She arrived in early March, the plane landing at Katunayake airport before the dawn. They had raced it ever since coming over the west coast of India, so that now passengers stepped onto the tarmac in the dark.
By the time she was out of the terminal the sun had risen. In the West she'd read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognize the phrase physically. Though it was never abrupt thunder to her. It was first of all the noise of chickens and carts and modest morning rain or a man squeakily cleaning the windows with newspaper in another part of the house.
As soon as her passport with the light-blue UN bar was processed, a young official approached and moved alongside her. She struggled with her suitcases but he offered no help.
'How long has it been? You were born here, no?'
'You still speak Sinhala?'
'A little. Look, do you mind if I don't talk in the car on the way into Colombo — I'm jet-lagged. I just want to look. Maybe drink some toddy before it gets too late. Is Gabriel's Saloon still there for head massages?'
'In Kollupitiya, yes. I knew his father.'
'My father knew his father too.'
Without touching a single suitcase he organized the loading of the bags into the car. 'Toddy!' He laughed, continuing his conversation. 'First thing after fifteen years. The return of the prodigal.'
'I'm not a prodigal.'
An hour later he shook hands energetically with her at the door of the small house they had rented for her.
'There's a meeting tomorrow with Mr. Diyasena.'
'You have friends here, no?'
Anil was glad to be alone. There was a scattering of relatives in Colombo, but she had not contacted them to let them know she was returning. She unearthed a sleeping pill from her purse, turned on the fan, chose a sarong and climbed into bed. The thing she had missed most of all were the fans. After she had left Sri Lanka at eighteen, her only real connection was the new sarong her parents sent her every Christmas (which she dutifully wore), and news clippings of swim meets. Anil had been an exceptional swimmer as a teenager, and the family never got over it; the talent was locked to her for life. As far as Sri Lankan families were concerned, if you were a well-known cricketer you could breeze into a career in business on the strength of your spin bowling or one famous inning at the Royal-Thomian match. Anil at sixteen had won the two-mile swim race that was held by the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Each year a hundred people ran into the sea, swam out to a buoy a mile away and swam back to the same beach, the fastest male and the fastest female fêted in the sports pages for a day or so. There was a photograph of her walking out of the surf that January morning — which The Observer had used with the headline 'Anil Wins It!' and which her father kept in his office. It had been studied by every distant member of the family (those in Australia, Malaysia and England, as well as those on the island), not so much because of her success but for her possible good looks now and in the future. Did she look too large in the hips?
The photographer had caught Anil's tired smile in the photograph, her right arm bent up to tear off her rubber swimming cap, some out-of-focus stragglers (she had once known who they were). The black-and-white picture had remained an icon in the family for too long.
She pushed the sheet down to the foot of the bed and lay there in the darkened room, facing the waves of air. The island no longer held her by the past. She'd spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity. Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus — In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.
Tucson Reader, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by Tucson Reader)
This book is a must-read. Powerful story line. Powerful revealing of character. And it covers a period in history that we should know about, and try to keep the world from repeating.
Joe Cleetus, August 6, 2008 (view all comments by Joe Cleetus)
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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Vintage Books USA -
by USA Today,
"It is virtually flawless, with impeccable regional details, startlingly original characters and a compelling literary plot that borders on the thriller. Ondaatje's stunning achievement is to produce an indelible novel of dangerous beauty."
by Publishers Weekly (Starred Review),
"Powerful and resonant....Ondaatje's novel satisfies one of the most exalted purposes of fiction: to illuminate the human condition through pity and terror. It may well be the capstone of his career....Masterful."
"An exquisitely imagined journey through the hellish consequences of impassioned intentions....Anil's Ghost reflects not a god's eyes but something equally unknowable."
"Michael Ondaatje breaks the rules. He forces the novel to do things it isn't supposed to do and he gets away with it. His fiction plays an elusive and dazzling game of tag with a dreamlike other reality....Anil's Ghost is an impressive achievement. Like all of his books, it is a work of high moral and aesthetic seriousness, suffused with a deep affection for and understanding of human beings and compassion for their lot."
by Janet Maslin, The New York Times,
"As he did in The English Patient, Mr. Ondaatje is able to commingle anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways....The book's real strengths lie in its profound sense of outrage, the shimmering intensity of its descriptive language and the mysterious beauty of its geography..."
by Bonnie Smothers, Booklist (Starred Review),
"Ondaatje's plea in this work, circuitous and beautifully told, is simple — a prerequisite of life is proof of existence."
by John Updike, The New Yorker,
"Ondaatje's willingness to look human suffering in the face is one of his compelling virtues, and gives his dreamlike montages their stern depth."
by Vanity Fair,
"Elegant prose and deft handling of character bring this tale of political and personal unrest to a stirring resolution."
by Boston Globe,
"A novel of exquisite refractions and angles: gorgeous but circumspect, trying to capture the essential truth by always looking first to its reflection."
by The Guardian (London),
"There is much to astonish, to disturb and to admire....Ondaatje's ability to create deeply moving fictions through indirection is a rare triumph: a poet in the skin of a novelist, he makes the mysteries of silence speak with the force of his words."
by Ariel Dorfman,
"A truly wondrous book. The layers of human history, the depth of the human body, the heartache of love and fratricide have rarely been conveyed with such dignity and translucence. I was enthralled as I have not been since The English Patient."
Now in paperback, Anil's Ghost transports readers to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late 20th century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman 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.
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