Originally published in Edition One (2023).
Content warnings: References to death or dying, and violence; religious imagery
Sheehan Karunatilaka’s novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida starts with its eponymous protagonist dying and waking up in a visa office. On the best of days, and the worst of days, a typical Sri Lankan visa office is a bureaucratic nightmare. It is an amalgamation of emotionless expressions, droning voices, never-ending lines, and an absolute lack of any sense of direction. Karunatilaka's envisioned afterlife is no different. The office’s employees are less like guiding angels and more like confused drifters. Curiously, Karunatilaka’s Purgatory mirrors Sri Lanka itself, just as the Garden of Eden mimicked biblical paradise.
It is indeed significant that this visa-office-afterlife is a direct reflection of Sri Lanka in the early ‘90s. The first soul Maali Almeida meets is Dr Ranee Sridharan, a slaughtered journalist. The second is a mother, whose sari is caked in blood, cradling an apathetic child. The sheer number of souls in the afterlife is casually exemplified in, “These days? There’s a corpse every second. Sometimes two.” The novel’s plot has no Heaven or Hell. Rather, the afterlife is a pseudo-purgatory of brutally murdered people, and endless waiting in queues. As Karunatilaka admits, “Lankans can’t queue. Unless you define a queue as an amorphous curve with multiple entry points.” Having experienced suffocating Lankan queues myself, I wholeheartedly agree with Karunatilaka’s choice in his novel’s literary afterlife.
Traditionally, however, conceptions of the afterlife rarely resemble a bureaucracy. The Heaven and Hell opposition is the immediate (and highly Christianised) afterlife we recognise. But what of literary afterlives like those of Karunatilaka, and, most notably, Dante Alighieri? Karunatilaka’s afterlife has no basis in religion at all, and Dante, while he draws on Christian theology, writes his own biblical fanfiction of what Heaven, Purgatory and Hell look like. In a commendable moment of self-insertion, Dante travels through the nine circles of Hell, and each tier of biblical Purgatory and Paradise. Interspersed in the narrative are classical and historical figures favoured by Dante himself, and certain people whom Dante apparently had decided to subject to an eternity of self-indulgent, sadistic literary torture.
Interestingly, like Karunatilaka’s visa office, Dante’s circular Inferno and conical Paradiso are reflections of his sociocultural and political context, as well as his own personal desires, hatreds and feelings. It is no mistake that Dante’s own animosity towards certain people in his community is reflected in The Divine Comedy by straight-up chucking them into the circles of Hell in a truly elaborate fantasy revenge plot. Or that his heroes—Homer, Ovid and Cicero—, while consigned to Hell due to their status as pagans, do not suffer and, instead, play the roles of guides and advisors. This portrayal of Dante’s heroes in The Divine Comedy is indicative of a society that did value classical thought, but not so much the classical artists’ ways of life or beliefs.
Yet another literary hell tailored to one’s fears is that in the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus’ personal hell is the result of his feelings of pride and ambition. Having attempted to arrogantly cheat death by literally capturing its deity, Thanatos, he is consigned to eternally roll a boulder up a slope. Thus, he is destined to have his pride pricked every time the boulder refuses to rest at the summit, and his task must begin all over again. On a more personal note, my hell would plausibly reflect my aversion to cringe, which I developed during my teenage years. Therefore, I can think of nothing worse than eternally reading shitty One Direction fan fictions with a lack of paragraph breaks. The creative liberty bestowed upon literary hells and personal hells, however, attests to the fact that not only are literary and personal concepts of the afterlife psychological phenomenon that reflect “the nature of the human entity and its relationship with the world”, but also “imaginative spaces” based on reality that can be “filled as we wish” (Gee, 2020).
What of eternal paradise, however? What of eternal gardens, milk and honey, angels, harps, and white clothing? Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl is whisked away from the frigid cold and poverty of her situation by an angel. At the last moments of her life, visions of what her life could have been—warm firelit dinners, mended clothes, love, and laughter—burn through the light of her matches. In that version of paradise, she finds comfort. If literary and personal hells are a tapestry of the relationship between man and the world, and spaces for venting revenge plots, grievances and nightmares, then is not a literary and personal paradise a safe space for one’s comforts?
The anchor of Dante's journey, the literal voice that shoves him away from the edge of insanity (and stupidity) is Beatrice, the woman whose love and familiarity are a soothing balm and a guiding hand throughout the circles of Hell. She appears in all the biblical splendour of Heaven, and she is certainly no canonical saint. She is present in the narrative by Dante's own imagination because, though he may adore the company of the classical greats, she is his constant comfort and anchor point. Thus, in his creative work, she is the source of his own eternal paradise. In fact, Dante yearns not to join the ranks of Heaven, but to rather join Beatrice in the ranks of Heaven (and he certainly doesn’t wax poetic about the rest of Heaven’s population).
Milk and honey, palaces galore and the richest food may all be well and good. But for some, perhaps an eternity of a quiet house in the countryside à la cottagecore would be bliss. Or maybe the hype and bass of an eternal rave may curry another’s favour. As for Karunatilaka’s Maali Almeida, eternal paradise is not for him. Who would wish to spend eternity in a visa office anyway? His personal paradise is to reject whatever administration runs the afterlife. He instead chooses to pursue photographs he had taken throughout his career, photographs that could collapse political structures with decades of concrete foundations. This pursuit doesn’t bring him eternal bliss, peace, riches or contentment. He instead chooses to experience eternity unravelling closed ends and typing up old beginnings. Karunatilaka’s idea of paradise is a controversial one, but it’s more paradise than one can hope for. It isn’t every day, after all, that the dead receive the opportunity to finish their unfinished business.
Gee, Emma., ‘Introduction’, Mapping the afterlife: from Homer to Dante (New York, 2020; online edn, Oxford Academic, 21 May 2020), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190670481.003.0001, accessed 17 Jan. 2023.