Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka has won this year’s prestigious Booker Prize for fiction for 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' — a satirical 'afterlife noir' whodunnit set during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Karunatilaka, one of Sri Lanka’s leading authors, won the award for his second novel.
Set in 1990 amid the violence of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, the novel follows Maali Almeida — a war photographer and gambler as he is given seven nights to investigate his own death. A murder mystery, the book is replete with dark humour and the audacity of its narrative techniques.
As the protagonist races against time trying to solve his own murder mystery, what emerges is a satirical tale of a chaotic country, torn asunder by violence.
"This is a metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west. It is an entirely serious philosophical romp that takes the reader to ‘the world’s dark heart’ — the murderous horrors of civil war Sri Lanka,” according to Neil MacGregor, the art historian and chair of this year’s judges.
The 47-year-old, who has also worked as journalist, writer of children’s books, screenplays and rock songs, is the second Sri Lanka-born Booker Prize winner, after Michael Ondaatje, who took the trophy in 1992 for “The English Patient.”
Who is Shehan Karunatilaka?
Born in 1975 in Galle, Sri Lanka, Shehan grew up in Colombo. He studied in New Zealand and worked in London for a while. Shehan has been a journalist, ad-man, and writer whose first self-published novel, The Painter, was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize. He took a break from advertising to write his second novel (the first one to be published), Chinaman, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. The book won the Gratiaen Prize. It went on to win the Commonwealth Prize, the DSC Prize.
Shehan counts Kurt Vonnegut, William Goldman, Michael Ondaatje, Agatha Christie and Stephen King among his top influences. His website describes him as a “Booker-shortlisted writer of punchlines, manifestos, and calls-to-action. Failed cricketer, failed rock star, failed vegan. Observer of people, machines and markets. Does not know how to use semicolons; and unable to spell diarrhoea without assistance.”
What makes 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' special?
Shehan went on from being a Booker-shortlisted writer to Booker winner on Monday night. He received the prize from Camilla, Britain’s queen consort, during a ceremony at London’s Roundhouse concert hall.
The judges’ unanimous choice, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” was hailed as the darkly humorous story about a murdered war photographer investigating his death and trying to ensure his life’s legacy.
Karunatilaka said Sri Lankans “specialise in gallows humour and make jokes in the face of crises”.
“It’s our coping mechanism,” he said, and expressed hope that his novel about war and ethnic division would one day be “in the fantasy section of the bookshop.”
“It’s a book that takes the reader on a rollercoaster journey through life and death, right to what the author describes as the dark heart of the world,” MacGregor said. “And there the reader finds to their surprise, joy, tenderness, love and loyalty.”
Karunatilaka paid tribute to his fellow authors on the 13-book longlist and six-book shortlist for the prize.
Who were other authors on the shortlist?
This year’s winner was chosen over five other finalists: American authors Percival Everett for 'The Trees' and Elizabeth Strout for 'Oh William!' 'Glory' by Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo Irish writer Claire Keegan’s 'Small Things Like These' and 'Treacle Walker' by British writer Alan Garner.
The five-member jury read 170 novels before choosing a winner. MacGregor said all the books explored the actions of individuals in a world "where fixed points are moving, disintegrating".
He said "what’s striking in all of them is the weight of history" — from the legacy of racism in the United States to colonialism and repression in Zimbabwe — and how that shapes the choices and actions of individuals.
Why is the Booker Prize so valued?
Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize has a reputation for transforming writers’ careers. It was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers but eligibility was expanded in 2014 to all novels in English published in the UK.
Last year’s winner was 'The Promise,' by South Africa’s Damon Galgut.
The event was the first fully in-person Booker ceremony since the pre-pandemic event in 2019 and the first for longtime literacy champion Camilla since her husband became King Charles III last month after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.
The event also included a speech from singer-songwriter Dua Lipa about her love of reading, and a reflection from writer Elif Shafak on what the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed onstage in August, means for writers around the world.
Booker shortlist 2022
Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
This energetic and exhilarating joyride from NoViolet Bulawayo is the story of an uprising, told by a vivid chorus of animal voices that help us see our human world more clearly.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Claire Keegan’s tender tale of hope and quiet heroism is both a celebration of compassion and a stern rebuke of the sins committed in the name of religion.
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
This latest fiction from a remarkable and enduring talent brilliantly illuminates an introspective young mind trying to make sense of the world around him.
The Trees by Percival Everett
A violent history refuses to be buried in Percival Everett’s striking novel, which combines an unnerving murder mystery with a powerful condemnation of racism and police violence.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan KarunatilakaPrize winner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Best-selling author Elizabeth Strout returns to her beloved heroine Lucy Barton in a luminous novel about love, loss, and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any time.
Source: The Booker Prizes 2022