Anil's ghost

by Michael Ondaatje

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2000.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Anil Tissera was born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, to a prosperous family, where she achieved a small degree of fame by winning a notable swimming race as a school girl. She left at 18 to attend medical school in England, and she later trained to become a forensic pathologist there and in
Show More
the United States. After a brief failed marriage and the early deaths of her parents she is rootless and restless, despite her successful career. She applies and, to her surprise, is accepted as a forensic specialist for an international human rights organization that plans to send a team to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, during the height of the country's civil war. The government is engaged in fierce and bloody battles with the Tamil Tigers to the north and with separatist insurgent forces to the south simultaneously, and the bodies of thousands of soldiers on all sides and innocent civilians caught in the middle have been turning up with alarming frequency throughout the country. Intense international pressure is put upon the Sri Lankan president to investigate the claims of atrocities by the government and the rebels, and he reluctantly agrees to an investigation, while he and other officials vehemently deny that the Sri Lankan Army is involved in the torture and slaughter of insurgents and civilians.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member miyurose
This was one of those books that I only pushed through because I was reading it for book club. And even then, I didn’t finish it completely, getting the gist of the end from others in the club. There was just so much of the book I didn’t care about. Some parts were interesting, but others just
Show More
seemed to be there as a writing exercise.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member inurbana
Anil's Ghost is a beautiful, albeit difficult, novel, but one well worth the effort. It's a quiet book, with some of its most important themes left unsaid, but one of the great things about this book is how information is revealed...or not. Ondaatje's prose is magnificent, and some of the best that
Show More
I've read. It has a sensuality to it that sometimes seems at odd with his grizzly subject matter, but it really works. The character themselves feel very real, despite the reader's brief time spent with them. You know you've read good characterization when you're aching for more of these people after the novel ends. Ultimately, I found the most important theme of the novel to be about identity. Sri Lanka's national identity engulfed in violence, Anil and Sarath's quest to uncover the identities of others, Gamini's life defined by his identity as a doctor, and so many more brilliant facets of this same idea. I picked Anil's Ghost up as a whim and found a treasure sandwiched between its covers.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ElizabethPisani
Captivating and deeply unsettling. Beautifully written, of course. If you read this before you first visit Sri Lanka you'll find that it flavours your perceptions in some intangible but persistent way, like butter that's been sitting next to onions in the fridge.
LibraryThing member Limelite
Anil, a forensic anthropologist, returns to her native Sri Lanka at the behest of an international human rights group to investigate the mass murders of citizens by government, insurgents, and separatists during the early 90s. She is helped by the local anthropologist, Saratha, a secretive man with
Show More
helpful local contacts. One of them, his old blind, professor/mentor may prove useful in helping them identify “Sailor” a twice-buried anonymous corpse.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member browner56
Anil Tissera, a forensic pathologist who works on human rights causes, has returned to her native Sri Lanka after an absence of 15 years. Her homeland is immersed in a bloody and protracted civil war that has devastated the country and left no one unscathed. Working with Sarath Diyasena, a local
Show More
archeologist of questionable political allegiances, Anil discovers a modern-day skeleton in an ancient burial site controlled by the government. Can solving this single apparent murder make up for all the atrocities her country has suffered?

“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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LukeS
"Anil's Ghost" is an aggrieved elegy to Sri Lanka and its suffering people. Anil is a young Sri Lankan scientist who returns to her land after studying and working in the U.K., and the U.S. She returns to investigate forensic evidence which could point to official policy which has a deadly effect
Show More
on the local populace. Sarath tries at first to suppress the evidence, and when Anil finally gets to work unimpeded and present her findings (after Sarath saves her life, helps her escape, and causes the stolen evidence to be returned to her), her onetime adversary, Sarath, pays for it all with his life.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member baswood
Michael Ondaatje transports us and his heroine Anil into war tormn Sri lanka with powerful and lyrical writing. The book is often described as dense, but this is misleading. There is nothing dense about the beautiful open and flowing prose style. Yes there are layers of meaning within the story,
Show More
but there are in most good novels. While the book focuses on the three main all to human characters of the brothers Sarath and Gamini and the returning emigre Anil, It is when their lives intersect with the mystical epigraphist Palipana and the eye painter Ananda Udugama that the lyricism of the writing soars to new heights. The book does not shrink from the horrors of population caught in the horrors of a war zone, but much of this is seen through the exhausted and drug influenced eyes of the surgeon Gamini and so much of this has a slightly dazed feel about it. The book describes how the lives of so many innocent poeople are shattered or twisted horribly out of shape by modern warfare. There are many sections of this book that stay in the memory and individual sentances like when describing the exhaustion of hospital work -
"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
Show Less
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Anil’s Ghost takes place in Sri Lanka during the recent civil war. It is a haunting novel written in a form of extended poetic flashbacks, intermingling with real non-fiction accounts.

