After a day on grandparent duty, we made our weary, head-cold-heavy but cheerfully expectant way to Carriageworks for:
8 pm: Shehan Karunatilaka: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
The Emerging Artist loved The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the 2022 Booker Prize and which the Festival program describes as an ‘epic, searing and darkly funny satire’. Shehan Karunatilaka was in conversation with Michael Williams, former acting director of the Festival, current editor of Melbourne’s The Monthly, and one of my favourite SWF interlocutors.
Michael Williams kicked the session off with a joke about the smell of a room full of book people. When that fell a little flat – very flat, actually – he followed it up by saying the SWF was Nerd Christmas, which went over much better, all the more because this was a Melbourne person who didn’t indulge in tiresome inter-city comparisons.
The session was everything I could have hoped for. Shehan Karunatilaka was urbane, witty, serious about his work but not at all self important.
The book, I gather, is about a recently dead war photographer at the end of the Sri Lankan conflict in the 1980s. It’s a ghost story, in which the ghost investigates his own death while dealing with the bureaucratic system of the afterlife.
Karunatilaka gave a number of different origin stories for the book. He wanted to write about something other than cricket (he mentioned his cricket novel, Chinaman, quite a bit), and thought that the complex ‘squabbling’ and blame-laying at the end of Sri Lanka’s long and devastating civil war was a good subject. A good way of resolving the squabbles would be to ask the ghosts of those who had died in the war.
On the other hand, he just wanted to write a ghost story, not something political. In fact, an early draft was a horror-slasher set on a bus. The book is genre rather than magical realism.
‘Why does this beautiful island go from catastrophe to catastrophe?’ The malign presence of ghosts seemed a plausible explanation.
There was much more: the rules for ghosts; the reason for making his protagonist a war photographer; the book’s relationship to a real-life journalist who disappeared during the war; whether as a ‘cis het normative man’ he would write a gay character if he were starting the novel today.
I have to mention the audience questions. There were five, all of them interesting.
- Asked about his influences, he named a number of South Asian writers as well as westerners including Kurt Vonnegut, then told us about Carl Muller
- The questioner said that Shehan’s identifying as heterosexual was a great disappointment to the gay men in the audience, and asked how much of himself was in the character. He said that one of the joys of fiction is that it lets you inhabit different people, but of course you also draw on yourself
- Asked about the book’s reception by religious people in Sri Lanka, he said it hadn’t been an issue. His afterlife was sufficiently nonspecific not to offend, but the earlier questioner’s mention of The Satanic Verses had him worried
- A young woman who sad she was a writer passionately concerned about Sri Lanka asked him how he did it. His reply began, ‘I wake up at 4 o’clock every morning.’
- The final question could have been a classic of the genre. Told we needed her to be very brief, the questioner read from her phone a brief essay explaining that she’d only just started reading the book but saw it as an obituary for the casualties of war. A question followed but I didn’t make a note
Oh, I should mention that had been allocated excellent seats, four rows from the front, in the middle of the row