20 March, 2023


A Contrarian Review: The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

A Contrarian Review: Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, London: Sort of Books, August, 2022. 

The book under review is authored by one described as one of Sri Lanka’s foremost literary authors. According to the blurbs on the book, he emerged on to the global literary stage in 2011, when he won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSL [sic.] and Gratiaen Prize for his debut novel, Chinaman. And now he has garnered the Booker Prize. (Note: DSL seems another name for the Commonwealth Book Prize, but with no confirmation of this anywhere).

It is truly a great book in line with his achievements. Perhaps its great merit is in admitting as a Sinhalese, the great atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state when most Sinhalese cover up saying the massacres are terrorist propaganda by the Tamil Tigers. A memorable line from the book is “We are inviting the Indians to invade us. We are making deals with Tamil Terrorists. We are killing our own Sinhalese.” It is a testament to the killing fields opened up by the state in 1989, when it struck deals with the Tigers to be rid of the Indians.” Another line goes, “Tigers and Army killing civilians. Indian peacekeepers starting wars.” Even for Tamils who see Tiger killings as altruistic, this should be an eye-opener, except that we wear blinkers and in the UN Secretary General’s report on the killings at the end of the war in 2009, we selectively choose to see only the blame  on the Sri Lankan government in the report, ignoring the fingers pointed at the Tigers.

It should awaken the Sinhalese of whom many will read the book, rightly taking great pride in the Sinhalese author who has the Booker prize under his belt. It will be educative.

This madness is the setting of the book. Karunatilaka has chosen to tell the story through the interaction of ghosts of those slaughtered.  His primary character vehicle for story-telling is the ghost of Maali Almeida, a photographer living off selling photos to the army and foreign reporting agencies and even the Tigers. Maali Almeida is killed. He has seven moons to recover his two photos from the 1983 massacre and atrocity as Karunatilaka calls it, unlike the misbegotten, sterilized  phrase riots, which the Sinhalese try to project as if the Tamil victims of 1983 also rioted like the Sinhalese. The two photos show Minister of Justice Cyril Wijeratne as a bystander while his thugs burn Tamils. Although Wijeratne is hiding from the camera, his reflection is caught by Almeida’s camera on his Benz car window. Wijeratne’s attempts to recover the photos using Detective Cassim and, yes, Major Rajah Udugampola, form the meat of the story. In an interview Karunatilaka has said he used the real names of bad guys. It will not be lost on readers that real-life Ministers Cyril Matthew and Ranjan Wijeratne, and Udugampola are widely believed to have been behind murders of Tamil civilians, JVP Che Guevarists  and the LTTE break-off Karuna faction that turned on Prabhakaran

All of Almeda’s photos are in a box. The narrative is about Almeida asking his girl friend Jaki (Jacqueline) to somehow retrieve the photos. The ghosts of the massacred and even of leopards play their part. 

The book reviews are full of praise – astonishingly light touch, beguiling, unsentimental, by turns tender and angry and always unsparingly droll. We are plunged with an exhilarating energy into a rich and darkly comic world. This Sri Lankan history as whodunnit, thriller and existential fable teeming with the bolshiest spirits. 

Karunatilaka questions the origin myths of the Sinhalese and Tamils and asks if there ever were lions and tigers among us to have them on nationalist flags. The book claims that the CIA trained Sri Lankan soldiers in the use of torture and that war material came from Diego Garcia.

Having said that, I wish to add a little to complement the very positive reviews derogating a little from those views. In an interview with Frontline in India, Karunatilaka says the book was first published in India in 2020 as Chats with the Dead (Penguin). However, many publishers “passed it on, saying that Sri Lankan politics was quite esoteric and confusing. Some said that the mythology and worldbuilding was impenetrable, and difficult for Western readers. Finally, Sort of Books agreed to take it on, but they also said they would need to make it familiar to Western readers.”

I humbly submit that some of the problems persist even after 2 years of revising. Many Sinhalese words (sena, thambili, boru, suliya, thathi, siri siri bag, pittu, to give some) remain. Sanskrit too (Rahu time, abhithiyas, nehi). Some grammar mistakes are surprising for a book published in England (“turmeric and lavender has been mixed,” deader, “a quarter of arrack,” “a pink paper,” “dumping bodies have broken their nerves,” “all manners of vice”, “plenty of ugly,” “neither of you get wet,” “you are not the first accuse me,” etc.). There are also the peculiar 3-word sentences” “What. The. Hell,” and “Did. You. See her?”

Then there are accidental spelling mistakes (fiv e, Homo sapiens (twice), fouth and fifth, kanatte, etc.). The phrase “cousin brother of the kissing variety” would make sense only to South Asians.

Some of those acknowledged by Karunatilaka by name do not remember being consulted. I believe he consulted some of their works rather than the individuals; citing which works would have been more accurate and less confusing since those supposedly consulted are long dead.

