Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost
by Michael Ondaatje
Published in 2000
Published by McClelland & Stewart

The protagonist of our story is Anil, a forensic pathologist of Sinhalese heritage who has been based in the United States for many years. She returns to her homeland of Sri Lanka to take part in a UN-sponsored human rights investigation.

She and Sarath, a local archeologist of uncertain political loyalties, attempt to track down the identity of a corpse dubbed 'Sailor', a recently killed man found in a much older burial site. Sarath and his brother Gamini, an emergency room doctor who gets through his days by heavily medicating himself, seem inured to the realities of the Sri Lankan war; they both appear cynical, or perhaps simply resigned to the slow-burning horror that is life for people enmeshed in the civil war.

Day after tomorrow my wife and I are headed to Sri Lanka to check out the tourist sites over Chinese New Year. After reading A. Sivanandan's When Memory Dies last year, which I felt to be informative (if a little dry), I felt I wanted a little more modern literature in my head, so I picked up Anil's Ghost. Michael Ondaatje is and always will be best known for The English Patient, but in Anil's Ghost he draws on his own Sri Lankan heritage

I'm tempted to cynically say Anil's Ghost belongs to the genre 'novels that explain the world's trouble spots to Westerners who want to be cosmopolitan'. (Also in this genre: The Poisonwood Bible; The Kite Runner.) There's nothing wrong with this particular genre of books; I will say, however, that a comfortable, slightly older person comfortably ensconced in the West who read Anil's Ghost might well immediately dissuade any damned fool younger relative from going to Sri Lanka on holiday.

As it is, the civil war ended in 2009, and Sri Lanka is now considered a safe country. It is actively trying to encourage the development of its tourist industry. I can already tell that the civil war is going to be the sort of topic that we politely avoid discussing with a local unless the local brings it up out of their own free will. That's fine. Hopefully there are some non-historical-horror-related travelogues or fiction floating around out there that can help cultivate a more peaceful image of the country among foreigners. (Most books recommended by our Lonely Planet seem to deal with the years of violence.)

As for Anil's Ghost, it's a very readable literary work, clearly written for Westerners, that has inserted several bits of Sri Lankan imagery into my head.

It seems to lack focus, however. The 'local' characters such as Sarath and Gamini are much more compelling and interesting than Anil herself (who despite her heritage generally comes across as a foreigner). Yet we keep getting lengthy flashbacks to Anil's life in the United States, which could have been cut entirely and the Sri Lankan story would still be intact. They're clearly there to reveal Anil's character (and there are at least three different ways to interpret the title 'Anil's Ghost'), but I felt that Anil's character was never as central to the narrative as Ondaatje probably intended. To me, the narrative was about Sri Lankan society, and the mindset created in the people by the years of horror and violence.

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