“One thing worth mentioning is Karunathilaka’s language experiments. Perhaps it is for this reason that Karunathilaka became a recognized voice in world literature.” Jose Varghese writes about this year’s Booker Prize-winning author and work
Shehan Karunathilaka is one of the rare Sri Lankan writers who entered English literature. His first novel ‘Chinaman’ was internationally acclaimed and won many awards. It was a political piece with a cricket background. I feel fortunate to have met Karunathilaka, who received the DSC Sahitya Puraskar at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, and read the book not too long ago.
Karunatilaka was a famous writer along with the new generation of writers like Pakistani writer Muhammad Hanif, Kashmiri writers Mirza Wahid, Basharat Peer etc. After the first book, it took a long time for the novel ‘Chats with the Dead’ to be published. The UK version of the same book is ‘The Seven Moons of Mali Almeida’. There are no major differences between these two books, except that a little explanation is given within the novel itself for readers who do not understand the political conditions and views on the afterlife in Asian countries.
The theme is the death and life of Mali Almeida. The difference is that the story begins after Mali’s death and his ghost tells the story. We are familiar with such narratives through Elif Shafak and George Saunders. But the world of Karunatilaka’s story, as the cover of the book makes clear, is full of intense colors and life situations full of fear, excitement and celebration.
This novel deals with the political imbalance that exists in Sri Lanka since the eighties, the interventions of countries such as India and Norway and international organisations, and how the resulting ethnic conflict and terrorist movements affect on public life.
The story begins where the spirit of Mali arrives in the world of the dead in a state of near loss of life. The Seven Moons are the conditions he must pass through to enter the light after death. This was only possible through long lines or inspections, which he hated when he was alive. But he wants to find out how his life ended. He tries to do that when he knows he can remember or understand things through someone he loved or was part of his life.
Mali realizes through the special knowledge provided by the afterlife that the ruling class, the police and the organizations mercilessly exploit his country and its people and sometimes eliminate them through violence.
Along with the political atmosphere that is full of violence, the confusion and exploitation of personal lives and the unexpected scenes in the spirit world are available to us here in a big canvas world. The world of living is first shown as something that is closed to Mali’s soul, but as he has multiple perspectives there through numerous doors and windows, the atmosphere of the story develops greatly and the reader’s desire to understand the secrets increasing moment by moment.
One thing worth mentioning is Karunatilaka’s language experiments. Decades ago, Salman Rushdie surprised English readers with ‘Midnight’s Children’. Perhaps it is for this reason that Karunathilaka becomes a recognized voice in world literature.
This year’s Booker shortlist was a revelation of the abuse of human rights in various forms in many parts of the world. Percival Everett’s ‘The Trees’, which deals with the lynching of a black boy in Mississippi and other similar events in American history; ‘Small Things Like This’ by Claire Keegan, which reveals an anti-human movement in Ireland by the Catholic Church and the national authorities; Nature and history have existed for thousands of years surrounding our imperfect and irrelevant lives and trying to interact with us Allan Garner’s ‘Treacle Walkers’, ‘Oh William!’ by Elizabeth Strout, which investigates whether there should be downsizing in human relationships in the context of micro-level casteism, and ‘Glory’ by Noviolate Bulawayo, which creates an Orwellian universe with human beings as animal characters in the background Zimbabwe’s totalitarian politics, are ones that must be read in various ways and at various times.
But it was clear from the first reading that ‘The Seven Moons of Mali Almeda’ by Karunatilaka was one step ahead of them in terms of narrative, characterization and storytelling. Therefore, there was little controversy surrounding the announcement of the results of this year’s Booker Prize.