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Sri Lankan Karunatilaka wins Booker Prize with satirical ‘underworld whodunnit’

AFP

NOS Newsyesterday, 01:23

Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka is this year’s winner of the Booker Prize. He receives the prestigious prize for Anglophone Literature for his satirical novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, about a Sri Lankan war photographer who wakes up dead in the underworld and has no idea how he died. It is his second book.

Karunatilaka got the idea to write the novel in 2009, right after the end of the decades-long bloody civil war in his country. He wondered how this gigantic war trauma could be dealt with if the dead could talk about it, which, after a long struggle, gave him the idea to write a black comedy set between the victims of this battle.

Karunatilaka imagines the underworld as a kind of boring Tax Office-like bureaucracy where confused souls try to get their money’s worth while whispering bad ideas to the living for fun. Its protagonist, Maali Almeida, discovers that he was murdered for his war photography and that he has seven days to solve his own murder.

‘Ambitious and hilarious’

“Perhaps it is a plausible explanation why Sri Lanka seems to happen tragedy after tragedy, that wandering souls and ghosts wander,” says Karunatilaka, who previously lived in Amsterdam and now combines his writing in Colombo with a job as a copywriter. “I thought it would be a useful way of looking at this dire subject, also with some lightness and playfulness.”

The jury of the prize, which was presented by the British Queen Consort Camilla, praised his approach. “We admire the ambition, the skill, the daring and the hilarious execution,” said jury chairman MacGregor. “It is a book that takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through life and death.” According to the jury, it is a “whodunnit and thriller teeming with brutal ghosts”.

Karunatilaka said in his acceptance speech that he hopes that in ten years’ time his book will no longer have to be seen as political satire, but as pure fiction. “It is understood then that corruption, racism and favoritism have not worked and never will. I hope it is read in a Sri Lankan that learns from its stories.”

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