“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka was a difficult book to read and I expected nothing less. Even grimdark fantasy doesn’t hold a candle to the horrors of real life infused with the supernatural realm. The story is set in 1990 Sri Lanka in a Colombo wracked by ethnic conflict, corruption and bloody civil war. Maali Almeida is a war photographer and itinerant gambler, a closeted gay man at a time and a country when queer identities were infused with trauma and pain. The story starts off with a dead protagonist, on top of all of that, so you know it’s going to be dark.
Maali, painted at first as the politically neutral apathetic character watching the ship burn, has layers to him. He’s always at the wrong places at the right time, snapping photos of dead bodies. Through a kafkaesque in-between purgatory-like existence as a ghost floating between the spirit world and the human world and all the terrors of each, he has seven moons to figure out who killed him and deliver his damning photos to justice. All the while, he has to figure out how to whisper to his best friend, Jaki, and his one true love, DD, to tell the truth after a life of lies and betrayal.
The narrative arc was twisting and meandering, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style I’m coming to recognize from South Asian authors that’s distinctly unlike our Western plot arcs like the hero’s journey. This is a quest of sorts, a hero of sorts, but it’s also an anti-quest, without a destination you might expect, and the hero is an anti-hero, but his story is Sri Lanka’s story, the tale of a country and all its private intimacies and trauma and lies and promises. Sparks of dark humor fly throughout, whether you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry or to rage, but this is a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite the trail of corpses of dead babies it leaves behind and the scars of a country searching for a better future.
It was a challenging read but I’m glad I made it through to the end, because it made me think, and it taught me a lot about the history and culture of Sri Lanka in a unique supernatural lens that you don’t see often in Western-focused fiction. A dark and yet somehow hopeful vision of Sri Lanka, held together by blood and sinew and the hope of people who still yearn for justice and peace, by a stunning, prescient Sri Lankan author who is one to watch.