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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Booker Prize goes to Sri Lakan author


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London: “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Sri Lankan Shehan Karunatilaka, a supernatural satire set amid a murderous civil war in the island nation, has won the Booker Prize.

The novel is about a photographer who wakes up dead, with a week to ask his friends to find his photos and expose the brutality of war, BBC and other media reported.

Camilla, the Queen Consort, presented the prize, and the author said it had been “an honour and a privilege” to be on the shortlist.

Karunatilaka said as he accepted his prize: “My hope is that in the not too distant future… Sri Lanka has understood that these ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work.”

The writer said he decided in 2009 to write “a ghost story where the dead could offer their perspective” after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, “when there was a raging debate over how many civilians died and whose fault it was”.

“I hope it’s in print in 10 years… if it is, I hope it’s written in a Sri Lanka that learns from its stories, and that Seven Moons will be in the fantasy section of the bookshop, next to the dragons, the unicorns and will not be mistaken for realism or political satire,” the BBC reported

He added that he had “self-censored” a couple of short stories after author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in August, having faced years of death threats for his novel “The Satanic Verses”, which some Muslims see as blasphemous.

“I was in the process of publishing a collection of short stories when this incident happened, and I discovered a couple which I don’t think was offensive to any religion,” Karunatilaka said.

“But my wife said, can you not do that? You’ve got two young kids. This story is not that good. Just leave it out.”

He added that “this is something that hangs over all of us if we’re writing in South Asia, especially writing about politics or religion”, the BBC said.

Head judge Neil MacGregor praised the “scope and the skill, the daring, the audacity and hilarity” of the novel, calling it an “afterlife noir” which “takes the reader on a rollercoaster journey through life and death”.

He said the judges’ decision had been unanimous, adding all of the shortlisted books were “all really about one question, and that is what’s the point of an individual life?”

The prestigious £50,000 prize, for a single work of fiction published in the UK in English, also gives the other five writers on the shortlist £2,500 each.

“The Seven Moons of Maali” is Karunatilaka’s second novel, having previously won awards including the Commonwealth Book Prize for his debut book Chinaman, which was called the “second best cricket book of all time” by cricketers’ almanac Wisden.

Born in 1975, the writer has also worked as an advertising copywriter, and his songs, scripts and stories have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic.

MacGregor, a former director of London’s National Gallery and the British Museum, added that the judges read all 170 books put forward for the prize, then whittled them down to 30. They then re-read those, before deciding on the final six, which they read for a third time, the report said.

The other nominees were: “Glory” by NoViolet Bulawayo, “The Trees” by Percival Everett, “Treacle Walker” by Alan Garner, “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan and “Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout.

The Booker-winning novel tells the story of the photographer of its title, who in 1990 wakes up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. With no idea who killed him, Maali has seven moons to contact the people he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos of civil war atrocities that will rock Sri Lanka, the Daily Mirror reported.

The judges were unanimous in their decision to award the prize to Karunatilaka, according to the chair.

Receiving his prize, Karunatilaka addressed the people of Sri Lanka in Tamil and Sinhalese. He summarised what he said in English: “I write these books for you… Let’s keep sharing these stories.”

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is published by the independent press Sort of Books. This year is the first time a book by the publisher has been longlisted for the prize.

Karunatilaka has become the second Sri Lankan-born author to win, following Michael Ondaatje, who won in 1992 with “The English Patient”.

In his Guardian review, Tomiwa Owolade said the book’s “scenarios are often absurd … but executed with a humour and pathos that ground the reader”. He added: “Karunatilaka has done artistic justice to a terrible period in his country’s history.”

Karunatilaka, was born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1975 and grew up in Colombo.

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