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Book Review: Shenan Korunatilaka's The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida

I always look at the book award winners with a respectful fear, especially when it's a Booker Prize winner. You never know if it's going to be a gourmet food for your soul or a never-ending intellectual torture you are forced to endure till the end because of the promise to yourself to always finish the book. The 2022 Booker Prize winner - Shenan Korunatilaka's The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida raised my eyebrows in a positive way from the start: there's nothing more intriguing than a blatant satire on very inhumane things.

If you've ever heard about Tigers of Tamil active in Sri Lanka nearly three decades ago, that's about the same level of knowledge I've got about the Sri Lankan Civil war that actually lasted till 2009. And Shenan Korunatilaka would probably have remained out of the radar to me if not the Booker Prize, although his previous novel Chinaman has won the Commonwealth Book Prize, too. So, the novel was a perfect opportunity to fill the gap with one of the blackest pages of Sri Lankan history, while the chosen literary genre of satire helped to amortize the horrible picture of the happenings.

Balys Sruoga, the Lithuanian writer who survived the Nazi Stutthof concentration camp during WWII, has written the memoirs of his experience there called The Forest of the Gods, turning the indescribable cruelty of the Nazis into a mocking irony and black humor, the tools, which probably helped the writer to survive. Likewise, Shenan Korunatilaka uses his satyrical tone with his main protagonist of the story - a dead war photojournalist Maali Almeida to convey the maleficent 80s in the lives (but most frequently deaths) of people of Sri Lanka.

We never meet Maali Almeida alive. The story begins with him waking in an endless waiting room with a weaving queue of other people, some in hospital smocks, others missing their limbs but all of them complaining and trying to get quicker to the counter. At first Maali thinks he's hallucinating from "silly pills" his friend gave him but soon it is clear that this is not some dream you will wake up from. He doesn't remember how he died and he is given seven moons, i.e. seven nights, to find what happened before stepping into The Light.

Maali Almeida is no exemplary man. "Photographer. Gambler. Slut." - this could have been written on his business card. He worked for different clients in the most hot war points of Sri Lanka, he visited casinos and continuously played poker, and he couldn't resist gay pleasures, although living with his lovely boyfriend DD. Therefore, it becomes extremely complicated to find out who is responsible for his death: those who don't want to be exposed by Almeida's photos, his creditors from the casino or his betrayed lover. Until stuck In Between, Maali tries to reach his boyfriend DD and his beautiful cousin Jaki in order to save the negatives and expose guilty and corrupt politicians, even if it means he's going to give his soul to the afterlife demon. It takes him seven moons to skim through his life, remember what happened and finally implement what he didn't dare while being alive.

With his sarcasm and irony, the writer pictures the political situation in Sri Lanka being corrupt, violent and inhumane, with many interested parties all having their own agenda. And there is no hope whatsoever: "In all this madness, there is only one beast whose existence you doubt. And you are not thinking of God, also known as Whoever. You are thinking of that most impossible of all mythical creatures: the Honest Politician." So if such a person is only a myth, how the whole country can be saved?

The novel is written in the second person, which is rather unusual. However, it's a very clever and logic move by the writer, as it only stresses the image of a dead person: Maali cannot speak for himself anymore - he is a dead soul, and there is only someone from above or from aside who revisits his deeds and his thoughts.

The plot of the book unfolds on both sides of the living and dead. As the living part doesn't surprise with its chaos, constant fight for power and attempts to navigate the sea of good and bad decisions, the In Between seems to be no better. It is overcrowded (thanks to those on the other side), stuffed with evil forces and demons, and with obscurity what will actually come after given seven moons. And with the animals also having souls and talking to people (the Dead Leopard stating that "the only God worth knowing is electricity.").

There's that feeling throughout the novel that maybe Maali will somehow return to his earthly life and his friends, that there would be a plot twist and he finally will wake up or something, however, this is not a fairy tale, if the whole imaginary afterlife is not one. But there's a happy ending for Maali anyway. Admitting that he had dedicated his life to "some pointless cause", he also agrees that it wasn't nothing because "we must all find pointless causes to live for, or why bother with breathing?" And even if you stop breathing, there's still a pointless cause waiting for you to make you happy eternally.


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