Anil's Ghost

by Michael Ondaatje

Hardcover, 2000

Collection

Publication

Knopf (2000), Edition: 1st, 311 pages

Description

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 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.
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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 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.
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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 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.… (more)
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 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.
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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 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 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.
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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, 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
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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 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)
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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 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.
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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 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.

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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!
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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.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
Anil Tissera has returned to her native Sri Lanka as a pathologist for an international human rights organization to investigate deaths of Sri Lankans in the civil war of the 1990s. She is assisted by Saratha, a local archaeologist and his brother, an emergency physician. It's a subtle story that is not so much about the war, but quietly entangled with the passions and loyalties of the people. There are myriad tragedies to be faced beyond the allegations. As anyone from a country that has experienced civil war can attest, understanding the allegiance of those around you is paramount. Anil's colleagues are complex, shadowy, careful, only to be expected in the circumstances, but Ondaatje gives them a remarkable verisimilitude.

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.
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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.

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.
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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 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.

Quotes:
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.”
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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 characters.
LibraryThing member petescisco
Set in the bloody confusion and treachery of the Sri Lankan civil war, readers confront issues of trust, betrayal, honor, and hope. Surprising and believable in its depiction of human corruption and sacrifice, two extremes that do so much to define our species.
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 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.
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LibraryThing member gward101
He may be best known as the writer behind The English Patient but Michael Ondaatje is an accomplished poet too and it shows in the hauntingly beautiful prose of Anil's Ghost. It is a beauty which contrasts sharply with the book's grim subject matter. In his follow-up novel to The English Patient the Sri Lankan-born author takes us back to his homeland to reveal a country torn apart by civil war in which killings are commonplace and unexplained 'disappearances' are an everyday occurrence. Into the midst of this bloody conflict steps forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera, a woman who was born in Sri Lanka but has been living and working abroad. Tasked by an international human rights group with investigating the death squads seemingly roaming the country at will, Anil embarks on a quest to identify a modern-day skeleton discovered at an archaeological site and find out how and why the man died - no matter where that investigation might take her or at what cost.… (more)
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 harrowing and full of fantastic character moments, big and small. Ondaatje's beautiful prose and keen insight can carry the reader through anything.… (more)
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 Periodista
I'd like to second wordlikeabell's review below. She says, "I found myself frustrated by this book and I wonder if I would have been if I had read it." Nope, I read it rather than listened to it and I wondered if I had inadvertently skipped some parts.

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 ...
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LibraryThing member mariamreza
Good in highlighting the human cost of the Sri Lankan civil war, but otherwise this book was difficult to get into due to the disjointed chronology of Ondaatje's narration as well as fairly uninteresting characters.
LibraryThing member Katie_H
Anil leaves her native Sri Lanka at the ago of 18 and returns several years later to a very different country, one ravaged by civil war. She is a forensic anthropologist on a UN human rights assigment, and she is sent to assist in determining the source of the murders that are plaguing the country. Her partner is Sarath, a Sri Lankan anthropologist, who becomes her friend and helps her put the situation in perspective. After some detective work, they locate several skeletons, one of which is nicknamed "Sailor." Through their research, they are able to determine the cause of death, pointing to the sinister role of the government in the atrocities, but now, they must make their research known. Ananda, a man skilled in the sacred work of "eye painting," is another intriguing character presented in the novel. The narrative is lyrical, descriptive, and subtle, but I found myself losing interest often. The plot just did not move quickly enough for my taste, and I did not get a satisfactory feel for the setting of Sri Lanka. In addition to that, the ending was not adequate and left to many ends untied.… (more)
LibraryThing member wendywh
A confusing novel. The two stories, one in background and one in main theme, seems disconnected.
LibraryThing member screamingbanshee
Interesting in many respects: the prose is easy yet lovely, the topic (forensic medicine with a human rights angle), and the treatment of shifting in dimensions. But somehow I didn't really like Anil's character. She didn't seem quite real, a trite stereotype of the many do-gooders. Somehow her motivations seemed forced.
While using the same successful and engaging writing style, Ondaatje's Anil doesn't seem quite to make it.
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Pages

311

ISBN

0375410538 / 9780375410536
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