was born in Sri Lanka of English, Singhalese
and Dutch ancestors but has lived in Canada since 1962. For more
information on Ondaatje and an argument for Toronto as the multicultural
era's model city, see Pico Iyer's The Global
Soul.) As Sarath Diyasena, Anil's Sri Lankan partner in the
investigation, tells her,
"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. You had, and still have,
three camps of enemies--one in the north, two in the south--using
weapons, propaganda, fear, sophisticated posters, censorship.
Importing state-of-the-art weapons from the West, or manufacturing
homemade weapons. A couple of years ago people just started disappearing.
Or bodies kept being found burned beyond recognition. There's
no hope for affixing blame. And no one can tell who the victims
While Anil (who "had courted foreignness"
in her years abroad) finds herself surprisingly happy to be home
again, the sudden proximity to the anonymous violence is jarring,
and the officially unacknowledged war's moral complexities are
greater than she'd imagined they would be:
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.
For a time, Anil's work is stymied. "Doors
that should be open are closed," she tells Sarath. Then,
while working high in the mountains at a site accessible only
to government officials, she and Sarath find a relatively recent
murder victim (he had been killed five to six years in the past)
hidden among ancient artifacts. The body, they find, had been
burned when it was newly dead--or perhaps the victim (whom Sarath
and Anil nickname 'Sailor') was even burned alive.
In the midst of growing anxiety and uncertainty
about her own safety and the value of the investigation, Anil
resolves to identify the body as a gesture of defiance against
the war of fear that controls her homeplace. "To give him
a name," Ondaatje writes, "would name the rest."
There's a practical reason to emphasize the Sailor investigation
too, of course. Since the body had been hidden in an area accessible
only by government officials, the implication that the government
itself is responsible for the murder is unavoidable: "She
and Sarath both knew that in all the turbulent history of the
island's recent civil wars, in all the token police investigations,
not one murder charge had been made during the troubles. But
this could be a clear case against the government."
But as Anil quickly discovers, in a country
where the government is routinely (if secretly) dropping its
enemies out of helicopters high over the ocean, pursuing such
an investigation isn't going to be accepted readily.
Anil's Ghost is a fast,
enthralling read. Indeed, it almost feels like a thriller at
times with its ferociously addictive pull, but Ondaatje is up
to far more complex things here than most thrillers pursue: complex
themes; sophisticated, extended backstories; and--perhaps most
importantly--a supreme attention to the artistic weight of each
sentence as an end in itself. Ondaatje (who has published more
books of poetry than he has fiction) writes with an understated
concision, moving with a stunning smoothness between the past
and the present and breaking his chapters up into smaller sections
that seem to balance and hover over the text with a magical,
poetic glow. He wanders a little too far from the mystery of
Sailor's death in the last third of the book, but the extended
exploration of Anil, Sarath and Sarath's brother Gamini that
he undertakes there almost compensates for the novel's loss of
speed and momentum.
Reviewers of a certain sort dread having to
review a book that seems to offer few flaws to pick apart. I
am not one of them. Anil's Ghost is masterly work, and
it is distinguished by some of the best, most intelligent writing
I have read in some time.