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Michael Ondaatje’s Cubist Civil War

Michael Ondaatje

Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje's first novel since The English Patient captured the 1992 Booker Prize, transports readers to Sri Lanka, dropping us smack in the middle of the island country's brutal civil war. "It is his extraordinary achievement to use magic in order to make the blood of his own country real," Richard Eder wrote of Ondaatje's new novel in The New York Times Book Review.

We sat down, and the first thing I said to him was "I have no idea where to start."

Anil's Ghost is a violent, chaotic war story, a page-turning, word-churning flash of a novel. Anil, a forensic anthropologist, "grows up in Sri Lanka," as the author summarized, "goes and gets educated abroad, and through fate or chance gets brought back by the Human Rights Commission to investigate war crimes." The new novel hasn't so much raised the bar on the forensic thriller as moved it to another place entirely.

Thirty years ago, Ondaatje constructed a strange hybrid of a book called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid out of snapshots, poems, flyers, interviews, diary entries, and songs. In the three decades since, he's continued bending and stretching the novel into marvelous shapes, building cathedrals of story, mysterious and grand adventures of the everyday. Ondaatje marries poetic instincts with narrative devices like no other novelist writing in English today.

Dave: What was the genesis of Anil's Ghost?

Ondaatje: I think it came from the image of someone returning to a country they'd once been a part of, now finding themselves a stranger in that place. That's Anil's path. She grows up in Sri Lanka, goes and gets educated abroad, and through fate or chance gets brought back by the Human Rights Commission to investigate war crimes. That story of the returning stranger seems very central to our time. That was the starting point.

You have someone who is a part of the country, and in a way, has to betray it. It's an odd state to be in, blowing the whistle on your home country. What exactly is the morality? What is your responsibility to the place you come from? Obviously, that is something that concerns me.

I wasn't sure how to write that story, how to write about the war in Sri Lanka. I decided to write from the point of view of people who are not involved in the politics, not involved actively in the war.

Dave: After finishing the novel, I went back and started reading Handwriting, your most recent book of poems. There's a lot of common ground between those two books. Obviously, Sri Lanka, but also reoccurring images or ideas. In "Buried," for instance, you use an image that reappears in Anil's Ghost: a Buddha statue being unearthed and stolen.

Ondaatje: The books are in some ways a pair, though they seem to be from a different perspective. The poetry, by its nature, is more enigmatic and aphoristic. The novel is much more detailed and tactile, of the present as opposed to the past, forensic in that sense.

But it's a different image in Handwriting. One of the metaphors was the burial and stealing of Buddhist statues, how they get stolen and buried, unearthed and resold. Like human life, a metaphor for human life. The poems are more archaeological in that way, an archaeological perspective of a war.

Dave: Late in the novel, Gamini talks about how at the end of Western novels and war films the American or Englishman invariably leaves the foreign land and returns home to tell his story. "The war, to all purposes, is over," Gamini says. "That's enough reality for the West."

But Anil's Ghost doesn't end there. The narrative continues.

Ondaatje: It's an interesting question: how do you "resolve" a novel? In my early novels, it was easy: Billy the Kid died at twenty-one. That's the end of the novel. Or [in Coming Through Slaughter] Buddy Bolden is committed to an asylum.

That's a different kind of resolution than In the Skin of a Lion where the book ends with a new starting point, two people driving off into the night and a new life beginning there. In The English Patient, there is a new life beginning for Hana and Kip. I don't see novels ending with any real sense of closure. I see the poem or the novel ending with an open door.

I didn't know that Gamini was going to make that speech about American political novels, but, in an odd way, Anil goes off at that point and we just have to stay with the country. It's a responsibility of the writer to get the reader out of the story somehow. It's a balancing act. You don't want to make it too neat or too smug. You want to suggest something new, but at the same time, resolve the drama of the action in the novel.

Dave: What drew me to your novels originally was the way you use structure to tell the stories. It's impossible to predict exactly where they are going next structurally, forward or back, or somewhere off to the side. Often a single line will carry the reader years into the future. How aware are you of the structure as you're writing?

Ondaatje: The structure happens as the story unravels, with each discovery, at each plateau, a sidebar or descant, whatever it is. I did not expect Anil's Ghost to go off into a twenty or thirty page section in the Grove of Ascetics when I began, but that seemed to be the way the book should go.

These things are discovered in the actual writing, and they're finessed later on. Once I've discovered the story, I might restructure it, maybe move things around, set up a clue that something is going to happen later, but that happens much later in an editorial capacity. Planning that sort of thing beforehand would bore the hell out of me. If I had it planned beforehand, why would I bother executing it?

