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Seven Moons of Maali Almeida; Unfolding the Mystery of Avenger Soul

Maali identifies the heinous, lethal, and merciless crimes committed against oppressed people by the ruling class, the police, and several institutions through peculiar knowledge that gives after-death visions.

Since the 2022 Man Booker Prize was announced, I’ve been hearing tantalizing, weird, and puzzling details about Shehan Karunaltilaka's "seven Moons of Maali Almeida." Reading the first twelve pages seemed just like the story tends to develop from the plot of "The Ghost," the mystery-mongering action thriller film that unfolds the story of an ex-Interpol officer with a troubled past who unleashes skills in an attempt to protect his beloved family from kidnappers, rivals, and death, directed by Praveen Sattaru and released on October 5, 2022.

Turning over the pages, this presumption proved to be quite fallacious as the well-composed poetic lines started surpassing all the literary imaginations, overshadowing even the magical realism of Salman Rushdie’s "Midnight Children" in a second-person narrative framework.

Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a murder mystery told in an amusingly unconventional idiosyncratic style, with dramatic irony about Sri Lanka's military atrocities in 1980. Karunatilaka has written this novel in several versions with different titles regarding the regional varieties and cultural diversity of the language. It was titled "Devil Dance" when its first draft was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2015. To the author’s inexpressible pleasure, Penguin India took the initiative to get the work originally published in the Indian subcontinent under the title Chats with the Dead in 2020. Karunatilaka, a prolific author, struggled to find an international publisher for his work, which was rejected by several European publishers, citing the theme of esoteric and confusing Sri Lankan politics and deeming it impenetrable to western readers. As a result of his resolute steps, he finally found Sort of Books, the independent British publishing house, to publish his work, rewriting the content to make it familiar to western readers. Asked which version of his book he would prefer, Karunatilaka has one answer: “It is a bit confusing to have the same book with two different titles, but I think the eventual play is that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida will become the definitive title and text.”

The dramatic yet serious plot is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Srilanka. The tense story plot depicts the mental and ethical quandaries of a war photographer destined to solve his murder mystery, while the story of a hovering ghost struck behind the grills of the afterlife navigates his life, work, relationship, and death in parallel but inextricably linked.

In a whodunnit makeup, the story charges behind a renegade photographer, Maali Almeida, who is constantly distracted by overtalk from active dead folk wandering through the afterlife, interrupting his task of untying his murder mystery while embroiled in memories of war, his official girlfriend, his secret boyfriend, a weird relationship with his mother, and his ethical dilemmas.

The novel attempts to depict a debilitating and shocking quagmire of crime scenes in Colombo, followed by subversive organized atrocities of the army, the Tigers, Indian peacekeepers, the state death squad, and JVP terrorists. As the author is blessed with a convenient plot with terrifying scenes of bombardment, curfew, massacre, mass graves, and exploitation, all of these elements contribute to the work's success.

Seven moons in the story are represented by seven conditions, which ought to be crossed by the dead protagonist to enter the abode of the light after death, as the irony sticks to him that it could be only possible through the lines and experiments he hated most. But he longs to find out how his life was chopped off. Understanding the fact that he could remind the past and understand it only through those who were part of his life and he loved most, he chooses to trace that way alone.

Maali identifies the heinous, lethal, and merciless crimes committed against oppressed people by the ruling class, the police, and several institutions through peculiar knowledge that gives after-death visions. Here we have a world on a larger canvas with a violent political environment, confusion, exploitation, and unexpected glimpses into the ghostly period.

On the first page of the book, it is written, “There are only two gods worth worshipping." "Chance and electricity”. Its meaning would only be understood after reading the book completely. What is most fascinating about the story is that whoever fails to find these two gods in the story is no more. Chance and electricity Karunatilaka represents Gods as those who put their lives and basic needs in jeopardy, and unfortunately, these two will continue to be gods until Sri Lanka frees itself from the octopus clinch stretched by political insecurity and social insecurity, which flies over the state with eagle eyes. Moreover, this representation is the reminiscence of smouldering and oppressed emotions deep in the veins of every single Sri Lankan civilian, where 2023 has been revealed with multifold impasses that continue to cover the columns from January this year onwards. 

Karuna tilaka's mind-boggling statement that "evil is not what we should fear; creatures with power acting in their own interests: that is what should make us shudder" leaves us with hints about the power dynamics, inflation, and atrocities of the ruling class that place the state in jeopardy. To me, it makes no wonder the novel bagged fewer readerships in its motherland. When the head burns, who cares about the cap? 

What constitutes the uniqueness of the story is the soul who narrates it. But as far as we, familiar with the narrative styles of Elif Shafak and George Sanders are concerned, it makes nothing much to the excitement of the reader. Notwithstanding, Karuna tilaka’s theme is rich with dark glitches, fear, excitement and the celebration of living conditions. 

Coming to the literary alignments, the story follows several literary devices, including metaphor, simile, alliteration, irony, black humor, symbolism, personification, allegory, oxymoron, foreshadowing, allusion, satire, etc. The language author experimented with in the novel is worth mentioning for its seducing magnetic power albeit informal.

 For sure, magical realism and surrealism have been better explored by Karuna Tilaka so as to keep his name in our minds forever, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, who made us believe magic exists in writing. Beyond the literary flourishes is a terrifying reality; the carnage of the Sri Lankan civil war. Sadly, the plot for the next Man Booker Prize is helplessly looking towards authors like Karunatilaka. Srilanka is on fire.


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