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Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Anil's Ghost

Joe Cleetus, August 6, 2008

Comments on Anil’s Ghost – Joe Cleetus Aug 6, 2008
The style is non-linear. Ondaatje adopts this interspersed way of telling the story of Anil Tissera tracking down the site and manner of death of the corpse called ‘Sailor’. We ask why is it non-linear? The excuse may be there are several characters to weave into the story: Gamini, Sarath, Palipana, Cullis, Leaf, etc. But could they not have been accommodated in a linear narrative which is easier to follow and does not involve so many flashbacks and so many interpolations? If you want to say something about Anil’s childhood, you can add it as a recollection at some point.

The only circumstance in which the non-linear form absolutely fits is when you are telling the story from many points of view. But in this novel there is only one point of view: Anil’s. Therefore, the non-linearity has the air of being contrived. I have the feeling I could easily obtain a linear narrative by repaginating and cutting out the irrelevant portions which are there only to create an atmosphere, not move the narrative forward. Indeed some of the italicised two- or three-page segments are brooding essays, peripheral to the novel.

Anil Tissera the main character is someone we come to know many details about, but we cannot yet grasp the underlying motivation of her dangerous investigation. She came to undertake a detective investigation into possible human rights violations in the deaths of a group of males. Did the government commit an atrocity, or did some other organisation? But she brings only a cool professionalism to her work, and no passion or commitment to human rights is in evidence. The reader’s involvement in her investigations is to that extent weakened.

The human relationships in her past life are left vague. Who is this Cullis who as a student conquered her heart? There is little characterization of him in terms of behaviour, or descriptions, or why she fell for him. And neither is there a description of Anil in love with him. It is described as though it were a juvenile involvement which was soon got rid of. The relationship with Leaf gets a little more coverage. In the beginning we don’t know why she is desperate to phone Leaf. Towards the end we learn she had a lesbian affair with her and came to rely on her, but Leaf left her for the US south-west to break loose from the relationship.

The one character on whose behalf the author should have taken care to fully enlist the empathy of the reader, is Anil Tissera. At the end the only feeling I have for her is admiration for her clinical discipline in tracking down the crime.

If this is a crime novel, and that is one way of looking at it, the author has to create the drama of a detective pursuing crime through all the twists and turns until it is unraveled. It is in this mode that the story holds interest; for although it is not a fast, action-packed crime novel the reader’s interest is held to the end, even if he is tempted to skip the longer diversions in italics.

In this novel about human rights crimes, the evil is pursued doggedly. There are many descriptions of the visible signs of cruelty by the warring parties (heads impaled on posts, bodies blown up) but there is only one real description of the violent act in its commission. The President of the country is assaulted by a suicide bomber and the perforation of the President’s body by the exploding bomb filled with ball-bearings is well described. These are the kind of scenes that embed the horror of violence and provide the novelist with opportunities for realistic description of the violence that has racked Sri Lanka, and except for a brief interlude, continues unabated. I appreciated this scene and Ondaatje’s skill.

The sharpest etched characters are not Sarath, not Anil, but Gamini and Palipana. With Gamini the reader experiences empathy and we are ready to understand why the doctor has recourse to drugs in order to alleviate the dreadful situations of war-torn casualty wards, overflowing with victims. Gamini is not only human, but his work and his bleak life, (and even his sense of being impotent while growing up in the shadow of his elder brother), are all things which enhance a very believable, even attractive character.

Palipana is in the story for only one purpose: to reveal an important clue to solving ‘Sailor’s’ mystery. He advises Anil and Sarath to search out an artisan (always referred to as ‘artificer’ in this book) who paints the eye of the statue as the last act in a carving. But to get to this clue we are introduced to numerous past exploits of Palipana as an epigraphist, ending with a tour de force when he not only interpreted some rock carvings but added extra inter-linear writings which his admiring colleagues thought were false. Palipana then escapes as a recluse from the learned societies and lives in the deep forest in the site of forgotten rock carvings, and there spends his time until his death. He is looked after by his niece, Lakma. This interlude is absorbing for its cultural and historical light on the archaeological ruins of Sri Lanka, and it is written so well it could be a short story in itself. In that form it would be excellent. But why interrupt the narrative with such a long aside just to get that one clue?

It is a paradox that we have a more graphic picture in our minds of Palipana and Gamini than of Anil T, the central character. She is a wraith who floats like a ghost through this novel, even as she seeks to establish his living identity of the real ghost, ‘Sailor’. Hence, a film made from this novel will be a good thing; we will at last become familiar with her in a more palpable way than the book.

The language in many places raises questions:
p. 81 “His eyes recognised how a fault line in a rock wall might have insisted on the composure of a painted shoulder”. ?? Awkward to say the least.
p. 102 “a seven-bangled night” ??
p. 143 “describe autopsies during the trifle” (??)
p. 198 “his eyes became endangered” ??
(page references are to the Vintage Books paperback edition)

Ondaatje also uses some words in their less familiar meanings: artificer, tarmac.

The language in many places is falsely elevated, that is to say, it is puffed up without sufficient depth of thought to undergird its elevation. Better writers choose to be direct and write prose that does not veer off into effects that cannot be justified.

There is no beautiful writing here, although there is a good story, and many pieces of it are excellent as isolated accounts. Indeed the novel has many of these:
p. 218-220 Gamini is kidnapped to carry out surgery on wounded rebels.
p. 106-107 Fore-vision of Palipana’s death
p. 178 -80 Ananda describing how ‘Sailor’ worked in the mines
p. 227-231 Working as doctors in the north-east of the country
p. 288-290 An archaeological marvel

They could be excerpted and illustrated with travel photographs to make tourism piece in the glossy travel magazines. Indeed, I tend to think of this book as a tourist guide to Sri Lanka minus the driving directions. The research Ondaatje did has paid off in painting a country one must visit and see through the eyes of a Palipana or a Gamini.
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