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 clinicsmany 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 Since his wife's suicide, he has withdrawn into his work, attempting to buffer himself against the horrors being perpetrated all around him.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 edgegiving his life to the cause of helping othersbut 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.
Robert Allen Papinchak
Anil's Ghost is virtually flawless, with impeccable regional details, startlingly original characters and a compelling literary plot that borders on the thriller.
Anil's Ghost has a collage-like structure that hops among scenes from the past and present of different characters' lives. The fragmented narrative heightens the sense that these characters only halfway inhabit their lives; the constant terrors of the war, and in Anil's case, the sudden death of her parents more than a decade earlier, have forced them to build up their emotional defenses.
Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan who lives in Canada, is a master poet is evident on every page. His shimmering prose, along with the novel's surprise ending and insights into the way political turmoil affects individual lives, makes Anil's Ghost a worthy successor to The English Patient
Wall Street Journal
If Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was about the spaces in war that allow humanity to slip through, the same can be said of his follow-up, Anil's Ghost. That it deals with an entirely different sort of war, however, makes a great difference. Set in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's birthplace and home to an ongoing, undeclared war between the government and various factions of rebels, Anil's Ghost concerns the efforts of Anil, a Western-trained forensics expert returning to her homeland and finding the chance to prove an unidentified skeleton the victim of government assassination. Aided at various times by an archeologist, his estranged doctor brother, and a drunken artist, she encounters obstacles at nearly every turn. Less concerned with the mystery than what it means to pursue it and what pursuing it means to each character, Ondaatje's richly textured novel explores its explosive scenario by portraying the aftermath--the weary camaraderie of the overcrowded emergency room, the haunted lives of those left behind--with the poetic grace and awareness of moral ambiguity he brought to The English Patient. In the process, Ondaatje makes his story recognizable as all too universal. "Only our weapons are state-of-the-art," a character laments at one point, and the reference could apply just as easily to Somalia or Central America. That Ondaatje musters up something like a hopeful ending says much about the generosity of spirit at work in his book, and it says even more that it can ring true after such an unflinching portrayal of violence, absurdity, and loss.
The Onion AV Club
Michael Ondaatje breaks the rules. He forces the novel to do things it isn't supposed to do and he gets away with it. His fiction plays an elusive and dazzling game of tag with a dreamlike other reality...Anil's Ghost is an impressive achievement. Like all of his books, it is a work of high moral and aesthetic seriousness, suffused with a deep affection for and understanding of human beings and compassion for their lot.
An exquisitely imagined journey through the hellish consequences of impassioned intentions . . . The uncanny power of Anil's Ghost stems largely from Ondaatje's refusal to frame his tale as a struggle of good and evil . . . The author notes at one point the ancient rite of painting the eyes of new statues of the Buddha . . . Anil's Ghost reflects not a god's eyes but something equally unknowable.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While he is generally considered a Canadian writer, Booker Prize-winner Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, and he has chosen to set his powerful and resonant new novel in that country during its gruesome civil war in the mid-1980s. Written in his usual cryptic, elliptical style, much of the story is told in flashbacks, with Ondaatje hinting at secrets even as he divulges facts, revealing his characters' motivations through their desperate or passionate behavior and, most of all, conveying the essence of a people, a country and its history via individual stories etched against a background of natural beauty and human brutality. Anil Tessira, a 33-year-old native Sri Lankan who left her country 15 years before, is a forensic pathologist sent by the U.N. human rights commission to investigate reports of mass murders on the island. Atrocities are being committed by three groups: the government, anti-government insurgents, and separatist guerrillas. Working secretly, these warring forces are decimating a population paralyzed by pervasive fear. Taciturn archeologist Sarath Diyasena is assigned by the government to be Anil's partner; at 49, he is emotionally withdrawn from the chaotic contemporary world, reserving his passion for the prehistoric shards of his profession. Together, Anil and Sarath discover that a skeleton interred among ancient bones in a government-protected sanctuary is that of a recently killed young man. Anil defiantly