Recent Reading: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and The Birth Lottery by Shehan Karunatilaka

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is, of course, last year's Booker winner, a slightly out-of-nowhere choice for an award that has been getting more adventurous and interesting in recent years. The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is a collection of Karunatilaka's short fiction, currently slated for publication in the US and UK in the spring, but I was able to snag a copy during a work trip to India earlier this month. Taken together, they not only make for some engrossing and delightful reading, but reveal Karunatilaka as firmly embedded in the SFF tradition. There's an entirely defensible case for Seven Moons as a nominee in the upcoming Hugo awards (or if not that, one of the wider-ranging genre awards like the Crawford or World Fantasy), and my only real complaint about The Birth Lottery is that it doesn't include a publication history, making it impossible to know which of the stories in it are awards-eligible.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida begins with the violent death of its protagonist. Maali is (or rather was) a war photographer, compulsive gambler, and inveterate hopper into the beds of handsome young men. In 1990 Sri Lanka, any one of these might have been enough to get him killed. He could have been murdered over a gambling debt, or by his closeted but intensely jealous boyfriend, DD. He could have fallen victim to any of the war-torn country's violent factions—the Tamil Tigers, the communist JVP, or the government bent on stamping out both and not too fussed about rounding up innocents in the process—all of whose atrocities he has, at one point or another, documented.

Maali himself has no memory of his death, but as the impassive clerks who greet him in the afterlife's waiting room inform him, this is irrelevant. He has seven nights (or "moons") to make peace with the life he's finished living and make himself ready for The Light. Otherwise, they warn, he will be left as a wandering spirit, unable to get back on the wheel of reincarnation and prey to any number of ghostly beings that wander the world. Maali himself, a cynic and nihilist who still hasn't resigned himself to the fact that the afterlife even exists, is more interested in securing his earthbound legacy. In leading DD and his best friend (and "official" girlfriend) Jaki to the box of photographs deemed too dangerous to publish in his lifetime—photographs that, he believes, will prove so explosive as to potentially topple the Sri Lankan regime and permanently upend the country's violent status quo.

The bureaucratized afterlife is a long-established trope, going back to films like A Matter of Life and Death and Defending Your Life, and seen more recently in The Good Place. Karunatilaka's twist on it is that the afterlife, at least as dead Sri Lankans like Maali experience it, reflects the indifference and dysfunction of similar bureaucracies in the real world. The afterlife waiting room is chaotic and disorderly (even dead, Maali muses, Sri Lankans can't queue). The recently deceased, many of whom have died by violence, argue with the spirits processing them about the unfairness of their fate. The process of getting ready to enter The Light involves securing various forms from different departments, some of which turn out to be closed when Maali gets there. And through it all, there are voices suggesting that the whole thing is pointless, a runaround, a way of distracting the dead from what really matters.

Maali has two guides during his afterlife sojourn. Ranee, the spirit of a Tamil moderate gunned down by the Tigers, is the institutionalist urging him to follow the rules, complete the process, and enter The Light. His desire to secure his legacy and look after DD and Jaki (or, for that matter, discover his murderer) she dismisses as the vestiges of ego that must be discarded. Her opposite number is Sena, a JVP activist disappeared by the government, who argues that the system Ranee represents is merely another instrument of bourgeois control, and that forgetting one's life to rejoin the cycle of reincarnation only ensures that nothing will ever change. Better, he suggests, to stay on Earth and get revenge on the people who murdered them. If you found yourself underwhelmed by the conclusion of The Good Place, it can be gratifying to see Maali point out to Ranee that focusing on his own enlightenment does nothing to change a world where the rich and powerful continue to prey on the poor and powerless. But Sena's schemes are similarly unconvincing, arguing for retributive violence without any suggestion of how this will make things better.

Never much of a joiner, Maali refuses both offers and returns to Earth to try to get his photographs published. This allows Karunatilaka to construct an elaborate cosmology of the afterlife while giving readers a tour of late 20th century Colombo and its profound dysfunction. Like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, Maali learns that there are elaborate rules for how the dead can interact with the living world—they can ride winds like bus lines, or congregate in trees that act as transport hubs—and certain individuals who can teach him new tricks, such as whispering to the living. 

Maali can travel anywhere his remains go, and anywhere his name is spoken. Which means that he follows the hapless goons tasked with disposing his corpse (along with those of other murder victims), and the police officers who receive his missing person's report and are desperately trying to work out which angle—accepting a bribe from Maali's mother, doing under the table work for one government minister, currying favor with another—gives them the most advantage and places them in the least danger. Along the way we're introduced to the various forces with whom Maali entangled himself during his life—a Tamil aid organization with barely-hidden Tiger ties; a British arms dealer masquerading as a journalist; the various military officers and government officials who have erected an almost industrialized system of criminalizing and disappearing those deemed enemies of the regime.

If, like me, you know virtually nothing about Sri Lanka and its recent history, you will most likely find the experience of reading The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida both bracing and instructive. Karunatilaka originally published the novel in India in 2020, under the title Chats With the Dead. The current version was reworked for international readers with more explanatory material. (Some of these segments are fairly easy to clock once you know they're there, such as a cheat sheet explaining the country's various factions that Maali allegedly wrote for the foreign journalists who employ him as a fixer.) Even with this handholding, it's easy to feel disoriented by the bombardment of information, almost all of it relating to atrocities—the slaughter of Tamil civilians under the guise of rooting out terrorists in 1983, the downing of a commercial airliner in 1986, the brutal crackdown against those suspected of JVP connections in the late 80s, and the existence of The Palace, a secret prison where those suspected of anti-government activities are held, tortured, and ultimately discarded. 

