The time is our own time. The place is Sri Lanka, the island nation formerly known as Ceylon, off the southern tip of India, a country steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition--and forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war and the consequences of a country divided against itself. Into this maelstrom steps a young woman, Anil Tessera, born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to work with local officials to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island.
It has been 15 years since Anil left her homeland, and Sri Lanka is both familiar and distant to her. She is paired with Sarath, a local archeologist who acts as both an older guide and as a temporizing influence on her inpatient tendencies. Later she meets Sarath's younger brother Gamini, an emergency medicine physician who is haunted by his experiences caring for hundreds of patients with traumatic injuries and seeing nearly as many corpses in the hospital's morgue.
Anil and Sarath come upon an ancient burial ground, and they discover a body that doesn't seem to fit with the others. Anil suspects that it has been placed there recently, and since soldiers guard the site she and Sarath conclude that the man, a local resident who has been brutally tortured before his death, was killed by government forces. Sarath senses the extreme danger of this discovery, and urges Anil to act cautiously, but she is outraged and insists that the government, the Sri Lankan people, and the international community must know what is happening there.
Anil's Ghost begins slowly, as Ondaatje carefully creates a rich tapestry of the lives of the main characters and teaches the reader about the essential techniques of archeology and forensic pathology, which was occasionally of little interest to me. However, the tension and drama progressively build throughout the second half of the book up to its momentous ending. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but I was left with several unanswered questions, particularly about the motivations and fates of the three main characters that cannot be discussed in this review.
I generally read a book like this because I want to learn more about the event in the background, in this case, the Sri Lankan civil war. But I really came out of it no more knowledgeable than I was going in, and even worse, it didn’t even ignite a desire to learn more from other sources. The war and its circumstances really get lost in all of Anil’s… stuff.
The one positive thing I can say about the book is that it really is beautifully written. I just wish those beautiful words were woven into a more cohesive and interesting story.
“Anil’s Ghost” is ultimately a murder mystery, but one that is told with uncommon style and grace. Michael Ondaatje is an accomplished poet and his prose shimmers with the same lyrical quality as his verses. The problem with the novel for me, though, is that the story itself is not particularly interesting or engaging. The central themes of love, loss, and betrayal are certainly woven well, but there is too little that actually happens to move the story forward in a compelling way and some of the characters—including Anil regrettably—seem underdeveloped.
For Ondaatje, a native Sri Lankan himself, the subject matter of this book is so clearly personal that it is difficult not to be moved by his passion. The urgency with which he creates words and images underscoring the senselessness of war is evident throughout. Nevertheless, this was not a wholly satisfying reading experience for me. In fact, I found it impossible not to compare this novel to “The English Patient,” the author’s more renowned earlier work that addresses some of the same subject matter. Unfortunately, although I ultimately was not disappointed, reading “Anil’s Ghost” suffers from that comparison.
The book is stunning with detail about forensic pathology and bears the hallmark of Ondaatje’s restrained but pregnant style. Anil's story inhabits that quiet space between the seen that one perceives from the corner of the eye and that Ondaatje illuminates and gives life to while chaos, upheaval, brutality, looming danger, and death swirl around held at bay by a perverse illusiveness.
Ondaatje is the master of the slow lava-boil of submerged emotion, the layered onion of buried personal secrets, the sly revelation of the novelistic big picture – all done with the skill of painless precision surgery such that you don’t realize your reading self has been skillfully flayed alive until it’s all over.
On life, death, and carrying on afterwards:
“And now with human sight he was seeing all the fibres of natural history around him. He could witness the smallest approach of a bird, every flick of its wing, or a hundred-mile storm coming down off the mountains near Gonagola and skirting to the plains. He could feel each current of wind, every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud. There was a girl moving in the forest. The rain miles away rolling like blue dust towards him. Grasses being burned, bamboo, the smell of petrol and grenade. The crack of noise as a layer of rock on his arm exfoliated in heat. The face open-eyed in the great rainstorms of May and June. The weather formed in the temperate forests and sea, in the thorn scrub behind him in the southeast, in the deciduous hills, and moving towards the burning savanna near Badulla, and then the coast of mangroves, lagoons, and river deltas. The great churning of weather above the earth.
Ananda briefly saw this angle of the world. There was a seduction for him here. The eyes he had cut and focused with his father's chisel showed him this. The bird dove towards gaps within the trees! They flew through the shelves of heat currents. The tiniest of hearts in them beating exhausted and fast, the way Sirissa had died in the story he invented for her in the vacuum of her disappearance. A small brave heart. In the heights she loved and in the dark she feared.
He felt the boy's concerned hand on his. This sweet touch from the world.”
“He was a well-liked man; he was polite with everyone because it was the easiest way not to have trouble, to be invisible to those who did not matter to him. This small courtesy created a bubble he rode within.”