sets out to document this murder by identifying the victim and then making an official report. Throughout their combined forensic and archeological investigation, detailed by Ondaatje with the meticulous accuracy readers will remember from descriptions of the bomb sapper's procedures in The English Patient, Sarath remains a mysterious figure to Anil. Her confusion about his motives is reinforced when she meets his brother, Gamini, an emergency room doctor who is as intimately involved in his country's turmoil as Sarath refuses to be. The lives of these characters, and of others in their orbits, emerge circuitously, layer by layer. In the end, Anil's moral indignation--and her innocence--place her in exquisite danger, and Sarath is moved to a life-defining sacrifice. Here the narrative, whose revelations have been building with a quiet ferocity, assumes the tension of a thriller, its chilling insights augmented by the visceral emotional effects that masterful literature can provide. More effective than a documentary, Ondaatje's novel satisfies one of the most exalted purposes of fiction: to illuminate the human condition through pity and terror. It may well be the capstone of his career. 200,000 first printing; Random House audio. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
In this lush yet acerbic new novel by Ondaatje--trumpeted as his first since The English Patient and, interestingly, the first he has set in his native Sri Lanka--Anil returns home after 15 years. Hers is not a sentimental journey, however. Anil is a forensic specialist who has recently been unearthing mass graves in Guatemala, and her mission in Sri Lanka is to conduct a human rights investigation. (In the late 1980s and early 1990s, government, antigovernment, and separatist forces clashed to produce countless deaths.) Anil is teamed with archaeologist Sarath Diyasena in an intimate yet uneasy alliance; she is never quite sure where he stands politically, as he is smart enough to have kept his head down. In a government-protected archaeological preserve, they find a skeleton that is assuredly not prehistoric, and Anil is up and running to discover its identity. The reluctant Sarath follows her lead, and as the country's recent tortured history is unfolded, he introduces her to a number of people who help them, including his own black-sheep brother, a doctor. In the end, their efforts come to nothing, and Sarath pays a supreme sacrifice to protect the sometimes puzzlingly na ve Anil. In fact, as the novel closes, it is the relationship and reconciliation of Sarath and his brother that, touchingly, takes center stage; Anil and her plight (we've heard about her abortive love life, her mortally ill friend) just fade. This powerful novel will educate even sophisticated readers who think they understand human brutality. Though it falls apart structurally toward the end, dissipating its energy as it fragments, this is still better (and more important) reading than much of what is out there.[Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/00.]--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
YA-Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, returns to her homeland of Sri Lanka as a member of an international human-rights group investigating abuses that occurred during the country's decade-long civil war. She teams up with Sarath Diyasena, an archaeologist who works for the Sri Lankan government. Together they unearth a skeleton and, using their skills and training, patiently piece together parts of the man's life and violent death. Along the way, they each deal with ghosts of their own. Ondaatje weaves the present time of the story, sometime in the 1990s, with plenty of flashbacks to the characters' pasts. Several of the murders are mentioned in enough detail to relate how the victim was tortured, but none of the specifics are described. Intensely written, the book skillfully conveys the tension, fear, and stress Anil and Sarath feel as they discover the past life, another ghost, of the skeleton they have found. The author shows the hopelessness and inability of the general population to find any way of stopping the unrelenting massacres, all in the name of politics and beliefs. He deftly describes the effects of war on individuals, a nation, and a people as an entity. Young, attractive Anil and her story should appeal to teens who are interested in human rights, and have seen the movie or read Ondaatje's The English Patient.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
The dizzying sensation of immersion in a copiously imagined world rules Anil's Ghost. Ondaatje wanders its cluttered attics and empty drawing rooms with the intimacy of a native and the clearsightedness of a foreigner, finding a place where the living are as ghostly as the dead, but less easily consoled.
As in The English Patient, Ondaatje seamlessly melds historical esoterica with flashing insights into the emotional worlds of his characters, setting all this against a backdrop of trauma and triage, both personal and social...Ondaatje is a wizard at conjuring the wounded and damaged; despite being rooted in a very specific era, his novel rings with an ethereal, timeless quality. His sagelike voice, so successful in The English Patient, has remained true.