Anil, an American forensic scientist of Sri Lankan origin, comes back after 15 years to her homeland as a UN
Show More
inspector. Her task is to check if war atrocities are taking place there. On her arrival, she is sent to work with an elusive government official, an archeologist, Sarath. Working with him on an archeological site in a remote cave, Anil discovers human remains that are much more recent than the rest of the archeological find. From then on both Sarath and Anil conduct a secret hunt for an identity of the body. This takes them to many beautifully described places in Sri Lanka. We cannot be sure, though, what Sarath will do if the identity of the body should be discovered.

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)
Show Less
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Anil's Ghost is the clever weaving of fact and fiction. In the mid-1980s Sri Lanka was in a state of civil unrest. It went beyond a north versus south conflict and involved illegal government activity. Anil's Ghost is the fictional account set in the middle of a political and historical truth.
Show More
Tissera is a forensic anthropologist returning to Sri Lanka after a fifteen year absence. As part of a human rights organization she is obligated to investigate and ultimately uncover the truth about ethnic and religious killings occuring during the country's civil war. Her entire attention is focussed on one particular skeleton she nicknames "Sailor." His remains have been found in an ancient burial ground and yet anthropologically he is considered a contemporary. Upon arriving in Sri Lanka she is paired with man she doesn't know if she can trust. Sarath is quiet and keeps many secrets. What is amazing about Anil's Ghost is the lush language and the intricate character development. Each chapter is dedicated to the unfolding of someone's life, past and present. This technique brings a fullness to the storyline. In the end you feel as if every character has purpose to the plot.
Show Less
LibraryThing member gbill
Anil Tessera returns to her home country, Sri Lanka, as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to help track down sources of murders taking place in the country. It’s the 1980’s, and Sri Lanka is embroiled in Civil War; it’s the government that has sent out
Show More
death squads to hunt down factions of insurgents and separatists. It’s a delicate, balanced story, but I suppose the reason for my lower review score was that it was just a little too delicate and slow for my taste. I loved the very last page, which is the source of the first quote below. I was kinda glad when I got there though.

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.”

On solitude:
“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.”

On war:
“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.”
Show Less
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
Anil goes back to Sri Lanka as a human rights worker — very emotional
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
Show More
twentieth century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, who returns to her homeland as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past–a story propelled by a riveting mystery.
Show Less
LibraryThing member chrissie3
ETA: Warning - you learn very few specifics about the civil war. I was up last night thinking about this and considering if I should remove a star. No, I am not removing one. Ondaatje has a special way of writing, and I like it very much. In the beginning of the book there is a statement that says
Show More
the war continues but in another way! So I think, what way? Tell me! (He never does.) That irritated me then, just as so much else did in the beginning. I didn't get what I expected but what I got was very good. Still, a four star read.


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!
Show Less
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“Secrets turn powerless in the open air.”

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.

Show More
main character is Anil Tissera, a Sri Lankan born forensic scientist who returns to her homeland as a United Nations human rights investigator to explore various human rights abuses and "disappearances" that have been perpetrated by the three different combatents.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lindayakle
I'm a major Ondaatje fan in general. Not as good as something like The English Patient but worth reading nonetheless.
LibraryThing member grheault
An political mystery set in Sri Lanka, a woman anthropologist and government official finding hidden forbidden graves of massacred people, with themes of desire, longing, and imperfect relationships woven in. I was left with a sense of Sri Lanka, and a vague impression of the real feelings of the
Show More
Show Less
LibraryThing member twallace
An unsettling novel about civil war in Sri Lanka and the efforts of two scientists to expose goverment corruption. Anil, the title character, returns to her native Sri Lanka as an accomplished forensic anthropologist and must face both her past and her future.
LibraryThing member kcslade
OK story about a Sri Lankan female forensics expert. Much philosophizing.
LibraryThing member stillbeing
I ended up quite enjoying this book. It took me about a third of the book to get used to the style of it, but by then I was so sucked into the story I had to finish it. I was glad for the opportunity to learn a little bit more sbout Sri Lanka; I've gone to school and worked with a lot of Sri
Show More
Lankans, and I had very little idea of the place either than there had been 'strife' there, they like cricket and they were hit hard by the Boxing Day Tsunami.

