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Anil's Ghost


Anil's Ghost Cover

ISBN13: 9780375724374
ISBN10: 0375724370
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, his first novel since the internationally acclaimed and Booker Prize winner The English Patient. A literary spellbinder which unfolds against the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka's landscape and ancient civilization, Anil's Ghost is a story about love, family, identity, the unknown enemy, and the quest to unlock the hidden past--a powerful story propelled by a riveting mystery.

1. Juxtapositions and fragments are central to the style and structure of Anil's Ghost. The novel opens with a scene in italics, in which we are introduced to Anil as part of a team of scientists unearthing the bodies of missing people in Guatemala. Then there is a brief scene in which Anil arrives in Sri Lanka to begin her investigation for the human rights group. This is followed by another scene in italics, describing "the place of a complete crime"--a place where Buddhist cave sculptures were "cut out of the walls with axes and saws" [p. 12]. How do these sections--upon which the author does not comment--work together, and what is the cumulative effect of such brief scenes?

2. Why is the story of how Anil got her name [pp. 67-8] important to the construction of her character? Does it imply that she has created an identity for herself, based on fierce internal promptings, that is at odds with her parents' wishes for her? Is Anil's personality well-suited to the conditions in which she finds herself in Sri Lanka?

3. Forensic expertise such as Anil's often occupies a central place in the mystery genre--as in the popular Kay Scarpetta mysteries by Patricia Cornwell or in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In what ways does Anil's Ghost fit into the genre of mystery fiction, and how does it transcend such a classification?

4. How does the section called "The Grove of Ascetics" extend the novel's exploration of the meaning of history? What is the relevance, if any, of Palipana's knowledge? How does the ancient culture of the island relate to its present situation? Does the past have permanence?

5. If you have read The English Patient, how does Anil's Ghost compare with that novel? Is it similar, with its focus on war, on history, on how people behave in dangerous political situations--or is it quite different?

6. What does Anil's affair with Cullis, as well as what we learn about her marriage, tell us about her passion and her sensuality? Given her past, is it surprising that there is no romantic involvement for her in this story?

7. Michael Ondaatje has published many books of poetry; how do the style and structure of this novel exhibit the poetic sensibility of its author?

8. Is there a single or multiple meaning behind the "ghost" of the book's title? Who or what is Anil's Ghost?

9. Why are Anil, Sarath, and Gamini so consumed by their work? What parts of their lives are they necessarily displacing or postponing for the sake of their work? Is the choice of professional over personal life the correct one, ethically speaking, within the terms of this novel?

10. Does the story of Gamini's childhood provide an adequate explanation for the rivalry between him and Sarath? Or is the rivalry caused solely by the fact that as adults they both loved the same woman? Does Sarath's wife love Gamini rather than her husband? Which of the two brothers is the more admirable one?

11. As Anil thinks about the mystery of Sailor's death, the narrator tells us, "She used to believe that meaning allowed a person a door to escape grief and fear. But she saw that those who were slammed and stained by violence lost the power of language and logic" [p. 55]. How does this insight about the loss of language and logic explain Ananda's behavior? Is Anil's search for "meaning" ultimately to be seen as naive within a context which, as the narrator tells us, "The reason for war was war" [p. 43]?

12. The acknowledgments at the end of the book tell us that the names of people who disappeared (mentioned on p. 41) are taken from an actual list in Amnesty International reports (see p. 310). Similarly, the description of the assassination of the president [pp. 291-95] is based on true events, though the president's name has been changed. Why does Ondaatje insert the names of real people, and the real situations in which they died or disappeared, in a work of fiction?

13. Certain tersely narrated episodes convey the terrifying strangeness of Sri Lanka's murderous atmosphere. About the bicycle incident he witnessed, in which the person being kidnapped was forced to embrace his captor as he was taken away, Sarath says, "It was this necessary intimacy that was disturbing" [p. 154]. Another scene describes Anil and Sarath's rescue of the crucified Gunesena; another the disappearance of Ananda's wife. How does Ondaatje's handling of these three separate examples of violence and its victims make the reader understand the horror of living with politically-motivated murder as an everyday reality?

14. What are the elements that give such emotional power to the scene in which Gamini examines and tends to the body of his murdered brother?

15. Given the crisis that occurs when Anil testifies about Sailor at the hospital, has she brought about more harm than good? If so, is she ultimately to be seen as an outsider who has intruded in a situation she doesn't fully understand? Is Sarath the true hero of the novel, and does he sacrifice his life for hers?

16. The novel ends with a chapter called "Distance," in which a vandalized statue of Buddha is reconstructed and Ananda, the artisan, is given the task of sculpting the god's eyes. Does this religious ceremony cast the novel's ending in a positive or hopeful light? How important is the theme of Buddhism, and the presence of the Buddha's gaze, throughout this story?

17. How does Ondaatje manage to convey a powerful sense of place in this novel? What are the details that communicate Sri Lanka's unique geographical and cultural identity?

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gracemy, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by gracemy)
An excellent read. I studied this novel for a south asian literature course and this was my favorite.
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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.
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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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Product Details

Ondaatje, Michael
Vintage Books USA
Mystery fiction
Psychological fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage International
Publication Date:
April 24, 2001
Grade Level:
8.00x5.18x.71 in. .55 lbs.

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Anil's Ghost Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375724374 Reviews:
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "An exquisitely imagined journey through the hellish consequences of impassioned intentions....Anil's Ghost reflects not a god's eyes but something equally unknowable."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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..."
"Review" by , "Ondaatje's plea in this work, circuitous and beautifully told, is simple — a prerequisite of life is proof of existence."
"Review" by , "Ondaatje's willingness to look human suffering in the face is one of his compelling virtues, and gives his dreamlike montages their stern depth."
"Review" by , "Elegant prose and deft handling of character bring this tale of political and personal unrest to a stirring resolution."
"Review" by , "A novel of exquisite refractions and angles: gorgeous but circumspect, trying to capture the essential truth by always looking first to its reflection."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Synopsis" by , 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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