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Transgression in Shehan Karunatilaka’s « The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida » (2020)

Par Apolline Dosse : Étudiante en Master 2 - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 17/06/2024

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[Fiche] Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel ((The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida)) tells the story of a war photographer, gambler and closeted gay in Colombo during the 1980s civil war. One day, he wakes up in a bureaucratic afterlife while his body is sinking in the Beira Lake, and he is given seven moons to figure out how he died. The novel addresses the issue of transgression, whether it concerns Maali’s personal identity, his photographs which hold the subversive power to bring to light political violence, or the intersection of an unusual second-person narrative and dark humor.

Introduction

Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka published his first novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew in 2010. It focuses on a retired sports journalist’s investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a legendary cricketeer in 1980s Sri Lanka. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (2022) can be considered as an adaptation geared towards Western readers of his second novel Chats with the Dead (2020), which was only published in the Indian sub-continent since, as Karunatilaka puts it, ‟some said that the mythology and worldbuilding was impenetrable, and difficult for Western readers” (2022b). After a few years of re-writing during the Covid-19 pandemic, the novel was published by Sort of Books in Britain and awarded the 2022 Booker Prize, making Karunatilaka the second Sri Lankan writer to win this award after Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient (1992). Ondaatje’s work constituted a considerable source of inspiration for Karunatilaka, along with the work of American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, known for his absurd dark humor. Subversive dark humor and violence are instrumental to Karunatilaka’s critique of his home country’s moral taboos and political omerta.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida takes place during the Sri Lankan civil war in the 1980s opposing the Sinhalese, the dominant ethnic group, and the Tamils, mostly located in the North of the country, who demand independence. The JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, People’s Liberation Front), a Marxist group in the South, and international forces (‟The Indian Peace Keeping Force”, as well as journalists and arms dealers) also take part in the conflict. The novel follows Maali, a war photographer, who died in mysterious circumstances. He now lives in the afterlife and is given a week (“seven moons”) to uncover how and why he passed away. Maali’s photographs could challenge the dominant political narrative defended by the government, notably the Minister of Justice Cyril Wijeratne, hence Maali’s desperate eagerness to assemble the pieces of the puzzle to help DD, his lover, and Jaki, his best friend, find the negatives and make them public. ‟Because otherwise what I have seen will disappear. Like tears in rain.” (159), Maali explains to a fellow ghost so he can help him rescue the negatives. This quote is his reinterpretation of Rutger Hauer’s closing speech in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982): ‟I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe […] All those moments will be lost in time, like... tears in rain” [01:46:24 – 01:47:13]. This remark points to the unbelievable nature of certain events which are forgotten with the passing away of those who have witnessed them, and, in Maali’s case, the quote is repurposed to refer to political violence and how the photographs could shed light on corruption. Maali, unlike Rutger Hauer, insists on the importance of sight as transgressive since his camera helps him mediate and record his experience of political violence.

Transgression is central to the novel and operates at several levels. At the diegetic level, Maali’s negatives and his memories are interconnected because of their transgressive nature both socially and politically as they testify to Maali’s homosexuality and to his witnessing of terrible exactions during the war. Transgression of boundaries also pertains to the narrative voice and to spatialization through the representation of a liminal space between life and death, which is itself articulated to a hybridization of Western and Sri Lankan cultures. As Maali is stuck in a limbo space between life and death called the In-Between, the novel questions to what extent Maali’s negatives and his memories could challenge the political status quo and whether sight truly holds as much political power as Maali believes.

1. A Gay Photographer in War-torn Sri Lanka: Transgressing Moral Codes and Political Omerta

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is articulated around two transgressions encapsulated within the character of Maali: the transgression of moral and cultural codes, and the transgression of the dominant political narrative. Maali is a gay photographer, and his homosexuality defies the moral taboos and some of the cultural traditions of his country, eventually leading to his murder by Stanley Darmendran because of Maali’s genuine love for his son, DD, which he perceives as a threat. This revelation at the end of the book comes as a shock since Maali, who has forgotten how he died, assumes throughout the novel that his murder must be connected to his photographs of the conflict, rather than to his sexuality. This late plot twist is revealed as Maali symbolically wipes the mud off his camera lens, which represents the end of his denial: “You […] wipe the mud from your lens, and remember the last breath you took” (377). Maali’s relationship with DD is unique in that it also involves Maali’s female friend and roommate, Jaki: it thus transgresses heteronormative norms and the traditional model of the monogamous couple, especially since Jaki is never solely presented as a decoy to dispel life-threatening rumors of homosexuality but plays a central role in honoring Maali’s wishes and discovering where his negatives lie.

