Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri-Lanka but moved to Canada. His novels rarely spoke of his Sri Lankan roots and of his books, this, I think, is the only one that tackles his birth-country.
Ondaatje’s novel is set during a great crisis in Sri Lanka. He notes at the beginning of the book that:
In the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Sri-Lanka was in a crisis that involves three (3) essential groups: The government, the anti-government insurgents in the south, and the separatist guerillas in the north.
According to Wikipedia, the civil war against insurgent groups lasted 25 years. It caused great difficulty to the economy, the environment and the people of Sri-Lanka. It has been estimated that 80,000 – 100,000 people were killed in the duration. While the Tamil Tigers (the insurgents) were considered terrorists in 32 countries across the globe, the Sri-Lankan government forces were also accused of abusing human rights.
It is in this backdrop that Ondaatje tells the story of Anil’s Ghost.
The protagonist, Anil, finds herself returning to her birth country. Since she left at 18 for a US scholarship, she had never returned to Sri Lanka. It has been 15 years and she had no immediate family anymore. Her parents died shortly after she left for the US in a car accident.
The reader feels the hesitation in Anil as she sets foot in Sri Lanka. She had come back as a forensic anthropologist for the international human rights group. Her tongue is more familiar with English that it is with Sinhala. Aside from her appearance and maybe name, she was no longer a Sri Lankan citizen and this was just a job she needed to do. Yet, like most homecoming, Anil Tissera finds herself declaring Sri Lanka as her real home.
Ondaatje allows us glimpses in Anil’s life before going back to Sri Lanka to build on how much she has changed and how much she has adapted to the western/academic life while narrating where she now, in the story.
Her work as a visiting Forensic Anthropologist in Sri Lanka finds her in the company of Sadith, an archaeologist working for the Sri Lankan government.
The Journey with the Sailor
Anil and Sadith go through a journey that began with identifying “Sailor,” a body they found in a government-protected cave. Unlike the other bones found in this area, “Sailor’s” were fairly new. Investigating the death of a possible government killing is dangerous and difficult. Their limited resources push Anil and Sadith to Journey outside Colombo to seek the talents of Sadith’s old mentor and the Painter of God’s eye.
There are moments in this Journey that remind me so much of Bones. I suppose having watched Bones made me easily imagine the process it takes to identify Sailor. Sailor’s remains was the only one they found with a skull. It required facial reconstruction. They didn’t have an Angela to do it or the technology to approximate the face. Hence, began the journey to a far away mountain in search of an old mentor. As facial reconstruction begins, Anil attempts to learn more about Sailor by understanding his occupation. To Anil, learning the occupation of the deceased is a vital step into identifying the body.
“She realized there were two possible versions of a life that could be deduced from the skeleton in front of her. And the two aspects of the skeleton do not logically fit. The first, from her reading of the bones, suggested ‘activity’ above the height of the shoulder…the other version of his was different…the heel bones suggested an alternate profile completely, a man static and sedentary.”
As they unknot the story behind Sailor, they open a whole bag of beans that spins the story to its climax. The reader is on the edge of her seat as they come closer to finding at least the village Sailor lived. And as the journey moves forward, Anil meets new people and the reader learns of the story behind these characters.
The Lives in the Backdrop
Anil’s Ghost opens with Anil’s story, a Sri-Lankan born forensic anthropologist who comes home after 15 years. However, as her story unravels the reader also catches a glimpse of the life of an archeologist, of a doctor, of miner, and an old scientist against the backdrop of chaotic Sri Lanka. It is here that Ondaatje brings life to the citizens of Sri Lanka. While Sadith’s life unravels alongside Anil’s, we are also introduced to Gamini, the doctor and brother of Sadith. By lending the lens to this character, the author, brings to light the amount of death and bloodshed an emergency doctor has to face. We hear of the lack of supply, the tired doctor, and Gamini’s dependency on drugs to keep going.
We are also pulled into the lives of Ananda, the artist Anil takes to reconstruct Sailor’s face. We discover the loss he had to endure in the midst of the chaos in his village. It is in Ananda’s story that the reader gets to see the meaningless violence innocent people have to endure.
If anything, none of the lives Ondaatje narrates is easy. However, it is these parts that touch the reader and make the reader see the crisis beyond the political arena, and right into the homes of the country’s people. For a Filipino reader, it’s a story that reminiscent of the insurgency in Mindanao or even the struggle for freedom during the Marcos era.
As the story builds, the reader can feel that fear is thick. The author spends time building the idea that “the truth bounced between gossip and vengeance” with the scenes he allows the reader to witness. The more I got into the book, the more suspicious I became of some characters, which makes the story telling even more effective.
Ondaatje’s narrative moves through time. It doesn’t commit to one narrative line. It weaves characters, their past, present and future throughout the pages. The only clue the reader gets in terms of the time line is the italics. Those in italics speak of a character that is about to be introduced—a back-story of sorts.
The author tells the story of his character by allowing them to float in and out of their memories. The reader picks up the character story, creating her own judgment of the character independent of how the characters perceive each other. It is here that I, as a reader, felt for each character and for some reason as Anil would describe it:
“I can never understand someone by his strengths. Nothing is revealed there. I can only understand people by their weakness”
I came to believe that by revealing each character’s flaw, the reader gets to understand the character and their motivations.
The ghost isn’t a figure in white roaming around to scare people. Anil’s ghost is a memory, a gratitude that will never be paid back. She shares this ghost with the Eyes of God painter—Ananda:
“He could feel its partial warmth on his arms, saw it light the brocade costume he wore over Sarath’s cotton shirt—the one he had promised himself he would wear for this morning’s ceremony. He and the woman Anil would carry the ghost of Sarath Diyasena.“
Anil’s Ghost was never really about Anil, but about brothers, their choices and the way they chose to serve the country they love. At times, I felt that Anil was the observer or the mover of the story that led the lives of these people to intertwine. Ondaatje’s story tugs at the heart. It allows the reader to feel for the character, to go with them in their difficulties and in their choices.
I had so much to write about the book, but I fear if I wrote more I would give away everything. Anil’s Ghost is something worth sitting through. It is both exotic and familiar. Its narrative buoys the reader through a land so strange and different, but to lives that all of us could at some points relate.