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Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka wins Booker Prize

The prestigious Booker Prize went on Monday to writer Shehan Karunatilaka 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 pound ($57,000) award for his second novel. The 47-year-old has also written journalism, children’s books, screenplays and rock songs.

Karunatilaka received the award from Camilla, Britain’s queen consort, during a ceremony at London’s Roundhouse concert hall.

The judges’ unanimous choice, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” is the darkly humorous story about a murdered war photographer investigating his death and trying to ensure his life’s legacy.

Karunatilaka said Sri Lankans “specialize in gallows humor and make jokes in the face of crises”.

“It’s our coping mechanism,” he said, and expressed hope that his novel about war and ethnic division would one day be “in the fantasy section of the bookshop.”

“My hope for Seven Moons is this… that in the not-so-distant future… that 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,” he said.

“I hope it’s in print in 10 years but if it is, I hope it’s written 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, the unicorns (and) will not be mistaken for realism or political satire,” he added.

Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan to win the award, following Michael Ondaatje’s victory in 1992 for “The English Patient”.

Former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who chaired the judging panel, said judges chose the book for “the ambition, the scope and the skill, the daring, the audacity and the hilarity of the execution.”

“It’s a book that takes the reader on a rollercoaster journey through life and death, right to what the author describes as the dark heart of the world,” MacGregor said. “And there the reader finds to their surprise, joy, tenderness, love and loyalty.”

Aside from the monetary prize, winning the Booker can provide a career-changing boost in sales and public profile.

MacGregor called the book “an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west”.

The winner was chosen over five other finalists: American authors Percival Everett for “The Trees” and Elizabeth Strout for “Oh William!”; “Glory” by Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo; Irish writer Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These;” and “Treacle Walker” by British writer Alan Garner.

Karunatilaka paid tribute to his fellow authors on the 13-book longlist and six-book shortlist for the prize.

“It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’ve been expecting to get off at each stop,” he said.

The book is set amid the mayhem of a civil-war wracked Colombo in the late 1980s.

War photographer and gambler Maali Almeida has been killed, and sets out in the afterlife to work out who was responsible and expose the brutality of the conflict, having seven moons in which to do so.

Booker Prize judges called it a “whodunnit and a race against time, full of ghosts, gags and a deep humanity”.

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 are moving, disintegrating.”

He said “what’s 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 that shapes the choices and actions of individuals.

“History as a player in contemporary politics is, I think, one of the things that emerges from most of the shortlist books,” MacGregor said. “Which is hardly surprising, given the current debates about history.”

“All these books show why it (history) has to be taught, addressed 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 writers’ careers. It was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers but eligibility was expanded in 2014 to all novels in English published in the UK.

Last year’s winner was “The Promise,” by South Africa’s Damon Galgut.

The event was the first fully in-person Booker ceremony since the pre-pandemic event in 2019 and the first for longtime literacy champion Camilla since her husband became King Charles III last month after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.

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