It's that kind of odd mix of running with the wave, then later on having the ability to go back and jog it around a bit to make it sharper - to decide when the flashbacks occur, when the scene on the train occurs. I might move a scene like that forward or back a few pages, depending when it seemed right.

Dave: It's a very efficient style. Very suggestive. And it's often nimble enough to allow you skip over entire scenes. For example, the urinal stones: first Sarath tells Anil about them, then later Palipana mentions them again. When he does, the way you've written it, all of a sudden we're made aware of an entire missing scene. In effect, you've created another whole scene indirectly through a couple offhand lines of dialogue.

Ondaatje: And that's used as a slight dig at Sarath's interest.

It wasn't planned. I wasn't planning that response, but it seemed . . . an opportunity. When you're writing, it's as if you're within a kind of closed world. Working on a chapter like the Palipana section, it's just three or four people, but you're getting lots of cross-references and points of view occurring. Sometimes it's the old man's point of view, sometimes it's Anil's, sometimes it's the girl's. The perceptions and ironies double and triple and quadruple. You're getting everyone's point of view at the same time, which, for me, is the perfect state for a novel: a cubist state, the cubist novel.

Dave: Are there other authors you've recognized that in, that you'd feel a kinship with in that sense?

Ondaatje: If you think of a dialogue. . . In Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach there were moments of wonderful dialogue, or in Children of Light, two or three people talking and such wonderful tension in the actual dialogue - you felt a dancing going on. There's a scene of Delillo's, a wonderful fight between a husband and wife that goes on for pages and pages and pages, and you just sense that everything is alive.

It's that kind of state in a novel - you don't try to reach them when you're writing; you can't - but when you see it happening and you're somehow in the middle of the action, that's what you want in some way.

Dave: What do you read? Fiction?

Ondaatje: I read fiction, a little nonfiction, a little poetry - as various as possible. When I was writing this book, the books I didn't read were all those forensics books, all those thrillers surrounding us. I began this in 1991 or 1992, and every time I passed a rack of books there seemed to be another forensic thriller. I thought, "Oh, Christ!" I had to turn away from those.

Dave: Maybe this is what I was trying to get at by talking about structure: when you're writing, working with that blank slate, how much of your energy is channeled toward finding a new way to tell a story? Or is that entirely a product of what the specific story is?

Ondaatje: I think it is a product of the story. Anil's Ghost may be a familiar style to earlier books I've written, but it feels new to me. The vocabulary is new. The pacing is different. It feels more muted.

I'm not sure. It has to feel different to me. If I write a scene that seems familiar to something from another book, I'll test it a lot or change it or drop it.

There are situations that are similar to The English Patient, certainly, when the characters are all suddenly stuck together. There are moments that are suddenly familiar, but you try to write in a new way, and you try to write something you haven't written before. To take the writing further than you have before.

Dave: In Pico Iyer's new book, The Global Soul, he holds The English Patient up as a prime example of a new mongrel literature, stories about people who fall into the gaps between cultures. The main characters in that novel exist outside the nationalistic passions of the war; they're physically isolated, too.

In Anil's Ghost, there are parallels in Anil's alienation. She doesn't belong in Sri Lanka, and yet, she's as much Sri Lankan as anything else. She has no bearings. Even her name is not her own.

One of the central questions in the book concerns the issue of truth and the perception of it - specifically, public truth versus private truth. It reminded me of what Iyer said in the sense that a person who can detach herself from a nationalist interest is more independent and perhaps more capable of finding truth.

Palipana talks about truth. Certainly Sarath does. It's a reoccurring issue that seems to underlie the entire story.

Ondaatje: One of the things that happens in novels . . . it's almost like a continual debate with yourself. That's why you're writing the book. It's why you create characters: so you can argue with yourself.

Where I stand on this issue is somewhere between Sarath and Anil, I suppose. There are various versions of the truth.

Gamini's version, also, with his lack of interest in what the truth is or what the politics may be. If someone is dying in front of you, heal them, and if you can't save them then get on to the next one. He's more pragmatic about it. But there's also a historical sense, a kind of moral sense, a political sense - all these versions of the truth.

It's not an abstract discussion. The issue is what these characters, or anyone, will do with the truth. Sarath says, "The truth can be like a flame against a lake of petrol." Truth, at the wrong time, can be dangerous. That's a conflict for Anil, who's used to the more Western sense of holding truth above anything else.