“Fifty yards away in Emergency he had heard grown men scream for their mothers as they were dying. "Wait for me!" "I know you are here!" This was when he stopped believing in man's rule on earth. He turned away from every person who stood up for a war. Or the principle of one's land, or pride of ownership, or even personal rights. All of those motives ended up somehow in the arms of careless power. One was no worse and no better than the enemy. He believed only in mothers sleeping against their children, the great sexuality of spirit in them, the sexuality of care, so the children would be confident and safe during the night.”
Poverty + Injustice of these 3rd world countries is sad + mystical — could I even experience this on a visit?
Anil’s Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late
What to say? I am thinking. I know I really liked it by the end.....not in the beginning. In the beginning and even in the middle I was often confused. In the beginning all that lured me was learning about the horrors of the civil war raging in Sri Lanka at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s and facts about the country - physical and cultural. By the end I knew who was who. People are not simple, and this writer does not make it easy for you. You jump all over the place, from one place, time and person to another. By the end I was enchanted by the lines. By the end I cared for several of the characters. By the end I understood the message and agreed. Is it best to drive for truth and clarity, if this will just bring more suffering? And yet some people are who they are and have to behave as they do.
The narration by Alan Cumming also annoyed me in the beginning, but by the end it was just fine. In the beginning there was questioning tone, a tempo, an inflection that bugged me, but that just disappeared by the end!
Anil, an American forensic scientist of Sri Lankan origin, comes back after 15 years to her homeland as a UN
The book has an eerie beauty to it. The mood is of intense loneliness, but also of eternal charm of nature and culture. The relationships are either destructive or destroyed or people behave in a self destructive way. They behave like the war.
The descriptions of war are haunting, but avoid the right or wrong judgments. Perhaps Ondaatje himself expresses it in the best way.
“I wasn’t interested in the blame element. Anil is, so I try to write from those small angles where people are not preoccupied with the war but are part of it. People who are in the midst of it, and trying to create peace in that kind of situation.
The plot is the excuse for the story – the hook, if you like. The real story is in the surround, in all the corners.”
(Ondaatje in an interview with Noah Richler)
"The boundry between sleep and waking was a cotton thread so faintly coloured he crossed it unawares"
There are many messages delivered home in this book, but for me the idea of a war culture that alienates people from beauty and truth is then that stays with me. Highly recommended
This novel is set on the island of Sri Lanka during the brutal civil war turmoil of the 1980s and 90s. This was a civil war fought by three opposing groups: the government, anti-government insurgents in the south and Tamil separatists in the north.
Bach on the island she finds that she has been paired with a Sri Lankan government-appointed partner, Sarath Diyasera, a forty-nine year old government archaeologist who is related to a Government minister meaning that Anil never fully trusts him and leads to distrust his real motives for taking part.
While excavating a site in a Sri Lankan Government controlled part of the country Anil and Sarath uncover three skeletons, two are from the nineteenth century bones but one is much more recent and appears to have been buried twice at two separate locations. This unidentified body is given the name, "Sailor," and becomes the centre of their investigation in not only into his cause of death but also his identity.
Although born in Sri Lanka Anil is western educated and as such does not share the same values and ideals as those with whom she must work. As Sarath's brother Gamini remarks she is like a foreign journalist who flies in, films their piece and then fly out again without having to deal with the realities of life on the island, the sometimes compromising alliances that must be made just to avoid suspicion yourself and as such stay alive. Sarath in contrast is a permanent resident of the island and therefore must make these compromises. This becomes one of the major themes of this novel and for me at least one of its major failings. I feel that if the author had instead concentrated only on those who actually lived on the island, it would have proved far more compelling.
Throughout the novel Ondaatje threads his way between past and present, giving us an insight into some of the mystic background to the island however,not all of these background tales seem to have much to do with the main plot. Now I have no complaints with his prose which at times is poetic but is always beautiful I felt that at times he went off at a tangent some of the message gets lost and as such the novel is not as thought provoking as it could and perhaps should have been which to my way of thinking was a real missed opportunity.
We have Sri Lankan polemics here: expositions on history, religion, archeology, civil war, and official murder. This book didn't make a grand impression on me, and I'm not sure why. Polemics should come through action and consequence, told directly, and not from flat, characterless narrative.
* as a sidenote, I recently saw a doco on the condition of hospitals in Baghdad, and it's amazing how many parallels with the hospitals in this book I found. It's a scary world when such stories repeat themselves.
A nice story, and Ondjaate's usual style-yet something is missing.
There is a scene describing a public suicide bombing that made more of an impression
Pure Ondaatje: prose so beautiful and full of longing and regret, it gives me a lump in my throat just thinking about it.