In renaming real characters to avoid defamation, the author says in an interview that Ranee Sridharan is Rajani Thiranagama – that is unfortunate because Sridharan was her close associate and married to someone else.

The line “the government forces, the eastern separatists, the southern anarchist and the northern peacekeepers are all prolific producers of corpses” might seem pithy and clever to those not familiar, but it certainly is not accurate of the peacekeepers who, as far as I know, have never shot back even when threatened by the Tigers or the Sinhalese.

Karunatilaka accuses Rajani Thiranagama (i.e. Rani Sridharan) of using Almeida’s photos without permission in a book. I am not aware of a book by her other than the Broken Palmyra (which I edited and published in the US from my Sri Lanka Studies Institute because it was not possible to publish in Sri Lanka when Premadasa and Prabhakaran were partners in murder). Her family is unaware of any other book by her. Later on in the book, what Karunatilaka called the plagiarized photos in her book, become photos in her article. 

Usually, western artistes today work against negative stereotypes even when they are correct. So we have few Afro-Americans as doctors and lawyers in America but if we watch the TV series Law and Order, it would seem that almost every other doctor or lawyer is Afro-American. Likewise, almost everyone is made out to be a homosexual on television and movies. It is not unlike Shyam Selvadurai who like Karunatilaka left Sri Lanka in his early teens. Selvadurai outed himself and soon won many literature awards in Canada – after all, a South Asian openly calling himself homosexual is rare and a prize catch for the homosexual lobby. It is perhaps because of this trend that Karunatilaka tends to make out that everyone in Colombo is homosexual or bisexual. I cannot but help remark that both Selvadurai and Karunatilaka have had formative Anglican Church influences in their lives – Karunatilaka went to St. Thomas’ Prep, while although Selvadurai went to Royal College, the Selvadurai family is a well-known Anglican family from Jaffna of whom many went to St. John’s or St. Thomas’. Karunatilaka goes into explicit detail on sex between homosexuals to the extent that the book becomes pornographic. It seems that he is familiar with homosexual foreplay and horrors as a character engaging in homosexual sex pulls out a condom and asks his partner if he is HIV positive. 

Yet, despite the homosexual tilt,  one of the ugliest characters in the book, Udugampola, is homosexual. Udugampola sits across a young man putting his knee between the legs of the man to “smother his nuts with his knee cap” and in other places strokes another man’s crotch with his knees. I recall a teacher alleging in testimony to me that I forwarded to the Bishop that his Anglican priest-principal did the same with his knees to him. After the church took no action, the teacher fled to Canada. Nonetheless, Udugampola, apparently homophobic, objects to “homo photographers”  and “queers with cameras” lest they bring HIV to his soldiers in camp. There is also a mysterious reference by Udugampola to a “homo cough.”

Karunatilaka would have us believe that in Colombo (which I think I know well) upper class women have casual sex with waiters in clubs and restaurants. And also that there are no committed couples. Girls there are projected as allowing themselves to be fondled in malls. Karunatilaka does not seem to understand class in the choice of sexual partners, nor that women tend to avoid free sex in their search for stable marriage.

There is even a little bit of hate speech in promoting the word ponnaya as standing for impotence and homosexuality. In another place he contradicts himself in giving a ponnaya as an impotent homosexual.  Usually that should have got the book disqualified. (In Tamil ponnaiyah stands for a rustic fool rather than what Karunatilaka says). Likewise, “the croak of a Madrasi Tamil” seems a generalized put down of Tamils. Similarly, the claim that Asians do more screwing despite having the smallest penises also is a racist generalization. There are also lines intended to be humourous that would have been best avoided to make the book suitable for children – “why do deluded men crave virgins? Because a virgin cannot know how bad in bed you are.” Equally upsetting is the claim that the nuns at Colombo’s St. Brigette’s are liberal and can be kissed. This too is offensive and not suitable for a Booker Prize book. The Booker judges were wearing blinkers.

Karunatilaka sees no immediate acceptance of homosexuality in Sri Lanka: for he writes of the future of homosexuals being in having a girlfriend, sleeping with her and lying with the landlord’s son in the spare room. That does not say much for integrity in homosexual relationships. He writes of blow jobs being common and even obtainable for money in Anuradhapura. I doubt that. He also says a blow job is not sex because in sex one has to see the face of the partner. It sounds a repeat of President Bill Clinton’s claim that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky because there was no penetration.

Another example of hate speech is “I am not a bloody Chinaman with a pony tail.” There is the stark generalization by a Minister that Negroes run faster, Chinese work harder and Europeans invent: our race, school and family will dictate how the dice of life will roll for you. Another is that our rich send their children to London, the poor send their wives to Saudi [sic.] and European paedophiles tan on our beaches. Another refers to the barbarism of India in ’89, the cruelty of Tamils out east in ’87 and the savagery of Sinhalese down south in ’83. An interesting phrase is about weaponising politeness as well as any Englishman.