Maali’s negatives transgress the omerta surrounding the 1983 pogrom of Tamils ((Black July is the term used to refer to the anti-Tamil massacres that took place in Sri Lanka in July 1983. This is considered to be the starting point of the Sri Lankan civil war opposing the Sinhalese government and Tamil independentists.)), and Elsa, the leader of CNTR (Canada Norway Third World Relief) – a foreign organization tracking down the culprits of the pogrom – believes they can change the course of the country by forcing the government to acknowledge the event: “1983 was an atrocity. […] The Sri Lankan government has neither acknowledged nor apologized for it. Your photos will help change that” (112). His photographs evidence the corruption at play in the country and the collaboration between all parties at war plotting for their own gain, whether it be the various Tamil factions, the government and the military, international actors, or the JVP. The narrative revolves around three photographs: that of the Minister of Justice witnessing the 1983 pogrom from the comfort of his car, that of a Sinhalese Major, a Tiger Colonel ((The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was an independent Tamil organization fighting for the creation of a separate Tamil state in northeast Sri Lanka.)) and a British arms dealer plotting together, and that of a woman burning alive in 1983. 

All these pictures reveal the corruption and violence hidden behind closed doors. They are reminiscent of Judith Butler’s analysis of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009) ((The Abu Ghraib scandal refers to human rights violations and war crimes perpetrated by US soldiers on detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison during the war in Iraq. Photographs of the exactions were published in April 2004 and caused public outrage.)), in which she explains that photographs can work as undeniable proof of violent political events and can help prevent them from being ignored by offering an interpretation of a given political situation (43). In that sense, Maali is more concerned with helping DD and Jaki retrieve the negatives than with solving his own murder, because, without his photographs, what he saw will disappear, like tears in rain. His photographs work as a form of prosthetic subversive memory, as defined by Alison Landsberg in Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (2004). Prosthetic memory refers to the memory of an event people did not experience directly, but feel a deep, empathetic connection to so that “[t]he resulting prosthetic memory has the ability to shape that person’s subjectivity and politics” (2). In the novel, prosthetic memory operates on a collective level in that it may help prevent the erasure of political violence, but also on an individual level since some of Maali’s negatives represent his various lovers, often in lascivious positions. The photographs are thus doubly subversive: they transgress both the political omerta and the moral taboos of the country. However, transgression extends beyond such issues, insofar as the novel blurs the boundaries between life and death to represent liminal spaces. 

2. Welcome to the Ghostland: Transgressing the Borders between Life and Death

After his death, Maali is stuck for seven moons in a limbo world akin to purgatory and transgresses the border between life and death by inhabiting this liminal space, which is governed by specific rules revealing a world-building narrative strategy. Karunatilaka follows the tradition of magic realism, where the supernatural is deployed to question the political status quo in the postcolonial context of Sri Lanka. The In-Between can thus be considered a “Third Space”, as described by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture (1994), between the living and the dead, a place of hybridity, resistance and transgression. There the victims of political violence, notably the Marxist leader Sena and his followers, can safely plot their revenge by relying on hybrid figures who can cross the sound wall between the living and the dead: the Crow Man is a blind sorcerer who lives on the edge of town and can put the living in contact with the dead, and the dead can learn how to whisper to the living. The In-Between becomes thus a space of retrieved agency and ambivalence where an alternative political narrative can emerge as Maali learns how to whisper to help DD and Jaki find his negatives. The In-Between is constructed as a liminal space where the marginalized victims of the civil war can fight the hegemonic powers at play in the conflict. This hybridity is also represented aesthetically as the afterlife merges Western cultural references with creatures taken from Sri Lankan mythology. The Mahakali, the leading demon of the afterlife, embodies the hybridity between Sri Lankan and Western cultures as this figure is directly taken from Sri Lankan legends, but is also reminiscent of the Minotaur, especially if we consider the many references to a labyrinth and Maali’s wish to escape from it (69, 292, 353).