Time Out New York
In Michael Ondaatje's haunting new novel, forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera returns to her native Sri Lanka - at the request of an international human rights organization - to investigate the disappearance of untold numbers of islanders. Anil's Ghost is not the first book Ondaatje has written about his home country, but it is the first novel he has set on the Indian Ocean island, where he has not lived since 1962. Like his last novel, the Booker Prize-winning English Patient, this one takes place during wartime, though here the three-pronged conflict - among the government, antigovernment insurgents, and separatist terrorists - is undeclared, and, therefore, the combatants are not obvious. That confusion makes the task of identifying an unearthed human skeleton especially daunting - and dangerous - for Anil and Sarath, her Sri Lankan colleague. Ondaajte, always an extraordinary wordsmith, has written a tragedy that is nothing short of Shakespearean - utterly, horribly, powerfully beautiful.
NY Times Book Review
Michael Ondaatje's novels swing
on fiction's rope -- they launch
into a flight of myth, and are caught up
once more in agile narrative hands. Like
trapeze artists, they fly from one
arm-straining gravity to another, across a
shocking gap of weightlessness...It is Ondaatje's extraordinary achievement to use magic in order to make the blood of his own country real.
Christian Science Monitor
[A] gripping story...You'll have to remind yourself to keep breathing as you read this book...Ondaatje is a master at portraying unconsummated desire.
As he did in "The English Patient," Mr. Ondaatje is able to commingle
anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways...The book's real strengths lie in its profound sense of outrage, the
shimmering intensity of its descriptive language and the mysterious beauty
of its geography...
New York Times
Ondaatje wrote of war in his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient. He visits it again, here with Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan woman who left at eighteen for an education in America and England and returns fifteen years later as part of a human rights fact-finding team. The beauty in this novel is the lyricism Ondaatje interjects into even mundane situations. He creates a roster of intriguing characters whose paths cross because of the war and its violent aftermath. This novel may be more accessible than Ondaatje's previous work, but it is still dense. He shifts focus, changes location, travels in time. One wishes to linger over a passage, flip back a few pages, reread, but loses the opportunity to slowly absorb all of Ondaatje's finely crafted wordplay when listening to the audiobook. Cumming, a skilled Broadway actor, has a cultured and pleasing manner. His leisurely pacing suits the story, as he gives us time to take in the author's intent and moves along quickly.
From the Publisher
"Read this book. Be changed."
—The Globe and Mail
“Unquestionably Ondaatje’s finest work ... A book that surpasses The English Patient in both depth of feeling and intellectual reach … Anil’s Ghost is the most remarkable of the many remarkable novels Michael Ondaatje has written.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Anil’s Ghost moves with the suspense of a mystery, yet with breathtaking grace … A rare triumph.”
—The Guardian (London)
“A truly wondrous book. The layers of human history, the depth of the human body, the heartache of love and fratricide have rarely been conveyed with such dignity and translucence. I was enthralled as I have not been since The English Patient.”
“Ondaatje’s most mature and engrossing novel … In Anil’s Ghost he has employed all his talents to create a searing, compassionate novel of extraordinary beauty and desolation.”
“Breathtaking ... Stunningly beautiful … Compelling ... Michael Ondaatje once again commands both astonishment and admiration – astonishment at the quality of his prose and admiration for the emotional energy that informs his work ... With the consummate skill of the master novelist, Ondaatje, each word carefully chosen, builds his story toward its startling conclusion … His sense of sad inevitability and his exquisite use of imagery lend themselves to the themes of displacement and loss that lift the novel far beyond the familiar. Anil’s Ghost is a brilliant book, emotionally well-informed, graceful and, in a word, superb.”
—The London Free Press
“Virtually flawless, with impeccable regional details, startlingly original characters, and a compelling literary plot that borders on the thriller, Ondaatje’s stunning achievement is to produce an indelible novel of dangerous beauty.”
“A new masterwork by one of contemporary fiction’s titans.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“There are times when the only response to the book is silence, the feeling that something beautiful is being whispered to you in a crowded room, something you will remember forever, but cannot immediately respond to … [Anil’s Ghost] deserves, like a skeleton that forms its mystery, to be read over and over again.”