There are factual inaccuracies too. Karunatilaka says Jaffna hospital was punished by the IPKF for the crime of treating the LTTE, whereas the LTTE deliberately fired at the IPKF and the retaliatory fire is what caused many hospital personnel to die. He is particularly off about Mahatiya (Mahathaya, the LTTE’s Col. Gopalasamy) who is said to have had a lover in defiance of Prabhakaran’s orders, whereas to the best of my knowledge he was happily married to a former Tiger woman. Mahathaya, says Karunatilake,  was killed by putting him in a beachside cavern to drown as the tide came in. It is, however, well-known that he was arrested in 1993 and was taken to Mankulam during the 1995/96 displacement with his fellow prisoners and executed by gunfire with some of them after informing his wife Yogeswari (nom de guerre Kalpana), a former Tigress.

I am mindful that I am a ponnaiyah in the Tamil sense (not Karunatilaka’s ponnaya), a rustic brought up in Jaffna with all my schooling in the Tamil language. So how valuable is my criticism of a Booker Prize book? I found the second person narrative using you very difficult, not knowing “who” the word “you” referred to. The book unusually took me a few days to read. To balance, my wife who was schooled in Colombo did not understand what my problem was.

In the Sunday Observer of 13 Nov. 2022, Sri Lankan columnist Rajpal Abeynayake is claiming Karunatilaka has stolen off a manuscript he had given him many years ago while scouting for a publisher. Karunatilaka has since denied all allegations calling them ‘baseless and insulting.’ Abeynayake in turn claims he has evidence of Karunatilaka’s alleged plagiarism off his untitled and unpublished manuscript. I cannot judge. 

But overall, Karunatilaka’s is an excellent book. Pithy. Interesting. Humourous. But dirty, vulgar, politically incorrect and even offensive in parts. 

The Booker Prize judges need to be careful, and not use the prize to cook and advance their own liberal agendas

*S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, DSc (Eng) Lond, PhD Carnegie Melon, IEEE Life Fellow, CEng.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    The Booker prize is like Obama the drone-killer’s Nobel Peace Prize!
    A con job to distract from the fact that Euro-America with the dollar debt trap colonialism and IMF is SCREWING Sri Lanka!
    Also, the Cold War in Sri Lanka is what all the ethnic conflicts was about.
    Please read Eugene Ford’s “Cold War Monks” which got a real prize!
    The British, Keenie Meenie or KMS Service and Special Forces were providing security for JRJ when the 1983 riots were staged..
    It was a Dirty War operation… like the “Operation Colombo” in Chile after the assassination of President Allende in a CIA Coup..
    SWRD. Bandaranike was also killed because he nationalised the ports and airports from the British and CIA .. Sri Lanka need to DECOLONIZE ITS HISTORY, and stop reading plagurized tosh that the Booker adores…

  • 5

    Professor Jeevan Hoole has written a quite competent review of this novel. The proof of that is that I now want to read the book.
    His tone of diffidence is hardly justified when it strikes me that he has covered all aspects of the novel. I now have some idea of the outline of the plot, the themes woven in, and the relevance of it all to the predicaments in our society.
    I will have to give it more thought, and hopefully I’ll be helped by the views of others. The language and some reservations about overdoses of sexuality he is quite right to mention since they strike him, and I’m glad that he has neither avoided nor made too of the charges of plagiarism. What concerns us is the book and what we make of it

    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela

  • 15

    The Booker Prize is for fiction and as fictions go, the book is a real good one. As the author has repeatedly said, the events that took place in Sri Lanka in 1989 provided the inspiration and background. That’s about all, we do not need historical accuracy in fiction.

    • 2

      “we do not need historical accuracy in fiction.”
      Historical and other ‘fact’ based fiction has been propaganda material for very long. People believe them in whole or part.
      As historical inaccuracies can be used to distort events and glorify crime and oppression and the can be damaging to victims of oppression.
      If historical accuracy is unnecessary, what is wrong with racism and bigotry of all sorts parading a historical fiction?

      • 6

        “If historical accuracy is unnecessary, what is wrong with racism and bigotry of all sorts parading a historical fiction?”

        Look who’s talking.

  • 10

    Regarding IPKF massare inside Jaffna Hospital, it is true that LTTE fired from the direction of the hospital at the IPKF. But the deaths did not happen because of IPKF shelling in return but they entered the hospital and recklessly fired at everyone that appeared. Several doctors and Matron and others were murdered by the evil act of IPKF. It was just revenge killing. Even one of my friends who was a victim. I dont know why Hoole is not telling the truth while finding faults with so many other issues?

