Booker Prize 2022: Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka wins literary award

He follows Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje who won the prize in 1992 for 'The English Patient'

Shehan Karunatilaka with his book 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' after winning the 2022 Booker Prize on Monday. EPA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Shehan Karunatilaka has won the 2022 Booker Prize with his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Judges praised the writer's “scope and the skill, the daring, the audacity and hilarity” of his second novel.

Published by the independent press Sort of Books, the book is a darkly comic murder mystery set in Colombo in 1990 during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

It follows Maali Almeida, a war photographer, gambler and closeted homosexual as he tries to find out who killed him in seven moons.

Accepting the prize, Karunatilaka praised the “spectacular” shortlist and said it had been “an honour and a privilege” to be nominated.

“I’m fans of all your books and fans of you,” he said.

“And without meaning to sound trite, we are all winners for being part of this magnificent shortlist, though, perhaps I might pocket the extra cash if that’s OK?”

He thanked his publishers for taking on his “weird and difficult and strange” book and his first-time readers for putting up with “so many messy, horrible drafts”.

“My hope for Seven Moons is this; that in the not-too-distant future, 10 years, as long as it takes, Sri Lanka… has understood that these ideas of corruption and race baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work," Karunatilaka 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.”

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka holds his book 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' at the Shaw Theatre in King's Cross in London on October 14 before Monday's announcement of his Booker Prize for Fiction. AFP

Karunatilaka, who was born in Galle and grew up in Colombo, has said that Sri Lankans “specialise in gallows humour and make jokes in the face of crises”.

“It’s our coping mechanism,” he said.

“To make any longlist requires luck … to have a novel about Sri Lanka’s chaotic past come out just when the world is watching Sri Lanka’s chaotic present also requires an alignment of dark forces.

“Unlike my protagonist Maali Almeida, I don’t gamble. So I don’t expect to roll two more sixes, though I will scream with joy if I do.”

This year marked the first time Karunatilaka, 47, was shortlisted for the award, though his 2011 debut book, Chinaman, took home the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSL and the Gratiaen Prize.

He follows fellow Sri Lankan-born author Michael Ondaatje who won the Booker Prize in 1992 for The English Patient, and the Golden Booker celebrating 50 years of the prize in 2018.

British art historian Neil MacGregor, chairman of the 2022 judges, described Karunatilaka’s book as “an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west”.

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

The judging panel also included academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari, historian Helen Castor, novelist and critic M John Harrison and novelist, poet and professor Alain Mabanckou.

Karunatilaka was announced as the winner of the prize in a ceremony that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel on Monday. He was presented with the trophy by the British Queen Consort.

He was also presented with £50,000 ($57,000) and a designer-bound edition of his book by last year’s winner, Damon Galgut.

Each shortlisted author was given £2,500.

They were NoViolet Bulawayo for Glory, Percival Everett for The Trees, Claire Keegan for Small Things Like These, Elizabeth Strout for Oh William!, and Alan Garner for Treacle Walker.

Strout was unable to attend the ceremony because of illness, and Garner attended virtually from Cheshire, where he was celebrating his 88th birthday.

Shehan Karunatilaka poses next to Britain's Camilla, Queen Consort, after winning the British Booker Prize for his novel 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' on Monday. AFP

Mr MacGregor said that when reading the final books, “it became clear, although they seemed originally very diverse, ranging from civil war in Sri Lanka to the private fantasy of a Cheshire childhood, they were all really about one question.

“That is: ‘What is the importance of an individual life?'”

He said that “what is striking in all of them is the weight of history” that mirrors our turbulent times.

“There are moments of great instability everywhere where structures are in question,” Mr MacGregor said.

“What all these books reaffirm … is the importance of long time and we need to think about that.”

Karunatilaka was also given special help to allow him to travel to the award ceremony in London, something the Booker has done previously.

A keynote speech was given by singer-songwriter Dua Lipa, while the event was hosted by comedian Sophie Duker.

Dua Lipa credited Ismail Kadare, who won the inaugural International Booker Prize, for testing her language skills “while also helping me connect with my family’s heritage and identity as Kosovan Albanians”.

“I often wonder if authors realise just how many gifts they give us," she said. “Touring commitments take me all over the globe and life is often hectic.

“Sometimes, just to survive, I need to adopt a tough exterior. And at these times, it is books that soften me.”

Shehan Karunatilaka delivers his winning speech at the Roundhouse in London on Monday. PA

Lipa later led audiences in a rendition of Happy Birthday for Mr Garner.

When asked if Lipa’s appearance was to reach out to younger audiences, Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “Our sense is that the Booker Prize is a living thing and … you need to make sure and try to make sure people think it’s for them.”

Mr MacGregor and the other judges will explore the novels further in Imagined World, which will air on Tuesday on BBC Radio 4 at 4pm.

South African novelist Galgut, 57, won the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction with The Promise.

First awarded in 1969, the Booker is open to writers of any nationality whose work is written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

Updated: November 15, 2022, 8:27 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL