When Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for The English Patient in 1992, he used a portion of the prize money to establish a trust that would support a new generation of writers in his native Sri Lanka. Named after his mother, the Gratiaen Prize is awarded annually to manuscripts from a range of genres, including fiction, poetry, drama, creative prose and literary memoir. In 2008, freelance copywriter Shehan Karunatilaka won it for his debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. This year, 20 years after Ondaatje’s win, Karunatilaka put Sri Lanka on the literary map once again by winning the Booker Prize for his second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.
Both his books have much in common — set in Sri Lanka, and in a time pre-dating the present — but the most outstanding aspect of Karunatilaka’s writing is the clever dovetailing of fact and fiction. Chinaman uses cricket as a device to write about Sri Lankan society, telling the story of an alcoholic journalist’s quest to track down a missing cricketer of the 1980s. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a ghost story set in the late 1980s against the background of the civil war that ravaged the island republic. Its protagonist is a dead photographer who has just seven days to reach out to his friends in the realm of the living, get them to retrieve a set of photographs and share it with the intention of exposing the brutalities of battle.
While his first book was written in the first person, which made the story feel quite personal, the second puts some distance between plot and protagonist by referring to Maali Almeida in the second person. The son of a Sinhalese father and a Burgher mother, Maali is an itinerant photographer who lives a difficult life in conservative, 1980s Sri Lanka. He loves poker as much as his Nikon camera, is gay and an atheist. The novel begins with him waking up a dead man, trying to compute where he is — the afterlife — and what to do next.
“My first book was about a forgotten cricketer, and I wanted to write something completely different the second time around so I wouldn’t be put on sports panels and asked about a team I no longer follow,” he warmly quips from his base in Colombo.
“I wanted to write a ghost story, as it is as far away from sports as possible, and I do like horror movies. But I wanted to put a spin on it — what if the dead victims of Sri Lanka’s wars were allowed to speak? What would they say? This seemed like an interesting concept for me to explore, bearing in mind I was thinking about it in 2011, 2012, the years just after the end of the war. Even then, there was a lot of debate on how many people died, who killed them and whose fault it was.”
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You see, as a newspaper lensman, Maali witnessed a lot of the brutality of the insurrections. His ambition was to take photographs “that will bring down governments”, and so he did — one day even capturing “the government minister who looked on while the savages of ’83 torched Tamil homes and slaughtered the occupants” as well as “portraits of disappeared journalists and vanished activists, bound and gagged and dead in custody”. His pictures can stop wars, and he has just seven moons — that is, seven nights — to persuade his friends in the land of the living to get the pictures from under his bed and share them widely in Colombo.
Just like how Maali moves seamlessly from the land of the dead to the living, Karunatilaka’s storytelling swims between fact and fantasy — while the setting is very much real, and a photojournalist like Maali quite likely to have been in existence, the plot that carries the book through is entirely born from the author’s imagination. While all books in some ways criss-cross between the two, Karunatilaka displays a particular penchant for combining historical accounts with tales of fiction.
“With my first book, I researched cricket quite extensively and I was trying to convince the reader that Pradeep Mathew was real. A lot of people actually still ask me if he exists, which is fine when it is about a game and fictional cricket players. But when it comes to the dead and a war that changed so many lives, you have to be more responsible. I mix fact and fiction, and I may not get everything right but I don’t misrepresent anything. It’s a tricky balance, that much I agree.”
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He uses Peter Jackson’s epic hit The Crown as a good case study of the blurred lines between truth and tales — while the events outlined in the Netflix series is all correct, the details are made up. “So many movies are filled with conjecture to tell a story and I’d say many people, like it or not, get historical perspective from books, fiction included. But I’m not asking readers to get historical details from me; plenty of non-fiction books and historical accounts have already been written on the war. I wasn’t writing a history book, I’m not a journalist — I was writing fiction. It’s like Stephen King says: Give me enough so I can lie convincingly.”
Growing up in a middle-class, English-speaking family in Colombo, Karunatilaka was also somewhat insulated from the ravages of the war — although his wife, who lived in the plantation estates, had no such luck — and thought that writing about something that was relatively removed from his existence was simply not paying honourable tribute to it. But by using it as a backdrop for his imaginative tale, it was putting the war back in our collective consciousness so we may never forget the atrocities that took place.
In which case, when he wrote Chinaman, the war was quite a popular topic for writers, he recalls, and he wanted to avoid it. “With the second book, I thought, ‘Maybe now it’s a good time to talk about the war.’ But I’d say this book is a ghost story with the war as a background. I grew up watching American action movies that glorified the military presence in Vietnam, and it occurred to me only much later that so few Vietnamese characters existed in these films. If I did write about the war, I wanted to be very conscious about my intent.”
In order to be respectful to the victims of the violence and the families they left behind, Karunatilaka fleshed out his book with details gleaned from interviewing army personnel, former Tamil Tigers, members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People’s Liberation Front, as well as people who lived in Jaffna during the peak of the violence. “There’s been talk about my historical accuracy being called into question. But I was using actual events and history as a springboard for my stories to take flight; a lot of it was fictionalised. I wondered at the time I was writing the book — bearing in mind, it was a time of peace — if people would even believe that it all happened,” he muses.
This is ironic, considering that in October, the United Nations renewed a mandate to collect and preserve evidence of alleged wartime human rights crimes in Sri Lanka, despite opposition from the government and allies, including China. Within Sri Lanka, a lackey of the Rajapaksa ruling family came out to say that Karunatilaka’s manuscript was plagiarised — a move to deny the veracity of the violence that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida outlined. The claims were declared to be baseless by the Booker Prize Foundation.
War, as you can tell, is a sensitive topic in Sri Lanka, but that is hardly the only thing to write about. “We have an abundance of stories. We have a 2,500-year history, we have colonial trappings, we’ve had a tsunami, a terror attack, a dictatorship that we overthrew ... There’s a career of novels there,” he says dryly.
Is there a particular Sri Lankan literary voice, though? “That’s a harder question to answer. I think I come from the tradition of Carl Muller, who wrote The Burgher Trilogy [comprising The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka and Once Upon a Tender Time] and, who was a huge influence on Chinaman. I knew I could never write as beautifully as Ondaatje, but Muller? Yes, because he writes like a drunk uncle! Muller gave me the permission to write in an authentic voice, which writers Ashok Ferry and Andrew Fidel Fernando also do.
“And then there is theatre and literature in Tamil and Sinhala to consider. So, the Sri Lankan voice, I’d say, is a hugely broad one — as there should be, and I’d like to see more of them. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne writes hard- core sci-fi set in Sri Lanka, Amanda Jayatissa writes crime thrillers — and they have circumvented traditional publishing ecosystems and gone straight to Amazon, which is interesting.”
A father of two young children, Karunatilaka is clear that writing is his future, and would have been even without the Booker Prize win. “I have ideas for more books and I will continue writing. What the Booker Prize win means is that my next book will get published and reviewed and, if it’s not good, it will get slammed,” he laughs. “But as a writer, I’d say putting your stories out there is key here. Enjoying a writer’s life is the goal for me, and I would enjoy that life no matter what.”