“The story here, meticulously researched for seven years, is that of ordinary people caught up in a war not of their own making and professionals trying to keep up with their consciences. Excavation is the theme – finding out exactly who had inhabited the body of a contemporary skeleton, nicknamed ‘Sailor’ by Anil, unearthed at a government archaeological site. But it is Anil, too, who is being unearthed, challenged, her liberal values tested on the touchstone of terror. Each character has his or her own ghosts to come to terms with.”
—A. Sivanandan, author of When Memory Dies
“It is Ondaatje’s extraordinary achievement to use magic in order to make the blood of his own country real ... Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“[This] is war as no one else has written of it: where the tragedy, the terrible waste and horror of war is transformed into a kind of hallucinatory poetry [that] engages our deepest concerns.”
—Anita Desai, Good Book Guide
“Sinuous, intelligent, graceful.”
—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“As in The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje is able to commingle anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Ondaatje is a choreographer of images ... What gives his writing its particular weight and magic is the labyrinthine consciousness at its center ... A novel of exquisite refractions and angles.”
—The Boston Globe
“Anil’s Ghost is the most harrowing of Ondaatje’s novels. It is also the toughest, most sincere and in some ways the best since Coming Through Slaughter … His images [are] genuinely, eerily, almost inappropriately beautiful.”
—The Toronto Star
“This work of ‘fiction’ will endure as a history of these times, showing us how we may face even the most extreme actions of our civilization through wise, compassionate re-creation.”
—The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Read an Excerpt
She arrived in early March, the plane landing at Katunayake airport before the dawn. They had raced it ever since coming over the west coast of India, so that now passengers stepped onto the tarmac in the dark.
By the time she was out of the terminal the sun had risen. In the West she'd read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognize the phrase physically. Though it was never abrupt thunder to her. It was first of all the noise of chickens and carts and modest morning rain or a man squeakily cleaning the windows with newspaper in another part of the house.
As soon as her passport with the light-blue UN bar was processed, a young official approached and moved alongside her. She struggled with her suitcases but he offered no help.
'How long has it been? You were born here, no?'
'You still speak Sinhala?'
'A little. Look, do you mind if I don't talk in the car on the way into Colombo I'm jet-lagged. I just want to look. Maybe drink some toddy before it gets too late. Is Gabriel's Saloon still there for head massages?'
'In Kollupitiya, yes. I knew his father.'
'My father knew his father too.'
Without touching a single suitcase he organized the loading of the bags into the car. 'Toddy!' He laughed, continuing his conversation. 'First thing after fifteen years. The return of the prodigal.'
'I'm not a prodigal.'
An hour later he shook hands energetically with her at the door of the small house they had rented for her.
'There's a meeting tomorrow with Mr. Diyasena.'
'You havefriends here, no?'
Anil was glad to be alone. There was a scattering of relatives in Colombo, but she had not contacted them to let them know she was returning. She unearthed a sleeping pill from her purse, turned on the fan, chose a sarong and climbed into bed. The thing she had missed most of all were the fans. After she had left Sri Lanka at eighteen, her only real connection was the new sarong her parents sent her every Christmas (which she dutifully wore), and news clippings of swim meets. Anil had been an exceptional swimmer as a teenager, and the family never got over it; the talent was locked to her for life. As far as Sri Lankan families were concerned, if you were a well-known cricketer you could breeze into a career in business on the strength of your spin bowling or one famous inning at the Royal-Thomian match. Anil at sixteen had won the two-mile swim race that was held by the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Each year a hundred people ran into the sea, swam out to a buoy a mile away and swam back to the same beach, the fastest male and the fastest female fêted in the sports pages for a day or so. There was a photograph of her walking out of the surf that January morning which The Observer had used with the headline 'Anil Wins It!' and which her father kept in his office. It had been studied by every distant member of the family (those in Australia, Malaysia and England, as well as those on the island), not so much because of her success but for her possible good looks now and in the future. Did she look too large in the hips?
The photographer had caught Anil's tired smile in the photograph, her right arm bent up to tear off her rubber swimming cap, some out-of-focus stragglers (she had once known who they were). The black-and-white picture had remained an icon in the family for too long.
She pushed the sheet down to the foot of the bed and lay there in the darkened room, facing the waves of air. The island no longer held her by the past. She'd spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity. Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.