Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost

by Michael Ondaatje

With his first novel since the internationally acclaimed The English Patient, Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje gives us a work displaying all the richness of imagery and language and the piercing emotional truth that we have come to know as the hallmarks of his writing.

Anil’s Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of

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With his first novel since the internationally acclaimed The English Patient, Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje gives us a work displaying all the richness of imagery and language and the piercing emotional truth that we have come to know as the hallmarks of his writing.

Anil’s Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, who returns to her homeland as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past a story 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, Michael Ondaatje’s most powerful novel yet.

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Editorial Reviews
Anil's Ghost

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

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German Edition

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Chapter One

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?'

'Fifteen years.'

'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.'

'Thank you.'

'You havefriends here, no?'

'Not really.'

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.

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What People are saying about this

Ariel Dorfman
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.

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