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Michael Ondaatje: Anil’s Ghost

This is Ondaatje’s attempt to try and address the slaughter that took place in his country of birth, Sri Lanka. His heroine is Anil Tissera, a forensic pathologist. She was born in Sri Lanka but has since emigrated to Britain and then the United States. We see her investigating bodies in Guatemala at the very beginning but the bulk of the story is her return to the country of her birth to investigate bodies as part of a United Nations human rights investigation. She is assigned to work with Sarath Diyasena, a local archeologist. Working in a disused ship, they examine bodies that are brought to them. The skeletons they examine appear to be from a sixth century grave but Anil is suspicious of a bone she finds, which looks decidedly modern. She suggests that they go and check out the site, which is a government protected site to which non-authorised people are not admitted. Sarath gets them a permit – it seems that he has connections – and they set off. At the site, they find four bodies, which they name Tinker, Tailor, Solider and Sailor. Sailor, it seems, is twentieth century and not sixth century.

Ondaatje gives us considerable detail of the investigation that Sarath and Anil carry out, checking who Sailor might have been, why he was in a sixth century grave, how he got there and why he was there. The mystery is enhanced by the fact that Anil suspects Sarath may well be in league with the government authorities, not least because he seems to have connections and relatives in high places. But we then move to Sarath’s back story and, more particularly, to the story of his brother, Gamini, an accident and emergency doctor. Gamini claims to have no politics, only that of helping the sick and injured. He lives for his work – it has led to his rich wife divorcing him – and he helps Sarath and Anil. He also tells Anil (and us) horror stories of the atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict. (We’re all fucked, aren’t we. We don’t know what to do about it. We just throw ourselves into it. Just no more high horses, please. This is a war on foot, he says.) In order to identify Sailor, Sarath and Anil recruit Ananda, a man who had been a painter of Buddhist faces but whose wife, a teacher, had disappeared, an event from which he had never really recovered. He had recently been working in the gem mines but is willing to help Sarath and Anil. However, it is clear that their investigation is getting too close for comfort to the powers-that-be. The body of Sailor disappears and Anil has to flee the country.

Ondaatje does not shy away from showing us the horrors of the war, both the disappearances, murders and tortures but also the horrific effects of these events on the survivors. For Anil, it is about justice and human rights, while for Gamini it is about helping as much as a doctor can, those that are victims of horrible crimes. Sarath has tended to immerse himself in archeology, hoping that focussing on the past will help him to ignore the present. His contact with his guru, a man who has been exposed as a fraud but who still seems to have a special knowledge of the history of the island and is now living well away from contact with the world, shows the importance for Ondaatje both of keeping in touch with history and nature. Indeed, for both brothers, they wish to escape dealing with the world they are faced with (He and his brother had become content with aloneness, the lack of necessity for speaking.) Anil is the consummate scientist (Information could always be clarified and acted upon) but her science does not always work in Sri Lanka (But here, on this island, she realised she was moving with only one arm of language among uncertain laws and a fear that was everywhere.) Ultimately, it is truth that is questioned. In such a situation, it is not only hard to find, it is hard to define, not least as everyone has a different perspective – the various parties, those that live on the island, those, like Anil, who are only there temporarily and, of course, the press (Sarath had seen truth broken into suitable pieces and used by the foreign press alongside irrelevant photographs. A flippant gesture towards Asia that might lead, as a result of this information, to new vengeance and slaughter. There were dangers in handing truth to an unsafe city around you. As an archaeologist Sarath believed in truth as a principle. That is, he would have given his life for the truth if the truth were of any use.) and Westerners in general (American movies, English books—remember how they all end?’ Gamini asked that night. ‘The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.). As with his other books, it is both Ondaatje’s poetic descriptions as well as his superb depiction of life not being black and white but only shades of grey that make this another very fine work.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by McClelland and Stewart