* 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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member paulmorriss
Not quite as good as the reviews on the cover say, but a very involving story set against a sad backdrop.
LibraryThing member ericap32
A gorgeous and deeply moving novel that moves seamlessly in and out of different cultures and different character's lives. It is partly a mystery, partly a meditation on love, partly a lament of the horrors of war.

There is a scene describing a public suicide bombing that made more of an impression
Show More
on me than all the news stories and footage I've seen in an entire lifetime.

Pure Ondaatje: prose so beautiful and full of longing and regret, it gives me a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

Highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member drivingsideways
*shrug *
A nice story, and Ondjaate's usual style-yet something is missing.
LibraryThing member sammimag
Interesting book. I'd like to understand a little bit more about he political stuff in the book but haven't found much. The story was for me disjointed but it was likely the style.
LibraryThing member sharonk21
Anil’s Ghost is a mosaic in three dimensions. Much like the final chapter where the craftsman Anadata takes on the task of restoring a fractured statue of Buddha blown to chunks by a bomb, Michael Ondaatje constructs the story of late twentieth century Sri Lanka and of its historic past by using
Show More
bits and pieces to depict an impressionist picture of a country and a people whose lives are riven by government, insurgent and rebel violence. The image he produces is lush green, tropical, and spattered with red-red blood; yet despite the visual and iconic quality of the book, in the background another of your senses detects the smell of wood-smoke from the fires of humble homes and campsites dotted around the island land mass.

The device of telling the story in mosaic fashion is, I think, intentional: Onadaatje expects for the reader to capture thereby the splintered yet essentially whole quality of the country and its inhabitants. As he treats Sri Lanka and its population, so too does he treat his central characters.

Anil is a young female forensic anthropologist working for an international agency to investigate human rights abuses in her girlhood homeland. She has gone to the former Ceylon at the putative invitation of the Sri Lankan government.

Her assigned contact in Colombo, Sarath, is a middle aged-archeologist and widower devoted to his country’s history. Anil immediately is forced to question the degree to which she can trust him. He is, after all, a government representative (albeit one whose job is academic in nature rather than political). He seems, and she hopes he actually is, fairly remote from any sins the government may have committed.

The third major character is Sarath’s much younger brother, Gamini, who works compulsively as an emergency physician in Colombo’s busiest trauma hospital, trying to mend the broken patients brought to his doorstep by the pervasive violence of the civil unrest and bombings. The brothers are not close and, seemingly unknown to Sarath, Gamini had been in love with Sarath’s wife prior to her suicide.

Anil left Sri Lanka when she came of university age to study in England and the United States. The two men remained in Sri Lanka and were educated there. Shortly after her arrival, Sarath shows her the ancient bones he has recovered from a midden at his current archeological research site. She notes that one bone fragment does not seem to be prehistoric at all and questions him.

He carefully deliberates on her finding and somewhat reluctantly arranges for them to go to the site. There they find the skeleton of “Sailor” who obviously died not centuries ago, but at the most a decade ago --or even later. Sailor’s remains indicate that he is one of the human rights abuse cases she has come to investigate. Further, because the archeological site is guarded and only government-approved persons are admitted, it looks likely that this murder should be attributed to the central government.

Sarath and Anil set out to identify the remains and document his murder. The search takes them throughout a large part of Sri Lanka, introducing two or three other important figures into the story as well as letting you experience the diversity that is Ceylon

At one point, while back in Colombo, Anil dines with Sarath and his brother, Gamini, and only later does she realize that what she took at the time to be a lively conversation between herself and first one man and then the other was in fact the attempt of the two men to communicate with each another. Her realization is fitting because you find that the novel is perhaps just as much about the two brothers as it is about the title character, Anil.

And who finally, in this haunted novel so abundant with other shades and phantoms, is Anil’s ghost? Her former homeland? “Sailor?” Her married lover? Or someone or something else?
Show Less
LibraryThing member Stevil2001
I was happy to have an excuse to read more Ondaatje. Like The English Patient, the book is very fragmented, perhaps too fragmented for its own good, and some of the characters' decisions just aren't explained. Or explainable. But also like The English Patient, it's lyrical and beautiful and
Show More
harrowing and full of fantastic character moments, big and small. Ondaatje's beautiful prose and keen insight can carry the reader through anything.
Show Less


Page: 0.4304 seconds