Synopses & Reviews
Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatjes Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient
, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought the story to a vast new audience. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, went on to win numerous prizes, among them nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Worldwide English-language sales of the book topped two million copies.
But in April 2000, Anils Ghost was widely hailed as Ondaatjes most powerful and engrossing novel to date. Winning a Governor Generals Literary Award for Fiction, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and the Giller Prize, Anils Ghost became an international bestseller. “Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully,” said The New York Times Book Review.
The setting is Sri Lanka. Steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition, the country has been ravaged in the late twentieth century by bloody civil war. As in The English Patient, Ondaatjes latest novel follows a womans attempt to piece together the lost life of a victim of war. Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka but educated in England and the U.S., is sent by an international human rights group to participate in an investigation into suspected mass political murders in her homeland. Working with an archaeologist, she discovers a skeleton whose identity takes Anil on a fascinating journey that involves a riveting mystery. What follows, in a novel rich with character, emotion, and incident, is a story about love and loss, about family, identity and the unknown enemy. And it is a quest to unlock the hidden past - like a handful of soil analyzed by an archaeologist, the story becomes more diffuse the farther we reach into history.
A universal tale of the casualties of war, unfolding as a detective story, the book gradually gives way to a more intricate exploration of its characters, a symphony of loss and loneliness haunted by a cast of solitary strangers and ghosts. The atrocities of a seemingly futile, muddled war are juxtaposed against the ancient, complex and ultimately redemptive culture and landscape of Sri Lanka.
Anils Ghost is Michael Ondaatje's first novel to be set in the country of his birth. “Theres a tendency with us in England and North America to say its a book ‘about Sri Lanka. But its just my take on a few characters, a personal tunnelling into that … The books not just about Sri Lanka; its a story thats very familiar in other parts of the world” - in Africa, in Yugoslavia, in South America, in Ireland. “I didnt want it to be a political tract. I wanted it to be a human study of people in the midst of fear.”
In his first novel since the internationally acclaimed The English Patient -- winner of the Booker Prize and the Governor General's Award -- Michael Ondaatje gives us a work displaying all the richness of imagery and language and the piercing emotional truth we have come to know as the hallmarks of his writing.
Anil's Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, who returns to Sri Lanka as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past - a story propelled by a riveting mystery. Unfolding against the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka's landscape and ancient civilization, Anil's Ghost is a literary spellbinder - Michael Ondaatje's most powerful novel yet.
About the Author
Author of eleven books of poetry, four novels and a fictionalized memoir, Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Colombo, capital of the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Of Tamil, Sinhalese and Dutch descent, he was the youngest of four children. He grew up during the halcyon days of colonial Ceylon on the Kutapitiya tea estate, “the most beautiful place in the world,” as he described in an interview with The Guardian
. His mothers real gift to Michael was her enthusiasm for the arts. Of his father, who served in the Ceylon light infantry, Ondaatje has said: “My father was in tea and alcohol; he dealt in tea and he drank the alcohol.” He died of a brain hemorrhage after Michael had left Sri Lanka, so Michael never got to know his father as an adult. “He is still one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut. He was a sad and mercurial figure. There was a lot I didnt know about him … In all my books there are mysteries that are not fully told.”
When Michael was five his parents separated. His mother soon went to England with two of her children; Michael stayed behind and lived with relatives, joining his mother and siblings at the age of eleven. He relinquished his sarong and donned a tie - an item of clothing hed never seen before - to attend Dulwich College, whose alumni include writers Graham Swift, P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. (One of Michaels former teachers expressed surprise when Ondaatje won the Booker, since he had “always seemed more interested in cricket.”) In 1962, at the age of nineteen, he went to Quebec, where his brother Christopher (today a businessman and explorer) was living. It was in Canada that Michael Ondaatjes writing life began in earnest: “[Y]ou felt you could do anything. I wouldnt have been a writer if Id stayed in England … where you feel, what right do you have to do this because of John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney. England felt repressive in the fifties … Moving, you learn twice as much; it doubles you in some way, like living three or four lives.”
Ondaatje obtained a B.A. from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from Queens University, then taught at the University of Western Ontario and at York University. In the seventies he edited poetry, produced anthologies and critical works and short documentary films, and began his involvement with the small press Coach House.
Although he was thrust onto the world stage by the tremendous success of The English Patient, Ondaatje, who lives in Toronto, remains an intensely private person. “Privacy is essential,” he says. “Ive seen a lot of writers being interpreted by their personalities - Ginsberg, Layton …You want the book to be read, not the author.” When he won the Booker Prize in 1992, he used the money to inaugurate the Gratiaen award - named after his mother - as an annual literary prize for Sri Lankan writers.
In his writing Ondaatje employs a technique of blurring fact and fiction in an imaginative collage. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, contain fact alongside fiction. For example, in Coming Through Slaughter he relates the real and imagined life of New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden; in Running in the Family, he writes a fictionalized memoir of the unconventional life of his parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon. Some of Ondaatjes major influences come from Henri Rousseau paintings, Diego Rivera murals, Sri Lankan temple sculpture and, most of all, the music and rhythms of jazz. “If I could be Fats Waller, I wouldnt be writing.”
Reading Group Guide
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?