Shehan Karunatilaka has won the 2022 Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.
Karunatilka becomes the second Sri Lankan author to win the prestigious award, following Michael Ondaatje, who won in 1992 with The English Patient.
The announcement was made this evening by the chair of judges, Neil MacGregor, at the Roundhouse in London, United Kingdom.
Also on the shortlist this year were Zimbawean author NoViolet Bulawayo, for Glory, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, The Trees by Percival Everett, and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. A win for Bulawayo would have made it two in a row for Africa, after South African author Damon Galgut’s 2021 success.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida tells the story of a war photographer who has woken up dead in what seems to be a celestial visa office. He has ‘seven moons’ to try and solve the mystery of his death and to help unveil a cache of photos that will rock war-torn Sri Lanka.
In his acceptance speech, Karunatilaka said:
‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, it’s about a murdered journalist, and I was going to do it Percival Everett-style, I was going to read the names of all the journalists, the activists, the politicians, the civilians, the innocents who have been murdered by the state, or by those opposing it, in my lifetime in Sri Lanka. But if I had done that we would be here all night. So I was going to read the names from the obituaries from 1989, when the book was set, activists like Richard de Zoysa, Dr Rajani Thiranagama and Daya Pathirana, who featured in this book. But if I had done that, we would have all missed our trains.
‘My hope for Seven Moons is that in the not too distant future, ten years or as long as it takes, it is read in a Sri Lanka that has understood that these ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work, and that it is read in a Sri Lanka—well, I hope it’s in print in ten years, but if it is—I hope it’s read in a Sri Lanka that learns from its stories, and that Seven Moons will be in the fantasy section of the bookshop, next to the dragons and unicorns, and will not be mistaken for realism or political satire.’
Neil MacGregor, Chair of the 2022 judges, said:
‘Any one of the six shortlisted books would have been a worthy winner. What the judges particularly admired and enjoyed in The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was the ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. This is a metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west. It is an entirely serious philosophical romp that takes the reader to “the world’s dark heart”—the murderous horrors of civil war Sri Lanka. And once there, the reader also discovers the tenderness and beauty, the love and loyalty, and the pursuit of an ideal that justify every human life.’
Karunatilaka is considered one of Sri Lanka’s foremost authors. His debut novel, Chinaman, published in 2011, won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSL and Gratiaen Prize. The book was named the second-best cricket book of all time by Wisden.
Born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1975, Karunatilaka grew up in Colombo, studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. He currently lives in Sri Lanka. In addition to his two novels he has written rock songs, screenplays and travel stories.
First awarded in 1969, the £50,000 (about R1,026,000) Booker Prize is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The judges this year were MacGregor, Shahidha Bari, Helen Castor, M John Harrison and Alain Mabanckou.