Anil's Ghost: A Novel
The time is our own time. The place is Sri Lanka, the island nation formerly known as Ceylon, off the southern tip of India, a country steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition—and forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war and the consequences of a country divided against itself.
Into this maelstrom steps a young woman, Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to work with local officials to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island.
Bodies are discovered. Skeletons. And particularly one, nicknamed ‘Sailor.’ What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past—all 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—the most powerful novel we have yet had from Michael Ondaatje.
In his Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje explored the nature of love and betrayal in wartime. His fourth, Anil’s Ghost, is also set during a war, but unlike in World War II, the enemy is difficult to identify in the bloody sectarian upheaval that ripped Sri Lanka apart in the 1980s and ‘90s. The protagonist, Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan, left her homeland at 18 and returns to it 15 years later only as part of an international human rights fact-finding mission. In the intervening years she has become a forensic anthropologist—a career that has landed her in the killing fields of Central America, digging up the victims of Guatemala’s dirty war. Now she’s come to Sri Lanka on a similar quest. But as she soon learns, there are fundamental differences between her previous assignment and this one:
The bodies turn up weekly now. The height of the terror was ‘eighty-eight and ‘eighty-nine, but of course it was going on long before that. Every side was killing and hiding the evidence. Every side. This is an unofficial war, no one wants to alienate the foreign powers. So it’s secret gangs and squads. Not like Central America. The government was not the only one doing the killing.
In such a situation, it’s difficult to know who to trust. Anil’s colleague is one Sarath Diyasena, a Sri Lankan archaeologist whose political affiliations, if any, are murky. Together they uncover evidence of a government-sponsored murder in the shape of a skeleton they nickname Sailor. But as Anil begins her investigation into the events surrounding Sailor’s death, she finds herself caught in a web of politics, paranoia, and tragedy.
Like its predecessor, the novel explores that territory where the personal and the political intersect in the fulcrum of war. Its style, though, is more straightforward, less densely poetical. While many of Ondaatje’s literary trademarks are present—frequent shifts in time, almost hallucinatory imagery, the gradual interweaving of characters’ pasts with the present—the prose here is more accessible. This is not to say that the author has forgotten his poetic roots; subtle, evocative images abound. Consider, for example, this description of Anil at the end of the day, standing in a pool of water, “her toes among the white petals, her arms folded as she undressed the day, removing layers of events and incidents so they would no longer be within her.” In Anil’s Ghost Michael Ondaatje has crafted both a brutal examination of internecine warfare and an enduring meditation on identity, loyalty, and the unbreakable hold the past exerts over the present. —Alix Wilber
Anil’s Ghost is Michael Ondaatje’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his classic Booker prize-winning novel The English Patient. Drawing on Ondaatje’s own Sri Lankan heritage, wonderfully explored in his travel narrative Running in the Family, Anil’s Ghost is located in contemporary Sri Lanka, in the midst of interminable internecine civil war between government forces, separatist Tamils and antigovernment insurgents.
The novel’s action revolves around Anil Tissera, a young forensic anthropologist, born in Sri Lanka but educated in Europe and America, who “had courted foreignness”, and “was at ease whether on the Bakerloo line or on the highways around Santa Fe”. Anil returns to the country of her birth after 15 years on a United Nations sponsored investigation into the escalating number of politically motivated murders engulfing the island. As Anil begins to realise the scale of the murder and horror which her investigations reveal, it becomes clear that “the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here”. She reluctantly teams up with Sarath Diyasena, “the archaeologist selected by the government” to investigate a particularly sensitive murder; skeletons discovered buried in the Bandarawela caves, one of the most archaeologically sensitive sites in the entire country. One skeleton in particular fascinates both Anil and Sarath. Simply known as “Sailor”, the quest for the skeleton’s identity sucks both Anil and Sarath into the terrifying heart of darkness which makes up contemporary Sri Lankan politics. Ondaatje reflects upon the ancient history of Sri Lanka through the fragments of history and identity that Anil and Sarath uphold in the face of the murder and chaos which surrounds them.
