Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #64: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Mr. Ondaatje’s award-winning fourth novel, Anil’s Ghost, is exquisitely written and has been haunting me for days as I pondered how to write this review. The book is about horrific ethnic/religious warfare. It is about government tyranny we Westerners can only imagine. It is about a beautiful nation which has yet to discover its national identity after centuries of manipulation and exploitation and division through colonial rule. It is about two brothers who took different paths for dealing with the insanity that reigned in Sri Lanka during a 26-year “civil war” during which the world basically turned a blind eye to mass abductions, rapes and murders, economic and social dislocation and forced exile. It is about hopelessness. It is also about courage.
The Sri Lankan-born Canadian author lovingly introduces us to his land and his people, taking us on a guided tour of the island-nation’s natural beauty and ancient history, but he also reveals to us a land scarred by madness. Brothers Sarath and Gamini are born privileged but in the face of the widespread poverty and unending violence in their country, each rejects the money-making orientation of their wealthy parents. Sarath becomes an archeologist, turning his eyes away from the madness and into the safety and beauty of the past, and Gamini becomes an emergency doctor, submerging himself up to his eyeballs in the blood and gore of the victims while keeping himself too exhausted to contemplate the reality he is living.
Ondaatje centers his story around Anil, a young Sri Lankan expatriate, a forensic pathologist who has lived for years in the West, and has been deployed back into Sri Lanka as part of a UN human rights mission. The Sri Lankan government assigns the archaeologist Sarath to oversee the idealistic Anil, whom he at first accuses of being like “all those journalists who file reports about flies and scabs while staying at the (tourist) Galle Face Hotel. That false empathy and blame.” But Sarath is slowly, ineluctably drawn into Anil’s increasingly dangerous mission and together they attempt to unravel the identity of a burned skeleton found interred in a government-protected sixth century archaeological burial site. If the skeleton can be proven a recent victim of violence and its identity confirmed, there will exist solid evidence to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable.
Along the way, we meet Sarath’s mentor Palipana, an old blind wise man who has withdrawn from the insane terror around him into his own jungle paradise, and the “eye painter” Ananda, who used to sculpt and paint the eyes (considered the souls) onto Buddhist idols before retreating from that same insane terror which took his beloved wife and becoming a drunk. Ananda is recruited by Sarath and Anil to reconstruct the skull of their skeleton, thereby setting the stage for a rapid and terrifying climax to their mission.
Although Ondaatje clearly seeks to portray the horror that has been visited upon his country, and to hold a mirror up to the rest of the world which failed to intervene against that horror, he also wants us to know his country in all its beauty, nobility, sacrifice and courage. I could quibble with some things in the novel, such as his inclusion of flash-backs to Anil’s just-ended love affair back home which offers absolutely nothing to the story, but in sum, I would argue that this is a novel both beautifully and horribly relevant to today’s world, where the tyrannies and the mass graves and the terror are still waiting to be intervened against.