LONDON – Writer Shehan Karunatilaka won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction on Monday for “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida”, a satirical “afterlife noir” set during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.
Karunatilaka, one of Sri Lanka’s leading authors, won the £ 50,000 ($ 57,000) prize for his second novel. The 47-year-old, who has also written journalism, children’s books, screenplays and rock songs, is the second winner of the Sri Lankan-born Booker Prize, after Michael Ondaatje, who won the trophy in 1992 for “The English Patient”.
Karunatilaka received the award from Camilla, the queen consort of Great Britain, during a ceremony at the Roundhouse concert hall in London.
The unanimous choice of the judges, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” is the darkly humorous story of a murdered war photographer who investigates his death and tries to secure his life’s legacy.
Karunatilaka said Sri Lankans “specialize in gallows humor and make jokes in the face of crises.”
“It’s our reaction mechanism,” he said, and expressed hope that his novel about war and ethnic division would someday be “in the fantasy section of the bookshop.”
Former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who chaired the jury, said the judges chose the book for “the ambition, scope and skill, audacity, audacity and hilarity of the book. ‘execution “.
“It’s a book that takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through life and death to what the author describes as the dark heart of the world,” said MacGregor. “And there the reader finds surprise, joy, tenderness, love and loyalty to them.”
The winner was chosen from among five other finalists: American authors Percival Everett for “The Trees” and Elizabeth Strout for “Oh William!”; Zimbabwe’s “Glory” by NoViolet Bulawayo; “Little Things Like These” by Irish writer Claire Keegan; and “Treacle Walker” by British writer Alan Garner.
Karunatilaka paid tribute to his fellow authors on the long list of 13 books and shortlist of six books for the award.
“It’s been a hell of a ride and I expected to get off at every stop,” he said.
The five-member jury read 170 novels before choosing a winner. MacGregor said all the books explored the actions of individuals in a world “where fixed points move, disintegrate.”
He said that “what is striking in all of them is the weight of history” – from the legacy of racism in the United States to colonialism and repression in Zimbabwe – and how this shapes the choices and actions of individuals.
“History as an actor in contemporary politics is, I think, one of the things that emerges from most of the selected books,” MacGregor said. “Which is not surprising given the current debates on history.”
“All of these books show why (history) needs to be taught, faced and discussed, because otherwise we can’t understand the framework within which people have to make the big choices, the essential choices, of their lives,” he said.
Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize has a reputation for transforming the careers of writers. It was initially open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers, but eligibility was expanded in 2014 to all English novels published in the UK
Last year’s winner was “The Promise,” by South African Damon Galgut.
The event was Booker’s first fully in-person ceremony since the pre-pandemic event in 2019 and the first longtime literacy champion Camilla since her husband became King Charles III last month following the death of her mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
The event also included a speech by singer-songwriter Dua Lipa about her love of reading and a reflection by writer Elif Shafak on what the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie, stabbed on stage in August, means to writers around the world.