Liminality is not limited to the In-Between and can be applied to the very character of Maali, even before his death. As a war photographer, he is constantly faced with the possibility of dying, which is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s take on war photography in On Photography (1977): “Only war photography combines voyeurism and danger. Combat photographers can’t avoid participating in the lethal activity they record” (41). Maali is ready to die because of his profession and gambles with his life as evidenced by the cyanide capsules around his neck and the vocabulary used to describe his camera as one would a weapon: “the Nikon jammed” (63). Maali is haunted by the people he photographed, notably the woman who was burnt alive in 1983. The haunting happens literally rather than merely in his mind as she visits him in the afterlife and criticizes his failure to help her: “You were there taking my picture, like it was some fucking wedding” (63). Sontag points to the nostalgic nature of photography as it consists in registering a moment that has already passed: “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people” (70). Maali’s photographs are indeed haunted by dead people and when they are later exhibited at the Lionel Wendt gallery, it is unclear whether they have the power to exert indignation and lead to political change. It is ambivalent whether the exhibition works like a “lieu de mémoire”, as defined by Pierre Nora ((In Les Lieux de Mémoire (1984), Nora considers collective memories are condensed in single places, objects, or concepts (monuments, institutions, symbols, events, archives, etc.) and imbued with affects and emotions to escape erasure.)). The gallery is mostly visited by ghosts rather than humans (397), who gather to reminisce about the time when they were alive, thereby evidencing a process of mourning. However, the fact that some of the photographs are later stolen questions whether they can truly work against the erasure of collective subversive memory.

3. A subversive narrative tone

Transgression and liminality not only operate within the story, but also in the narrative structure. The novel plays on a transgressive narration as Maali recounts both his past in the world of the living and his present situation in the afterlife through the use of a second-person pronoun, which creates a form of distance between himself and his experiences. For instance, as Maali awakes in the waiting room of the underworld at the beginning of the novel, he expresses his confusion thus: “You wake up in an endless waiting room. You look around and it’s a dream […]. You are wearing a safari jacket and faded jeans and cannot remember how you got here” (2). The “you” pronoun contributes to turning Maali into an unreliable narrator who struggles to remember and is reluctant to admit all his past actions. This unreliability is somehow subversive since the novel uses the codes of the Agatha Christie-like detective story, where the main character – the investigator – needs to solve a murder. However, the reader cannot trust the narrator as an objective, outsider detective since Maali is the very victim of the murder he is investigating. The unreliable status of the narrator is reinforced by an intertextual reference to Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island at the beginning of chapter 7. Each chapter starts with a quote used as an epigraph as a way to connect all chapters to one another: chapter 6 ends on a torture scene and it is in chapter 7 that Maali discovers he was murdered by DD’s father. Lehane’s quote reads as follows:

“God’s gift,” the warden said, “His violence… God loves violence. You understand that, don’t you?... Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It comes out of us. It is what we do more naturally than we breathe. There is no moral order at all. There is only this – can my violence conquer yours?” (Lehane quoted in Karunatilaka 2022a, 341)

Shutter Island is a detective story told through an unreliable narrator who suffers from trauma. In that sense, the intertextual reference to Lehane’s work not only reinforces the overflow of violence in Karunatilaka’s novel, but it also works as an intertextual indicator of Maali’s unreliability. The “you” pronoun creates a sense of dissociation which echoes the very separation between mind and body that occurred upon Maali’s death, when he “felt [his] self split into the you and the I, and then into the many yous and the Infinite Is that [he had been] before and will be again” (384), thereby shaping the novel as a kaleidoscopic disembodied remembering. This dissociation may be connected to traumatic memory as Maali was murdered by DD’s father, Stanley, which might account for Maali’s inability to register the shock of the event and the formal dissociation between his living and his dead selves. In addition, the novel’s narrative structure mimics how traumatic memory works and what Cathy Caruth calls the “belated” nature of trauma in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995, 9). Indeed, the narration transgresses chronological time by mixing flashbacks and flashforwards, as well as using ellipses, to mirror the way trauma escapes chronological, rational narrativization.