    • 3

      Political expediency demands whitewashing of much of the crimes of the IPKF. (By this I do not defend whitewashing of LTTE crimes.)
      Tamil leaders are now stooges of India for selfish reasons, and have been turning a blind eye to the banditry of Indian bottom trawler boats.
      They want 1987-89 wiped off Tamil memory.

      • 6

        “(By this I do not defend whitewashing of LTTE crimes.)”

        Since when?

  • 10

    Nice to read Ratnajeevan Hoole’s delve into literary criticism and his observations on the Booker Prize-winning Seven Moons. Hopefully he’ll delay his skills on Nabokov’s Lolita and similar such classics. Hoole’s declaration that his is a contrarian view is respected. Literary criticism isn’t for dilettantes. A misstep is in picking lines in a work of fiction and contrasting them to actuality. A work of fiction will always rework reality. Otherwise we can read the Google version of events. Meanwhile, I too have received a plagiarised PDF of Seven Moons. I’ll wait to read the book after I have bought it. I don’t want the author to miss out on royalties after his labours. I’ve read his genius in Chinaman and I know what can be expected.

    • 4

      Thanks, Sarath for a better thought out effort than my hurried effort to get a reasonably positive word in early.
      As you say, it is upto us to now actually purchase a book, so that the writer gets a reward, and the incentive to write more. That is a rare thought.
      I myself am past the stage when I would want to purchase a novel, to be read in just a couple of hours. I am thinking of buying the book written by Professor Jeevan Hoole’s brother (and let us not forget his hard-working sister-in-law, whose name also appears there).
      That was this book:
      A book designed for a different purpose, and one to be kept as a necessary reference, whilst politicians play hell with our lives.
      The PDF that you received would have been pirated rather than plagiarised. Never mind that; I salute your noble sentiments.
      As you say, literary criticism isn’t for dilettantes; but don’t you think that Professor Jeevan Hoole has done pretty well with this? I read Lolita about forty years ago, but I don’t think that Jeevan would go for something dealing with nymphets. Here it is the contemporary significance which he would have found compelling.

  • 8

    \\The book reviews are full of praise – astonishingly light touch, beguiling,…\\

    Dr. Hoole,
    When you quote other reviews and use the dash in place of quotes, it tends to affect the flow. I am not even sure if this is an accepted form of writing.

    I don’t read fiction, but I did read the positive reviews elsewhere. Also, Katunatilaka himself said after the Booker prize: “My hope for ‘Seven Moons’ is this: that in the not too distant future… that it is read in a SL that has understood that these ideas of corruption & race baiting & cronyism have not worked, & will never work…I hope it’s read in a SL that learns from its stories.”

    So I would chalk up the smut (as brought up by you) in the book to the need for pandering to certain sections of the western(-ized) audience. Rajpal Abeynaike was a well-known toady who made a mockery of the newspapers he edited during MR’s tenure as President. I don’t think he has any credibility left for his plagiarism allegations to be taken seriously.

    • 3

      “Rajpal Abeynaike was a well-known toady who made a mockery of the newspapers he edited during MR’s tenure”
      I think it’s significant that he now calls himself Rajpal Abeynayake.

  • 5

    Hear! Hear! Agnos, re Rajpal. I have absolutely no sympathy for him, even if there was a shred of credibility in (?) his claim.

    Not that I havent experienced quite a bit of plagiarism myself — not to speak of my husband. Not in the fictionalised world, either.

  • 2

    I’ll buy the book …….. not to read ……… but to burn.

    The reasons ………. in good time.

    For now, let Native come up with some.

    Let’s see how good he is at literary criticism …….. as good as he is, at dissing women?

    • 5

      nimal fernando

      Please leave Native alone.
      You paint a completely different picture of him and expect him to behave as you mischievously imagined him to be.

      This must be a habit I guess you picked up from your Tamil mates.
      They blame their politicians to adhere to something the Tamil politicians never promised or promised to deliver.

      Native does not dwell in fiction.

      • 3

        “Native does not dwell in fiction.”

        Oh Yeah! …….. Like Ranil’s great talents? ……… His great successes/achievements in 50 years in politics?

        And the great hope he still holds out for the country? :))

  • 3

    I watched this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5evvOxCBnk …….. there is something wrong in his facial expressions, body language, speech ……. sorta trying to make it bigger than what it really is …… perhaps as a great Lankan English-write – in his own mind – wanting to claim a part of the prize in a roundabout way …….

    Even if this guy plagiarized Rajpal …….. he has to be a near genius to turn Rajpal’s crap into a prize winning novel. For that alone he deserves more than the Booker!

    Shakespeare did nothing more than plagiarize the collative human-experience at the time …….. and only articulate it better – more than anyone else.

    I try to plagiarize Old Codger’s love-sonnets …….. but can never top a master …….. so has to graciously and gracefully bow out: miss out ……… and be left with the second-best ………..

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