This is my review of Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.
Having left Sri Lanka to train in the West, forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera has been selected by an international human rights group to investigate possible atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government in its attempt to control insurgents in the north and separatist guerrillas in the south. This involves working with Sarath Diyesena, the enigmatic archaeologist whom she is unsure how far to trust, because one of his relatives may be a government minister. For whatever reason, he discourages her from reading too much into the skeleton nicknamed “Sailor”, which she is convinced belongs to a recent victim, hidden amongst older human remains at a site not open to the public. Admittedly, there are some grounds for Sarath’s cynicism over short-term visitors from the West who, based in luxury hotel rooms, make casual assumptions about the country, distorted by “false empathy and blame”. “I’d believe your arguments more if you lived here,” he tells her. “You can’t just slip in, make a discovery and leave”.
The opening chapters led me to expect a political thriller in the mould of Graham Greene, but since the author is in fact more of a poet than a novelist, the narrative drive, which has a low priority for him, soon splinters into a disjointed, sometimes dreamlike sequence, swerving back and forth in time, between different viewpoints. These include: Sarath’s brother Gamini who has become obsessed with caring for war casualties, high on the drugs he needs to keep himself going; Ananda, sometime painter of eyes on the face of carved Buddhas; Palipani, translator of ancient scripts and rock graffiti who seems to have ruined his reputation by fabricating a text, when in practice perhaps he had found “hidden histories intentionally lost”, a parallel for the suppression of truth in the recent history of Sri Lanka.
I appreciate that a stream of consciousness may reveal more about the complex interweaving of culture and individual relations in the real-life struggles of a war-torn country than a straightforward documentary approach, but I found this book hard-going, mainly because of the written style. I assume that Ondaatje undertook impressive reseach of, for instance, forensics and medical practice, but this tends either to be presented in rather unnatural dialogue and passages of condensed information, like the notes for a novel rather than the work itself, or through grim scenes of death and treatment of hospital patients which tend to drift into inappropriate sentimentality.
Perhaps the weakest aspects of the story are the flashbacks to Anil’s unsatisfactory relationships with a married American writer called Cullis and a female former work colleague called Leaf. Their sketchiness and irrelevance to the drama of Sri Lanka may of course be intentional, suggesting the disjunction between Anil’s westernised persona and her native roots.
Although Ondaatje is clearly capable of writing realistic dialogue, too often it does not ring true. The wording of sentences often jars, as if written by someone with an imperfect grasp of English, but the author has spent most of his life in England and Canada. Many incidents verge on the implausible or ludicrous, such as the verging on necrophilic scenes involving the skeleton Sailor who is at various points laid out to communicate with the stars, danced with, or his former occupation deduced from the most tenuous evidence.
Despite its huge potential and originality, there is in general a self-indulgent, rambling, pretentious quality to the novel which grates on me. I accept that this view is a question of taste, and many readers may be entranced by, say, the flash forward images of Palipana’s niece honouring his death:
“She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock…which she had held onto like a raft in her years of fear. She had chiselled it where the horizon of water was, so that depending on tide and pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above their reflection or be revealed in both elements. Now she stood waist deep in the water cutting the Sinhala letters….He had once shown her such runes, finding them even in his blindness, and their marginalia of ducks, for eternity….In the tank at Kaludiya Pokuna the yard-long sentence still appears and disappears..” and so on in Kubla Khanish vein. Except that Coleridge did not mix up his romantic poetry with the exposure of political corruption and the rootless alienation of a young woman caught between different cultures, in an infusion that fails to coalesce.