The “you” pronoun is also transgressive in that the reader might sometimes be confused as to whether Maali talks of his former living self or directly addresses the reader. Sandrine Sorlin, in The Stylistics of ‘You’ (2021), explains that this pronoun holds deep ethical value: “‘You’ [...] is the relating pronoun par excellence, linking one human to another as interdependent beings and as such it has an ethical dimension” (24). The use of the “you” pronoun seems to link Maali’s old self to his new self and to the readers themselves in a form of kaleidoscopic ethical awakening to Maali’s transgressive identity, but also to the dire political situation in the country.

However, Karunatilaka’s subversive writing is not exclusively associated with this unusual “you”. The canonical sadness linked to trauma, death and political turmoil is challenged by the narrator’s dark humor. Karunatilaka was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut to use dark humor as a way to challenge Western canonical conceptions about death, and the narrator alternatively avoids talking about his murder or jokes about his situation in the afterlife: “The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate” (4). This is coupled with cross-cultural references that create a form of idiosyncrasy as the narrator references both Sri Lankan legends and politics, as well as British and American popular culture. The narrator notably mentions the influence of Hollywood in shaping our vision of war: “All our heads are colonized by Hollywood.” (128). Idiosyncrasy reinforces the idea of competing visions of the Sri Lankan civil war as Maali’s photographs and experience of the afterlife destabilize dominant cultural and political discourses and create a sense of uneasiness in front of the sheer violence war crimes inflict on the dehumanized body.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida deploys a poetics of transgression, whereby transgression operates at the level of the diegesis and the narrative. The transgressive identity of the eponymous character is articulated to an unusual second-person pronoun and dark humor, as well as to the construction of the In-Between as a “Third Place” that challenges the delineation between the living and the dead and gives the latter a renewed sense of agency to fight the dominant political powers. Maali’s photographs work as a form of transgressive prosthetic memory that mediates, along with his visceral descriptions of the war crimes he witnessed, the true horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Commented excerpt

In this passage from the first chapter in a subsection entitled “Chat with dead lawyer (1983)”, Maali recognizes the woman who was burnt alive during the 1983 pogrom. He photographed her but failed to help her and sold the photograph to Newsweek. This encounter allows her to settle the score, but also reveals the transgressive, confusing nature of the “you” pronoun and the subversive ethics of sight in the novel.

Perched aboard the bus stop is a creature you recognise. A woman in a pink sari with rolls of tied-up hair. A woman you once saw burn alive. You took a photo of her that Newsweek paid for and never published. You hope she doesn’t recognise you.

She glares at you with reddening eyes. Her sari has been singed and clings to her like cellophane. Her skin has the wrinkle of crackling pork, the only dish that DD could make better than your Amma’s cook Kamala, under whose bed your life’s work gathers dust.

[...]

Her eyes are red and brown. Her voice is black.

‛I’m sorry for what happened. I wish we could’ve stopped it.’

‛Thank you. That means less than nothing.’

She heard that victims of the 1987 Pettah bomb blast have tracked down the bombers responsible and are holding them in a cave nearby. They are waiting for all 113 victims to arrive, so they can dispense justice. She is there to help them decide on a suitable punishment.

‛If suicide bombers knew they end up in the same waiting room with all their victims,’ says the ghoul in her slithery voice, ‛they may think twice.’

The ghoul tells you she was a lawyer who had chambers in Maradana, until on 21 July 1983 she walked past the bus stand to buy cigarettes and encountered a Sinhalese mob with torches. ‘I always knew smoking would kill me,’ she deadpans.

In the flickering moonlight her skin looks made from snake. Her arms weave like cobras, her hair writhes like a nest of serpents and the burns on her skin glow like embers. Once again you lift your broken camera and take the photo without asking.

