Tag Archives: prose

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Book cover

Who would like this book?

  • people interested in books about fascinating places ( how much do you know about the country Sri Lanka, really?)
  • those who want a human face to the tragic and current civil war in Sri Lanka
  • people who enjoy prose, the narrative is poetic and airy

The Book:

Before anyone reads this, they must know that I think Michael Ondaatje is the best writer alive. It is merely my humble opinion. He’s been my favourite author since, at fourteen, a librarian naïvely recommended In the Skin of a Lion (1987) to me; she had never read it, but heard good things. Up to that point I had read up the ENTIRE young adult section and wasn’t one for Agatha Christie.

It blew my mind. I had never imagined that such beauty in print existed.

I continually find myself whispering his poetic sentences aloud, to try and capture their essence and their soul. I can hold an Ondaatje book in my hands and read a page, and be filled with it. He is my hero. The lines pull, and hint, and give.

Beautiful Sri Lankan countryside

Thick writing can be hard for people to get through. Alan, my husband, considers Ondaatje to be talented, but sometimes too ethereal to follow. Anil’s Ghost is definitely his least ethereal, his most plot driven, and also his most tragic book.

What happens in the book?

Ondaatje takes us on a journey with Anil to Sri Lanka, an island country off the coast of India. A country that, since the 1980s, has been devastated by civil war.  Anil left Sri Lanka before the war, when she was eighteen to pursue her education and eventual career as a forensic anthropologist. Her reason for coming home was not a happy one. Hired by the Centre for Human Rights in Geneva, Anil was to investigate the reports to Amnesty International and the UN of possible murder and torture executed by the Sri Lanka government. I’m guessing that the book is set in the early 1990s, after the worst of the killing had passed, but the civil war was still not over.

She was paired with a gentle man from Colombo (the largest city)  named Sarath, an archeologist. A man hard to understand because he was still and quiet, and caught between wanting to help Anil discover the truth, and living in a country where truth needs to be whispered, afraid that the next body found in a garbage dumpster would be your own.

Sarath and Anil discover a skeleton buried in a place guarded and accessible to only high level government. They discretely work at identifying the victim to build a case against the government.

Eventually the man is identified. Sarath and Anil cautiously arrange to present their findings of what everyone in Sri Lanka knows to be true: that the government had been killing people and hiding their bodies. They tread lightly, and Anil seems to not understand the seriousness of the danger they are in, just from finding out the truth.  Anil’s mission fails and she must flee the country.

As of last May, the military aspect of the civil war in Sri Lanka seems to be resolved with the government seizure of the Tamil Tiger’s lands. I recently heard a government spokesperson from Sri Lanka on the human rights in her country.  Despite her denial, citizens still seem to be facing persecution, particularly Tamils. This issue recently received some media attention in August, when a boat of Tamil refugees arrived in Vancouver.

I would also like to add that Ondaatje makes it very very clear in his book that he believes the killing came from all sides: the government, the southern insurgents, and the northern insurgents. Everyone had blood on their hands.

What is the book about?

Ondaatje left Sri Lanka when  he was eleven. The place of his childhood that soon would became a place war torn and broken. Ondaatje’s search for his own personal history and identity is palpable: how can someone come from such a place of violence and hate?  A small island of beauty and full of human spirit, both good and bad.  Anil and Sarath are attempting to identify someone who has been murdered for political reasons, killed for an idea or supposed purpose. Anil only wants to identify it, believing naïvely that this will somehow stop the horror, or somehow help someone the victim’s family. Sarath believed that the only way to carry on was to hide and bury the horror and pain. Ondaatje deeply reflects on these two opposing coping mechanisms.

The most profound delving that Ondaatje does is surrounding fear and how it rules our lives. Some of the most beautiful scenes in this book are those describing Sarath’s brother Gamini the surgeon. A man who has seen so many horrible things, he is used to prying nails out of people’s palms or blown bits of shoes out of people’s limbs. Gamini is broken, but saving others in an amphetamined existence aimed at keeping his mind busy so he does not think about how the world he lives in is so meaningless. The violence is futile and pointless. But he says something that holds the entire book together, that we are all inhabited by gods, but that the danger comes from indentifying with that god.

Sarath whispers to Anil that “I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear….”(page 135). It’s hard to argue with Ondaatje while thinking of the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war, or similar tragedies. While studying in university, Anil becomes fascinated with the Amygdala, the dark spot in the brain that regulates and holds fear; a region mainly misunderstood by the medical community.  To Anil, the word Amygdala sounded Sri Lankan, like some bad god.

Ondaatje believes that the god we all listen to and identify with is truly fear. It’s hard to argue with him after the world he depicts for us, the world that is real in Sri Lanka. It feels so far away from us in Canada where the political issues are gun registration and the municipal elections. Even here, fear still does regulates what we do. What we eat, who we marry, how we raise our children. Fear is as much a part of our instincts as the desire for comfort and love.

I think anyone who is looking to be affected would love this book. It’s full of symbolism and gorgeous prose. It is suspenseful and hard to put down, I desired nothing more then redemption for the characters. My only criticism is that Ondaatje’s timelines can be hard to keep straight. But I believe he does this on purpose to reveal how indistinguishable the past and present are, in reality.

I read this book three times and still found it lovely, heart breaking and interesting. I would love to go visit Sri Lanka some day. It seems like an amazing country.

Cheers!

Sri Lankan ruins