The Booker Prize Rewards ‘Diversity’ Over Difference
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
By Shehan Karunatilaka
W.W. Norton & Company, 388 pages, $18.95
The Booker Prize, one of literature’s most prestigious, chooses “the best” novel written in English and published in Britain or Ireland in a given year. The 2022 selection was The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka, published by the small press Sort of Books. The award’s early news coverage noted that last year’s shortlist also included a book by a Sri Lankan—thus the implication: It is time for a Sri Lankan to win—we all need to learn more about Sri Lanka now.
I’m a believer in diversity’s forerunner, pluralism, and we do need novels that teach us more about Sri Lanka. Alternatively, I would have loved to see the prize go to a Sri Lankan author whose novel defies expectations, carries no freight for its culture, and is brilliant anyway. Seven Moons achieves neither end, and is an example of how the diversity goal obscures difference. In this regard, Karunatilaka’s book is flawed. But the book deserves less blame than the bad ideas that have seemingly infected the prize committee.
Seven Moons is a ghost story, set in Colombo. The year is 1990. Sri Lanka is racked by an especially bitter phase of the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. The novel has a fashionably satirical, non-realist premise: The protagonist—a gay conflict photographer named Maali Almeida—is dead, and has to solve the mystery of who killed him.
The opening lines are funny and promising: “You wake up with the answer to the question that everyone asks. The answer is Yes, and the answer is Just Like Here But Worse.” In Karunatilaka’s telling, Sri Lanka is “a war-torn shithole,” where “deeds go unpunished and ghosts walk unseen.” The humor, such as it is, lies in turning a metaphorical graveyard into a literal one, but the book’s aim is serious. The author has said he sought to honor the war’s dead and “allow these silenced voices to speak.” Booker Prize chairman Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, has been quoted saying that the book offers “joy, tenderness, love and loyalty … in the dark heart of the world.”
It could work, but the book is full of holes—and not ones that can be chalked up to a deliberately creative or fragmentary structure. Maali’s investigation into his own death is necessary because of selective memory loss, a rickety authorial contrivance. He has hidden away a shoebox of his “most dangerous” photos culled from his work of the past seven years but can’t recall who might be interested in it—until he can; the rules are inconsistent. Even beyond that, the photo-box plot line is incoherent. No working conflict photographer hides his most significant photographs over the course of many years. The reason offered for Maali’s doing so is insecurity as an artiste. When it comes to an atrocity photo that could allegedly end a war, this would be obscene vanity, and someone on the prize committee should have thought it through.
Such implications aren’t intentional, but they reveal the author’s lack of engagement with the reality of the people and events he is writing about—and supposedly rendering visible. The book offers a bold-face cheat-sheet on page 24 covering the various factions in Sri Lanka’s war, with humorous cynical commentary, but it doesn’t address the historical or cultural roots of the conflict, nor does it really give voice to murdered civilians. Maali, despite his alleged war experience, is a son of Columbo’s elite, with a boyfriend who is the son of a government minister. He dabbles in communism, hates the rich, and laments the Columbo party-kids’ lack of interest in the war, all while living in his boyfriend’s family’s luxurious flat. (The narration plays this with a straight face.)
In the book’s view, the war is a nihilistic shit show, none of the cultures and identities on any side of the conflict matter, race is a construct, and Sri Lankans have “fucked it up all by ourselves.” At one point, Maali observes that burning bodies “all look the same when held to the flame.” This passes for wisdom, but I bet they don’t all look the same. Not to the people who love them. Karunatilaka’s take may legitimately be his own, but it isn’t particularly insightful, and it seems designed to reinforce the stereotypes of the uninformed Western reader rather than dispel them. It’s also worth noting that there is more to Sri Lanka than its wars.
I’m reminded of the 1979 novel Basti, by the great Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, which was shortlisted for an International Booker Prize in 2013 but didn’t win. (The rules have fluctuated, but today, the International Prize goes to works translated into English; Husain was nominated for Frances W. Pritchett’s 2013 translation for NYRB Classics). Basti has significant parallels with Seven Moons, in terms of being a non-realist work set during a postcolonial war on the Indian Subcontinent, but it is everything Karunatilaka’s book isn’t. Husain makes one of literature’s greatest humanist statements against war, accomplished almost entirely through evoking the culture and values of the people being destroyed. He has no bald intention of making them “visible,” but he does so along the way—and it is no consolation for their losses. Today, Husain is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest writers in Urdu, but the book was controversial in its time for its resistance to ideology.
The Booker Prize has been awarded since 1969 under slightly different names, mostly to a who’s who of contemporary literature. The prize garners international attention and is known to drive sales. It’s no surprise that this powerful, prestige-conferring body isn’t good at promoting books that are meaningfully different, nor that a group of judges would see its own expectations reflected back at it and feel satisfied. Critics of diversity would say that true inclusivity has never been the movement’s goal. But it’s a shame, because quite often, it is the reader’s goal. Karunatilaka’s book has some 300 Amazon reviews, and many say something like, “I picked this up because I wanted to know more about Sri Lanka.”
These Booker Prize-type readers are willing to buy books from authors they have never heard of; they are even willing to be challenged by difficult and arcane material in the name of self-improvement. The prize committee could serve them, literature, and posterity if it would simply make a good-faith attempt to do what it’s already supposed to be doing and choose the year’s best book. Such works will be naturally diverse—it is one of the beauties of literature. If there aren’t enough such books written in English—a sad commentary on the state of commercial publishing, but possibly true—the committee could combine the main award with the one for translations and truly level the playing field. The NYRB Classics might win every year, but that’s progress for you.