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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
The 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.
Anil, an American forensic scientist of Sri Lankan origin, comes back after 15 years to her homeland as a UN 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)
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.”
"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
Because so much of what has happened in the war reflects national identity, Anil's forensic investigation is as much a probe into Sri Lanka's culture, people and history as of the civil war victims. This is a quiet telling, an elegy set against the sad backdrop of Sri Lanka's civil war and veiled in the surreal, dreamlike quality of Ontaatje's prose that captures the beauty and atmosphere of the country.
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!
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 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.
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.
A nice story, and Ondjaate's usual style-yet something is missing.
* 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.
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?
While using the same successful and engaging writing style, Ondaatje's Anil doesn't seem quite to make it.