Although Anil’s Ghost is a poetic and beautifully written book, it is also a tough, uncompromising and brave novel about a terrifying conflict that the world has chosen to ignore.—Jerry Brotton
Barnes and Noble
Halfway into Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Anil’s Ghost, there is a scene so quietly devastating that it alone makes the novel worth reading. It is the mid-1980s, and a civil war is raging on the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka. Each day, fresh corpses inundate emergency medical clinics—many of them so mutilated that they are unidentifiable and can only be classified as “disappearances.” Anil Tissera, a 33-year-old forensic anthropologist born in Sri Lanka and educated abroad, returns to the island as part of a United Nations human rights campaign to prove that mass murders are taking place. In the hope of identifying the corpses, she takes the unusual step of hiring a local “face painter” named Ananda, who, with mud, soot, paint, and sheer instinct, reconstructs the ghostly visage of one suspiciously disinterred body. Anil then shows the image around the local villages, hoping that it will be recognized. This grisly mask becomes Anil’s Ghost, and she raises it high to reveal to the world, and the government of Sri Lanka, that she knows what has been going on.
In addition to being his best story yet, Ondaatje’s tale is a similarly brave and grisly act of reanimation: It conjures a dark period in Sri Lankan history and reveals how the atrocities directly affect the three main characters. The novel begins with Anil’s arrival on the island and builds outward from there. Forty-nine-year-old archaeologist Sarath Diaysena is assigned by the Sri Lankan government to be Anil’s official guide, but in spite of his expertise, he never really warms to the role. Sarath wants nothing to do with stirring up trouble. Since his wife’s suicide, he has withdrawn into his work, attempting to buffer himself against the horrors being perpetrated all around him. His brother Gamini, a doctor who works in the field clinics, cannot afford the luxury of denial; the grim casualties of war are wheeled into his clinic by the hour. Unlike Sarath, he knows that one day soon he will recognize one of the victims.
When Sarath and Anil leave the city for the remote villages where Ministry of Health officials rarely, if ever, go, it becomes all but impossible for Sarath to remain uninvolved. Severed heads are staked out along the roads as a warning to anyone thinking of joining the resistance. Even the reticent Sarath admits that small guerrilla groups can hardly be the cause of such widespread brutality. Gamini, meanwhile, is so overwhelmed with triage and autopsies that he turns to his own supply of pharmaceuticals in order to stay awake. Despite the obvious signs of mass murder, Sarath begs Anil not to continue her investigation. He knows how the government will respond to an outsider who tries to exhume its dirty secrets. But Anil knows that it is this very fear that must be overcome if the murders are to be stopped. When she and Sarath find a person who can help them confirm the age of a body interred in a government-controlled cave, there is no turning back.
The remainder of the novel chronicles Anil and Sarath’s quest to learn the origins of this body and its identity. Even in the last 20 pages, the novel’s crucial questions remain artfully suspended: How much safety is Sarath willing to sacrifice in order to bring these atrocities to light? Will the body be recognized? Will Sarath ever open up to Anil? Will either of them back down when their snooping comes to light? Anil’s Ghost is the closest Ondaatje is likely to come to writing a page-turner; many readers will likely devour it in one sitting.
But what makes this more than just a thrilling tale, and invites rereadings, is the way Ondaatje textures his characters’ interior lives. And this is where we get vintage Ondaatje. Using flashbacks and brilliant set pieces, Ondaatje spreads out their histories before us like a cartographer, and through this careful mapping we feel his characters’ pain and disillusionment. There is Anil’s growing guilt over having left Sri Lanka before the disappearances began, and her attempt to expiate that guilt by working to bring these events to light. There is Gamini’s struggle to keep hope alive after so many bodies have died in his arms. And finally, there is Sarath’s judicious approach to each new atrocity, an attitude that mirrors his technique of keeping a close lid on his heart.
In Ondaatje’s literary universe, it is through loving that we define ourselves, and his characters reveal their essential natures by how they do and do not love. Anil has recently run out on her boyfriend after stabbing him in the arm with a small knife. The face painter Ananda’s own wife is numbered among the disappearances. When reconstructing the faces of the missing, he gives each of them a serene portrayal, in the hope that his wife, too, will find peace. Sarath’s wife, who killed herself at the height of the disappearances, is a more indirect casualty. At the nexus of these three characters is Gamini. Like Anil, he is living on the edge—giving his life to the cause of helping others—but unlike Sarath, he is willing to risk his heart by trying to find true love.
In Ondaatje’s previous books, his characters transcended their war-ravaged condition through sexual connection. Here, however, sex is the ground upon which the political battles raging around the characters turn personal, where people learn their fates. Ultimately, what brings home the crushing truth of the atrocities is the extent to which each character gives up on romantic love. Yet in the midst of such emotional decimation, Anil never abandons her struggle to bring the murders to light. Matters of the heart are defined by what we sacrifice. And by risking everything for truth, Anil delivers her most profound expression of love to her reclaimed country. — John Freeman