Anil's Ghost

by Michael Ondaatje

Published by McLelland & Stewart

311 pages, 2000

Buy it online




Ondaatje's Cathartic Vision

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson


Anil's Ghost is a small, sudden glimpse into the soul of award-winning poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje. In the much anticipated follow-up to his Booker Prize and Governor General's Award-winning novel, The English Patient, Ondaatje explores both the extravagant beauty and the horrific civil war of his homeland, Sri Lanka. With swift prose, we are immediately immersed in his cathartic vision of an island's haunting history.

Anil Tissera is a forensic anthropologist returning to her native Sri Lanka to explore the current campaign of terror and murder brought about by a vast ethnic war near the end of the 20th century. She has been educated abroad and has not returned to Sri Lanka in a number of years. She returns to find the countryside torn apart by mass graves, night patrols and government interrogations. With the help of Sarath Diyasenaa, an archaeologist, Anil discovers bodies, skeletons and the beginnings of complex political mystery.

Anil and Sarath probe deeper into the mystery of the skeleton they have named Sailor, and find allies in forgotten members of Sri Lankan culture, such as Sarath's brother Gamini, the blind epigraphist Palipana and his young caretaker, and Ananda, a drunken widower with the abilities to paint death and restructure man. Ondaatje allows the reader to witness Sri Lanka through the dream-like perceptions of these characters.

There are images carved into or painted on rock -- a perspective of a village seen from the height of a nearby hill, a single line depicting a woman's back bent over a child -- that have altered Sarath's perceptions of his world. Years ago he and Palipana entered unknown rock darknesses, lit a match and saw hints of colour. They went outside and cut branches off a rhododendron, and returned and set them on fire to illuminate the cave, smoke from the green wood acrid and filling the burning light.

These were discoveries made during the worst political times, alongside a thousand little dirty acts of race and politics, gang madness and financial gain. War having come this far like a poison into the bloodstream could not get out.

Those images in caves through the smoke and firelight. The night interrogations, the vans in daylight picking up citizens at random. That man he had seen taken away on a bicycle. Mass disappearances at Suriyakanda, reports of mass graves at Ankumbura, mass graves at Akmeemana. Half the world, it felt, was being buried, the truth hidden by fear, while the past revealed itself in the light of a burning rhododendron bush.

However, don't expect a novel like Ondaatje's previous work, The English Patient, In the Skin of a Lion and Coming Through Slaughter. With Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje has abandoned some of the dense, lush prose. While his trademark poetic language remains, more dialogue and straight away narrative are included through this latest novel. As Anil's Ghost is less concerned with the intricate, intimate lives of its characters and more inspired by the heavy political climate of his homeland, it is perhaps out of necessity that Ondaatje has chosen to use crisp, clean prose when dealing with a subject as complex as the civil uprisings in Sri Lanka.

There is a constant ebb and flow of characters directly involved with the civil war; these characters range from murder victims to doctors to anthropologists to forgotten artists. While they remain somewhat distanced from the reader, they do serve Ondaatje's purpose of examining the inhabitants of this tiny island. However, this tactic is not without fault. Some major plot lines and characters are dealt with too swiftly, in almost a summary manner as we race towards more political commentary. At times, the characters and their tenuous lives seem forgotten in the mass of plot and politics compiled within Anil's Ghost.

In Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje dissects the secret enemies, identity, memory, family and turbulent past of a lush country caught in the throes of murder, betrayal and warfare. He examines and unfolds the intricate layers that make up Sri Lanka and its tumultuous inhabitants. From the intensity and urgency of this novel it becomes apparent that the dark history of Sri Lanka touches Ondaatje close as bone, resulting in a book he was compelled to write. And while this personal purge seems as though it may have been essential for the author, it doesn't create quite the same journey for the reader. | May 2000


Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.