Monday, August 28, 2023

Review: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

This was a unique, creative and weird book. A gay Sri Lankan photographer and fixer with a sex and gambling addiction dies, and tries to deal with the bureaucracy of the afterlife. He has no memory of his death, and has seven days (as a ghost!) to get his lover and his straight best friend who is in love with him to publish photos that could save his country from political corruption and repression before his soul needs to either move on or be swallowed by Mahakali. The prose is dense and colourful, the narrative is told in the unusual second-person omniscient voice. 

It’s an incredible number of ideas to tackle in about 400 pages, and it feels a little overwhelming at times. For someone without any knowledge of Sri Lankan history — particularly the 1983 anti-Tamil progrom and its fallout — the different political parties felt difficult to keep track of. Despite feeling painfully unaware of a few gaps in my knowledge, the backdrop of class and race relations in Sri Lanka, with the gravitational force of the US Empire felt from afar, felt fun and fresh. Disappointingly, the political clashes just boiled down to “all sides are bad” and “violence begets more violence, but non-violence doesn’t work either.” It’s rather bleak, and the reader is left with little optimism for a better world, nor much insight into what can be done. More interesting is the philosophical questions of the role of the afterlife; the author makes a compelling case that focusing too much on life after death dampens one’s desire to make change in the here and now. In the end, ironically, it is not political strife that takes Maali’s life, but a personal conflict based on simple, brutish, prejudice.

Overall, the book packs in a plethora of questions and themes (Is mercy-killing permissible? Do animals have souls? How does internalized homophobia impact one’s ability to love? How do NGOs contribute to neocolonialism? Too many to list.), explores them from a novel angel, and often (but not always) arrives at rather flat or obvious conclusions. The various climaxes of love, personal growth, political clashes, and philosophical understanding land disjointedly; the book seemed to end three or four times before its actual last passage. Still, I appreciated its vibrancy and its ability to be both serious and playful.

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