Karunatilaka constructs a setting in which both the living and the dead are engaged in a seemingly endless cycle of sectarian violence. Everywhere he goes, Maali encounters the spirits of the murdered and disappeared, who linger in order to proclaim the injustice of their fate, or simply out of irresolvable grief and anger. Sena recruits from among these, promising them vengeance and using his growing powers to orchestrate violence in the world of the living. Other spirits have their own agenda—the country's corrupt, bloodstained minister of defense has been saved from multiple assassination attempts by the spirit of a dead bodyguard, who has protected generations of unworthy leaders long after his own death. And a constant threat to spirits who fail to enter The Light is the Mahakali, a monstrous creature who swallows up lost spirits, whose genesis is in a long-ago act of violence that continues to reverberate down the generations.

The tone with which these elements, historical and fantastical, are related is sardonic and mocking, drily revealing such details as the ghosts of Tamil child soldiers who enjoy the afterlife because there, nobody tells them what to do, and the spirits of tourists from the downed airliner who decided not to follow their bodies home because, after all, they'd paid for a vacation. That the novel is narrated wholly in the second person only intensifies the blackness of this humor—are we witnessing the depths of Maali's self-loathing, or his blanket contempt for anyone who, like him, impotently observes his country's outbursts of violence? 

Maali himself can end up getting a bit lost in the shuffle of all this furious worldbuilding and historical explanation. He's a man who prides himself on not taking a side, taking jobs with every faction in the conflict, then photographing the things they didn't want him to document, then hiding those photographs in a box rather than trying to get them published in his lifetime. That unstable balance between taking risks and refusing to stick his neck out is reflected in Maali's life as a closeted gay man, in which he simultaneously flaunts his sexuality and furiously denies it, pursing a relationship with DD while cheating on him relentlessly, promising to leave with him to Japan, Europe, or San Francisco and then mocking his plans to do so. The result is a character who never quite seems to be fully there, and if there's a criticism to be made of the book it is that Maali's hardboiled cynicism, and his eventual coming to peace with his life's choices and failings, can both end up feeling a little perfunctory. 

Still, that centerlessness may be deliberate. Some reviewers have drawn comparisons between Karunatilaka and Vonnegut or Bulgakov, and like those writers, he seems to use humor as a defense mechanism against profound pain. Eventually it becomes clear that the readers' disorientation is the point. That even Maali, despite living in Sri Lanka his whole life and for all his pretense of disaffection, is deeply traumatized by the relentless onslaught of violence he's witnessed and documented. His detachment and wry nihilism are a mask concealing despair, a conviction that it is impossible to pull out of this spiral of violence.

Against that, however, there is the genuinely pulse-pounding ending that Karunatilaka constructs for his characters, in which Maali's scheming ends up endangering the people he loves most, which forces him not only to risk his chance of entering The Light, but to take a long look at the things he's valued and realize how many of them don't actually matter. Maali's photographs do not, as in reality they never could, topple governments or end the civil war. But they do reveal him and the things that, despite his pretense of detachment, he truly cared about. It is in that posthumous exposure that he finally finds peace and the ability to move on. The resulting novel is a detective story, an elaborate fantasy, a work of historical fiction, and a post-life coming of age tale. Taken together, they make for a thrilling read.

The Birth Lottery is an excellent dessert course to Seven Moons's rich meal, not only because it deals with some of the same topics—one of the stories here, "Assassin's Paradise", is a kind of deleted scene from the novel, and several others, including the title piece, return to the ideas of the afterlife and reincarnation that have been more elaborately worked out in the longer work—but because it gives readers a more rounded impression of Karunatilaka's range as a writer. Several stories here demonstrate impressive formal innovation. "Easy Tiger" is a series of text exchanges between a philandering husband and his over-it wife that delivers several massive plot twists with tremendous verve. "No. One. Cares." is a transcript of Facebook interactions in the wake of one person's announcement of his intention to commit suicide that asks what social media "friendship" actually means. Others are simply tremendous exercises in different literary voices. "The Colonials" lets three foreigners, British, Dutch, and Portuguese, tell their stories of arriving in Sri Lanks and bending it to their own will, while the reader increasingly puzzles at the story's time period. "My Name is Not Malini" is a pitch-perfect piece of social realism about the lives of foreign nannies and maids in Saudi Arabia, with a horrific final twist. 

Here, too, one finds Karunatilaka delving confidently into well-established genre tropes. "The Ceylon Islands" imagines fed-up Sri Lankan industrialists decamping from the island to an ersatz version of it, recreating it whole cloth but without the religion and political strife—which may not be as much of a paradise as advertised. "Time Machine. I Have Built A." sees a lifelong functionary of the regime taking advantage of confiscated Tamil technology to rectify past events that have led him down the path of political disillusionment and personal disappointment, only to realize that these are self-fulfilling prophecies, in what feels like a riff on "All You Zombies" that is nevertheless deeply grounded in its setting. And some stories simply have a powerful slipstreamy quality, such as "The Prison Riot", in which the titular event is narrated by the prison's most overlooked, frequently-abused inmate, whose identity makes for a delightful twist. It's a fantastic collection that shows off an author in complete control of his material, and reaffirms my impression that genre readers, in particular, owe it to themselves to become familiar with Karunatilaka's writing.


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