By striking contrast, and even if the title promises book-club exotica, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is preternaturally irreverent about the manifold brutalities in Sri Lanka during its 26-year civil war ... Karunatilaka’s novel breaks with conventional modes of storytelling to reveal humanness in a strange, sprawling, tragic situation ... Karunatilaka’s book is supremely confident in its literary heterodoxy, and likewise in offering idiosyncratic particularities of ordinary Sri Lankan life well beyond the serious matters of politics, history, religion and mythology ... But readers everywhere will find in such demanding specificity what we all seek from great books: the exciting if overwhelming fullness of an otherwise unknown world told on its own terms, and that frisson of unexpected identification and understanding that comes from working to stay in it.
For months, I’d been hearing tantalizing, impossibly incongruous details about this novel, which is only now being published in the United States. It’s all true: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a murder mystery and a zany comedy about military atrocities ... Weird and weirdly moving ... There’s nothing merely aspirational or derivative about The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Karunatilaka’s story drifts across Sri Lankan history and culture with a spirit entirely its own ... The novel’s deeper themes reach beyond politics to the problem of evil that threads through every theology and moral code.
Written in the second person, which gives the narrative a slightly distancing effect, but it’s compensated for by the sardonic humour ... The obvious literary comparisons are with the magical realism of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. But the novel also recalls the mordant wit and surrealism of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls or Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The scenarios are often absurd – dead bodies bicker with each other – but executed with a humour and pathos that ground the reader. Beneath the literary flourishes is a true and terrifying reality: the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Karunatilaka has done artistic justice to a terrible period in his country’s history.
Brilliant ... A rollicking magic-realist take on a recent bloody period in Sri Lankan history, set in an unpeaceful afterlife. It is messy and chaotic in all the best ways. It is also a pleasure to read: Karunatilaka writes with tinder-dry wit and an unfaltering ear for prose cadences ... Karunatilaka’s words are as eloquent as pictures ... The technique produces a narrative that is both punctuated and leisurely ... The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida burns unremittingly both with its love of country and with anger for what that country has endured.
With shades of Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell, his book is a dark, frenetic work of magic realism that angrily confronts Sri Lanka’s recent history of political violence ... A sense of disorder is central to the effect of this sprawling novel, and keeping track of the cast of antagonists (and the acronyms of their various organizations) can pose a challenge. Yet amid the confusion, a pressing moral inquiry emerges.
There can’t be many novels that simultaneously bring to mind Agatha Christie, Salman Rushdie, Raymond Chandler, John le Carré and Stranger Things — but this one does. At heart, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida could be described as a whodunnit ... There is, however, more to the book than that. An awful lot more ... The novel isn’t a hopeless mess. Karunatilaka respects the conventions of all the genres that he piles up so extravagantly ... The thriller-like quest for the photos serves up several properly exciting cliff-hangers. However wild it becomes, the magic realism takes place within a well-thought-out framework of what is and isn’t possible. The descriptions of the massacres are done as powerfully unsparing reportage ... This scrupulous clarity of purpose in turn explains why, although the book is never far from the narrow border separating the exuberantly rich from the badly overstuffed, it never crosses to the wrong side. The result is an unexpectedly exhilarating read.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida has virtually nothing but jokes ... Compulsively bawdy. The pages are full of untranslated Sinhalese curses and half-explained references to Sri Lankan political history. It contains a good deal of what might be called philosophy, but very much of the public-house variety ... The sheer excess on every page makes it hard to take in the moments of quiet truthfulness. But the supernatural conceit, often a distraction, produces moments of real poignancy.
Karunatilaka has acknowledged Saunders’ brilliant novel as an influence, but his bureaucracy is his own brilliant invention ... The novel becomes a murder mystery fully lined with political and social comment/satire ... It is this poignancy, the ability Maali has to reflect on the beauty of life, that elevates the writing ... The chaos and bastardy of the times that were esoterically Sri Lankan are explained in moments of drawing breath between the hurtling story. It is told entirely in the second person, a difficult stylistic device ... Original, sensational, imaginative, political, mysterious, romantic: it is obvious why this novel won the prize. It also has a manic strum that, along with the vivid chambers-of-horror – not confined to the underworld – will cause readers to put it down and not return. But it will have lasting effect.
So we have the novel’s strengths and weaknesses exposed fairly early on. The strengths are its powerful and precise prose style; the weaknesses are those that are typical of magical realism – a succession of impossibilities that have to be assented to before the reader can get on ... Would that the rest of the book were so clear. Otherwise it is a smorgasbord of ghouls from which you can, with difficulty, pick out the bones of the recent, awful history of the place – if you are not allergic to magical realism. But I’m afraid the genre is not for me.
Karunatilaka plays with the spirit-/real-world divide entertainingly ... The sense of time winding down and the suspense that comes with it is handled quite well ... Karunatilaka presents a dark, vivid portrait of the nation and its recent history. Maali is a fairly effective protagonist as gambling outsider and eyewitness to much that many would prefer hushed up, though given that Karunatilaka writes in the second person it's surprising that he doesn't thrust the reader even more forcefully into Maali's depths. Colorful—often darkly so—the novel and its characters also feel adrift—arguably, in no small part appropriately so ... The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a bit loose and baggy. There's a good deal of colorful invention here, and the humor, if often bitter-edged, helps keep the novel from getting too dark, but it doesn't entirely come off.