Stalking ghosts of political landscape in 1980s | Sunday Observer
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Stalking ghosts of political landscape in 1980s

20 November, 2022

Shehan Karunatilaka’s stirring novel, though reading it is a bit challenging, burrows the sordid political and cultural landscape of the country in the 1980s and harrows our minds with all the distressing, ghoulish experiences.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida exposes the carbuncular ulcers of the Sri Lankan body ushered in by the battle erupted in 1983, the JVP insurrection towards the latter part of the decade coupled with the ghastly, horrendous crackdown by the Government and killing groups. Oozing blood, tire pyres, and cackling guns made the country a charnel house.

The story is woven around Maali Almeida, a photographer, gambler, gay, and atheist who rises from death and moves between the two worlds, trying to discover his killers. Much of the novel rests on searching for the photographs claimed to have been taken by him of the gruesome, abominable incidents related to the horrifying incidents. These pictures are said to have the capability of unravelling hitherto unresolved events deeply buried under the political manoeuvers of the day. In the novel, we find him striving hard to engage the man and woman he loves most to locate the photos.

The powerful yet rather intricate beginning of the novel makes the reader snoopy, for s/he is baffled as to what to unfold on the pages s/he is going to read, a substantial deviation from the traditional genre Sri Lankan English reader is used to.

‘You wake up with the answer to the question that everyone asks. But, unfortunately, the answer is Yes, and Just Like Here But Worse. That’s all the insight you’ll ever get. So, you might as well go back to sleep.’

Second-person narrative

The reader’s inquisitiveness of what the question is and what is ‘Yes,’ the capitalisation of the words, and the meaning of sleep all plunge us into a dilemma, which is what Shehan seeks to attain throughout the novel. On the other hand, the second-person narrative the author employs detaches the reader from building up a familiarity with the protagonist, an insinuation to the mayhem then prevalent on the Island. His cutting satire and newfangled prose style involve the reader in a kind of reconnaissance rather than injecting pathos into his mind.

The protagonist is identified as a photographer and a gambler and slut.

“If you had business card, this is what it would say.

Maali Almeida

Photographer. Gambler. Slut.

If you had a gravestone, it would say:

Malinda Albert Kabalana

1955 – 1990

For me, his style is more inclined to a postmodernist outlook in which he tries to bring in the fragments of social and political disaster that engulfed the country and covertly or overtly hints at the fact that reason and intellectualism have no guts to penetrate the very abyss of the issues.

What particularly struck me when I started reading the novel is the way he avails himself of the country’s folklore and deeply rooted cultural beliefs of the populace to leave the reader behind an uncanny, blood-curdling world to reexamine the change of events. Nevertheless, understanding the gusty political atmosphere and social upheaval, though not necessarily a prerequisite, will enable the reader to gain a composite view of the situations involved.

The names used indirectly reference the political leaders and other personnel, including the police officers who played havoc with people’s lives. One of the sublime aspects of the novelist is to stay aloof and be impartial in his outlook, for, on the other hand, the battle was between two ethnic groups, and on the other hand, violence among the people of the same community and the insurgents and the government.

The first encounter with the protagonist is at a seemingly a visa office that registers the people moving between the two worlds, homour and funniness nevertheless fling the reader to the site of the human carnage and genocide. The images he creates exude savagery and barbarism of human relationships in a country blessed by the teaching of the Buddha.

‘On this day, the Beira Lake smells like a powerful deity has squatted over it, emptied its bowels in its waters, and forgotten to flush. The men get plastered on stolen arrack, not because years of dumping bodies have broken their nerve or grieved their conscience, but because breathing the stench sober feels like inhaling a public urinal.’

If one says the text is ‘factual fiction,’ I would not oppose it. When reading the novel, one striking feature you observe is Shehan’s investigation into the depth of the events in innuendo. Yet, his craft to depict it artistically is, should I say, unique in English fiction, local or the rest of the world. It is not wrong to say that he is coming up with a genre which, though it can be paralleled with novels in some way, contains its distinctive features: prose style, imagery, structure, pace of the novel, and many more.

One can argue that the text also lacks character development because we find it rather difficult to connect with the protagonist. This has been purposely done to highlight the themes with some deviation from the commonly found structure of fiction we are familiar with.


Again, Shehan’s philosophy of life and the question of morality run like a powerful undercurrent throughout the novel.

For the protagonist to be a gambler or to sleep with men is presented as something simple, for he never shows apologetic feelings. Does the author paint a picture of the complexity of human life in modern Sri Lankan society caught in the tentacles of liberalism and cultural intrusion? Further, he portrays the intense hold spirituality has in Sri Lankan society.

Though the text seems to be dealing with the socio-political aspects of the 1980s, an in-depth analysis of it opens your mind to see how it captures the evolution of this cadaverous nature of our political body right from the independence, and how the so-called politicos from all hues are responsible for reducing the spirit of the country to ashes.

Nevertheless, the theme for me is that the solid spiritual foundation itself has the power to drag the country out of this obnoxious mess.