Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka: War, Humans Are Absurd

If you read only one Sri Lankan novel this year, let this be it. Here's a quick syllogism to summarize The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, the 2022 Booker Prize winner: War is hell. Humans create war. Therefore, humans are hell. 

Maali Almeida, a Sri Lankan photographer who takes pictures of atrocities committed during the Sri Lankan civil war, wakes up dead. He doesn't know how or why he died, but he comes to understand he's stuck in the In Between, has seven moons to get his affairs back on Earth in order, and move to The Light. 

His affairs include some spicy photographs that expose some corruption on all sides of the horrific war. He's hidden the negatives and has to find a way to communicate to his former boyfriend DD and best friend Jaki so that they can publish the photos and expose the bad actors who are basically using the horrors of war for personal benefit. (I think -- frankly, this book was a little hard to follow at times, but that's the gist.)

But that short description belies the originality of this novel. Would you believe this novel's also hilarious? Maali is a goofy, irreverent knockabout, even in the afterlife. He spent most of his time alive fooling around with as many dudes as he could, drinking and gambling his meager earnings away, and generally not caring about much except his own self. 

Now that he's arrived in the afterlife, will he learn a lesson? Can he still do some good? 

This novel is an amazing feat of art -- the funniest war novel I've ever read since Catch-22. But it's also furious and profound about the absurdity of war and how terrible humans can be. "Do animals get an afterlife?" Karunatilaka writes. "Or is their punishment to be reborn as humans?" Near the end of the novel, title character Maali has a conversation with a leopard who wants to be human. The leopard says: "I can't understand why humans destroy when they can create. Such a waste."

Such a waste, indeed.

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