaucratic as life before, but that is one of the only scenes in the book which takes place outside of our world. The entire rest of the story takes place in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in 1990, and it is far more interested in the forces which have torn the country apart than it is in the afterlife of the soul. Underneath all the flowery writing and the second-person narration (how unconventional!), this book is a fairly straightforward whodunnit. As a disembodied presence, Maali follows his loved ones and less-loved ones around as they try to figure out why he was killed. In a convenient twist, Maali can remember all of his life except the final few hours.
This book is a lot to take in. A cacophony of voices cram into most scenes, members of various interwarring Sri Lankan groups which it can be a struggle to get your head around. Divisions between characters and scenes are only lightly drawn, so the narrative can literally jump 20 years without warning from one paragraph to the next. Especially in the first 100 pages, it is near-impossible to fall into a book like this. I couldn’t, at least. It just makes you think too hard. The fact that it is followable at all is a testament to the skill of author Shehan Karunatilaka — how he managed to conceive of all this and balance it in the writing, I simply do not know.
I feel that the hectic pace and breakneck scene changes are supposed to emanate the reality of Sri Lankan life. Salman Rushdie famously tried to write Midnight’s Children in the style of Indian speech, and I think Karunatilaka is going for the same device here. He probably succeeds more than Rushdie does — then again, that’s because Karunatilaka genuinely grew up in Sri Lanka, whereas Rushdie sounds more like Lord Mountbatten than an Indian housewife.
Anyway, reading through Seven Moons does get easier as you go along. One of the wiser decisions Karunatilaka makes is to include a literal cheat sheet early in the book which explains (1) the Tamil Tigers, (2) the JVP communists, (3) the government forces, and (4) the Indian “““peacekeeping””” mission and the main motives of each. This is disguised as a cheat sheet Maali gives to a foreign journalist, but it is immediately clear that we, the readers, are the foreign journalist needing help to make sense of the mess. It was a good reminder that exposition is not a crime if it helps a reader — I flicked back and forth to this page many times over the course of the book.
Also, the rules of the afterlife are quite clearly defined — the dead can travel on “winds” to wherever their voices are spoken. This is a neat device which both allows the story to cut between scenes easily and is a neat literalisation of the idea that we die twice — once when we pass away, and once the last time someone says our name. In Seven Moons, Maali’s existence is literally perpetuated by people remembering him.
Another reason why Seven Moons gets easier is that there are not a huge amount of characters, and the few important characters are beautifully drawn. Maali, a gay photographer who has worked for most of the forces at one time or another, is an interesting character, an effective and quite literal lens through which to view the conflict. The nexus between Maali, his psuedo-girlfriend Jaki, and his actual partner DD is touching and memorable. Most of the other characters are one-dimensional, but as they are mostly corrupt policemen, corrupt politicians or the living dead — people who are supposed to represent a group or an idea, rather than a character — this works too. They could’ve been fleshed out and the book 100 pages longer, but for what? Again, for such a sprawling, layered book, it is surprisingly focused.
What, then, is it focused on? Putting together the pieces of Maali’s murder mostly involves the search for a trove of photos which he has taken revealing the sickening full extent of murder, genocide, and corruption which keeps reinforcing ethnic divides and keeps dragging Sri Lanka back into its past. But Seven Moons is not just a critique of Sri Lankan politics and culture; it takes it further than most books would by presenting a truly uncompromising view of human nature. When all sides of a conflict are committing atrocities, when one group takes power only to be worse than its predecessor, what is the conclusion?
- That there is no benevolent God, for sure — Seven Moons treats this as obvious, which I admire.
- That perhaps Sri Lanka itself is the problem. This land is cursed, we are told. Even its foundational myth is one of genocide; violence is even present in the national flag.
- And finally, that humans are simply built this way. “History is people with ships and weapons wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilization begins with genocide. It is the rule of the universe.” There are echoes of Orwell’s boot-crushing-human-face quote, but again, Seven Moons takes it further. It’s one of the only books I’ve read which confronts the fact that, while colonial countries were (are) hideous and brutal, countries are quite capable of being hideous and brutal to themselves. “Here’s the stinking truth — we have fucked it up all by ourselves.”
So, amidst a godless universe where the only rule is that the strong can crush the weak, what can we do? Karunatilaka actually does offer an answer: “The universe does have a self-correcting mechanism. But it’s not God or Shiva or karma. It’s us.”
This is perhaps not that satisfactory, given that we are all inherently violent, but reading this felt like a revelation. People do not interact with the universe — we are the universe interacting with itself. I had never really thought about it that way. Seven Moons is not a satisfying book — it’s too nihilistic to present any real answers, and the plot itself peters out in a fairly unsatisfying conclusion. But it is unforgettable.