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.
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 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
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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
There is a scene describing a public suicide bombing that made more of an impression 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.
This too: "It is a quietly terrifying book. Perhaps it reads as a bit numb. Perhaps there is no other way to approach the subject matter of one's country slaughtering itself.
Ditto aggravation with the boyfriend--and the female friend with Alzheimer''s. What again happened to her parents? Where's her brother (No other friends or relatives--*in a country like Sri Lanka*?). She speaks nothing but English. Has she supposedly forgotten Sinhala and/or Tamil in 15 years?
Sarath near the end notes that she's finally uses "us" to include herself among Sri Lankans. Well, yeah, there's a very weird, not believable, disjunction here; One might feel this way if returning after 40 years but. But a bigger problem is that I didn't pick up that he had noted this previously. Of course, anyone, even a former native, landing in the midst of civil war or casual murders, has a hard time getting a grip on the rules and dimensions, but that's not what I'm referring to right now.
I should warn that you will learn very little about the causes of this terrible war (as if any aren't ...), Sri Lanka's history, the ethnic and religious divides. Very odd that closing chapter with Anand reconstructing a large hillside Buddha image. (Despite the similarities of what the Taliban did in Afghanistan, please note that Sri Lanka doesn't have many Muslims.). There were surprisingly few other Buddhist references in the novel.
There's another out-of-kilter scene at the end when the named prime minister is killed in a suicide bombing, very similar to the circumstances in which Rajiv Gandhi was killed. It just doesn't fit with the otherwise vague details of good guys/bad guys/conflicting parties. The dead man Anil has been trying to identify was murdered by govt death squads, right? Which 'the govt" is now trying to hide. So this is the dead pm's policy? Not necessarily. In real life, in real developing countries, a govt can always fob off a death squad on a few rogues, find some bodies to prosecute (and maybe assure light sentences too.) And even the purest of prime minsters in corrupt countries may have little or no power to control the army or elements of the army or paramilitary groups. But does Ondaatje know that? Or does he figure that his readers won't know? There's little in the novel to clue readers in developed countries of how things work. But, hey, maybe he's writing with Indian, Sri Lankan, Latin American readers in mind ...
While using the same successful and engaging writing style, Ondaatje's Anil doesn't seem quite to make it.