KARUNATILAKA, Shehan. 2022. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Sort of Books. pp.62-64

In this passage, the In-Between is portrayed as a “Third Space” as described by Homi Bhabha (1994). While the lawyer could not obtain retribution in her lifetime, the afterlife gives her a new sense of agency as she can settle the score with Maali. Irony surfaces as a subversive tool, with the lawyer scoffing at her own death and playing on the word “smoking”, which simultaneously refers to the trivial act of smoking cigarettes and the dramatic event of burning alive. The In-Between is constructed as a highly organized, legally legitimate place for retribution with the terms “justice” and “suitable punishment” to talk about what victims of war crimes intend to do about their aggressors.

The question of memory and sight is not only brought about by Maali’s compulsive need to photograph the woman at the end of the extract, but also by the vivid imagery to describe the lawyer’s body, notably that of “crackling pork”, which Maali associates to another personal memory, thereby evidencing how memory works in networks of random associations. The circumstances of Maali knowing this woman are dropped like a bomb on the readers at the beginning of the extract: “A woman you once saw burn alive”. The sentence is short and the absence of a verb in the principal clause evokes not only the trauma of the event but also the simplicity with which the narrator tends to describe violent events. The comparison between her burnt skin and cellophane might reveal the trivial, ordinary nature of such horrific murders in the country.

The lawyer’s floating body bears the marks of the assault, and its description plays with the codes of the Gothic and the horror film (rather than Hollywood movies), notably through the association between the adjective “black” and the noun “voice”, which evoke a form of monstrous avenging force. The lawyer’s body is also reminiscent of Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject (1984) – the eliciting of strong visceral reactions related to bodily fluids to question norms. The vivid disfigured state of the woman’s body highlights political violence and elicits discomfort. Additionally, Kristeva describes the abject as a form of liminality, and the lawyer’s identity is indeed a liminal, hybrid one, as shown by the evolution from “creature” to “woman” in the first paragraph, but also by the imagery of the Medusa in the last paragraph. The extract intersects Sri Lankan legends – with the haunting presence of the Mahakali presented as a threat by the lawyer – with Western references, thereby showing the In-Between as a “Third Place” not only diegetically but also aesthetically, a place of subversion, uneasiness and reclaimed agency.

Notes

Bibliography

BHABHA, Homi K. 2012 (1994). The Location of Culture. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

BUTLER, Judith. 2016. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?. London and New York: Verso.

CARUTH, Cathy. 1995. ‟Trauma and Experience: Introduction”, in Cathy Caruth (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp.3-11.

KARUNATILAKA, Shehan. 2011. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. London: Jonathan Cape.

———. 2020. Chats with the Dead. Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin Random House India.

———. 2022a. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. London: Sort of Books.

———. 2022b. ‟Shehan Karunatilaka: ‘The state will come after the defenceless.’” Interview by Pasan Jayasinghe. Frontline. 7 September 2022. https://frontline.thehindu.com/books/interview-shehan-karunatilaka-booker-prize-2022-shortlist-the-state-will-come-after-the-defenceless/article65861579.ece.

KRISTEVA, Julia. 2010 (1984). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

LANDSBERG, Alison. 2004. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

LEHANE, Dennis. 2003. Shutter Island. New York: Harper Collins.

NORA, Pierre (ed.). 1984. Les Lieux de Mémoire, Tome I. Paris: Gallimard.

ONDAATJE, Michael. 2018 (1992). The English Patient. London: Bloomsbury.

SCOTT, Ridley (dir.). 1982. Blade Runner. Warner Bros.

SONTAG, Susan. 2019 (1977). On Photography. London: Penguin Books.

SORLIN, Sandrine. 2021. The Stylistics of ‘You’: Second-Person Pronoun and Its Pragmatic Effects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Cette fiche a été rédigée dans le cadre d'un Master 2 à l'ENS de Lyon.

 

Pour citer cette ressource :

Apolline Dosse, "Transgression in Shehan Karunatilaka’s « The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida » (2020)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2024. Consulté le 25/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/transgression-in-shehan-karunatilaka-s-the-seven-moons-of-maali-almeida-2020