Dave: You mentioned in another interview that you hadn't written poetry for seven years before Handwriting. Are you writing now?

Ondaatje: Right now I'm doing nothing. I'm so glad to have crawled out of this book. It took about seven years of pretty intense, tough battling - how to tell the story, what's the right way. It feels like I just finished it. I'm trying to put some distance between that and myself.

Dave: I've been making a list in my head of the scenes or moments in your books that have stayed with me over the years. In The English Patient, the description of smelling the underside of a dog's paw: "A bouquet! Great rumours of travel!" I can't tell you how many times I've smelled my dog's feet since I read that.

In In the Skin of a Lion, the boy turning on all the lights in his house to attract moths to the screen where he can inspect them up close. I spent a lot of time in the Maine woods growing up, and I would do exactly that. I used to try to explain it to friends. You watch moths? When I read the book, I just started recommending it to people instead of trying to make them understand.

I have a very vivid memory of reading "Elimination Dance" in a bathtub and laughing so loud that my roommate asked me through the door what was going on. Readers of Anil's Ghost and maybe even The English Patient might be surprised how much fun there is in the poems in The Cinnamon Peeler.

Ondaatje: Anil's Ghost is a pretty serious book, but you do want to have a break. Even within the book, you have the scenes with Leaf and Anil and their forensic interpretations of movies. It's important to have a break, not just for the reader but for the author as well. Not everything is politics. One has to develop a life.

Dave: When you were younger, writing books like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, which are almost impossible to categorize or pigeonhole - even your publisher isn't sure exactly what to call Billy the Kid; is it a prose poem, a novel, what? - did you have any ideas about what you might want to be writing down the line? Did you have a vision as to how your career might evolve?

Ondaatje: No. When I was writing Billy the Kid, all I had was the question, How do I write this book? That's always the question. I never think ahead.

Right now, I have no idea what I will write or if I will write again. There's a feeling in all the books that everything you know has to go into it. You set everything down, you've done everything, and that's it. It's your last chance. This is the last boat leaving.

Obviously, it has to be somehow connected with the story, but everything you know about passion or politics or love or truth - all those things - somehow must go in that book. So when I finish a novel, whether it's Anil's Ghost or Billy the Kid or In the Skin of a Lion, that's it. I've said everything. I have to start again from scratch. It's a strange state to be in. I'm broke, trying to build again.

Dave: Clearly, you do a lot of research when you're writing a novel - all of them, in one way or another, could be considered Historical Fiction - but always those historical facts are couched within your style; there's a balance of poetics and history. The historical almost becomes poetry.

Ondaatje: It's a very dodgy thing how you do that. I'm not quite sure how it works, if it does, in these books, but it has to be casual. Research can be a big clunker. It's difficult to know how you can make the historical light.

Italo Calvino, in one of his Memos for the Next Millennium, has a great essay on lightness. I hadn't read the essay when I was writing this book, but it's an essential principle: you can get bogged down in too much detail.

Even though there's a lot of detail about forensics in this book, it's really just a thin layer. It suggests much more. In fact, you have to keep moving, you have to keep the story going.

Dave: Like swimming.

Ondaatje: Yes, exactly. You trust that this is a good part of the water, but you don't want to sink. You want to get across. There's a great Mickey Spillane quote: "No one ever read a novel to get to the middle."

Dave: How do you feel about the book now that it's finished?

Ondaatje: When you first finish, you have no idea what it's like. Unless you're a flaming egotist, you just don't know. It's difficult to know or judge until several months have passed. That's why the response is important. If everyone hates it, then you probably would start to worry. But it's all you could have done. It's the best you could have written at the time. You hope it will communicate.

Dave: There were many, many of your supporters at McGill when I was in school there, and it was great to discover you so early in your career. I felt like I got in before the rest of the world. Then The English Patient suddenly exposed you - all of a sudden, everyone knew who Michael Ondaatje is.

Ondaatje: I'm glad it happened then and not earlier on. I'm not sure how I would have handled the airport recognition scene.

Michael Ondaatje visited Portland on May 23, 2000 to participate in the Portland Arts & Lectures series. In the afternoon, he stopped by the new Rare Book Room in our City of Books, then crossed Tenth Avenue to our Internet office and let me pester him for a half hour about his writing and the arc of his career leading up to the publication of Anil's Ghost.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
    Sale Trade Paper $6.98
  2. The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. In the Skin of a Lion
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. The English Patient
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  5. Coming Through Slaughter Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. Handwriting Used Hardcover $11.50
  7. Anil's Ghost
    Used Trade Paper $4.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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