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Sri Lanka welcomes Booker win for novel on civil war

"The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida" is about a dead war photographer who in the afterlife seeks to expose the brutality of the conflict

Colombo welcomed the victory of a Sri Lankan author in Britain’s Booker prize this year, despite his novel focussing on the island’s civil war — in which government forces stand accused of atrocities.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” is centered on a dead war photographer and gambler who in the afterlife seeks to expose the brutality of the conflict, which claimed at least 100,000 lives.

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

Government spokesman Bandula Gunawardana congratulated Karunatilaka for the award Tuesday, saying his “great achievement” had “brought honor to the country.”

Colombo’s forces have been accused of killing at least 40,000 minority Tamil civilians in the final months of the drawn-out separatist war that ended in May 2009.

Successive governments have refused to investigate war crimes by both government forces and Tamil separatists, and Colombo is currently facing international censure for failure to ensure justice.

Gunawardana — who is also the media minister and an author and a film producer himself — did not directly answer a question about accountability, but told reporters that in the late 1980s alone around 60,000 had died.

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Attackers “came into houses and got journalists to kneel and killed them,” he said, adding: “Because of threats and intimidation intellectuals left the country.”

He had himself been blocked by the army from making a movie on the 1990 assassination of journalist Richard de Zoysa, he added.

“The new government will not try to stop it if this book is being turned into a film,” he pledged.

Protesters shout slogans after setting a bus on fire during a demonstration outside the Sri Lankan president’s home to call for his resignation as the country’s unprecedented economic crisis worsened in Colombo on March 31, 2022. Security forces were deployed across the Sri Lankan capital on April 1 after protesters tried to storm the president’s home in anger at the nation’s worst economic crisis since independence. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP)

White van killings

Accepting the award from Queen Consort Camilla in London on Monday, Karunatilaka expressed hope that his country would learn that “ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work.”

At least 44 Sri Lankan journalists have been killed or disappeared during the island’s internal conflicts — a leftist uprising and the Tamil separatist war — between 1971 and 2009, according to media rights organizations.

At least 14 of them were killed or went missing under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose brother Gotabaya was accused of being the architect of notorious “white van abductions” that preceded the extrajudicial killings of dissidents.

Gotabaya became president in November 2019, but was forced to resign in July this year after months of protests over the country’s worsening economic crisis and allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Karunatilaka hoped that his book would still be in print in 10 years, but that it “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 is the second author from the island to win the award, following Sri Lankan-born Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s victory in 1992 for “The English Patient.”

Aside from the £50,000 (US$56,000) prize, winning the Booker can provide a career-changing boost in sales and public profile.

Colombo bookshops were out of stock of the book on Tuesday, with several saying they had ordered more copies in anticipation of a run on them.

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