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The Dawning Hour of Our Enlightenment
Michael Ondaatje's
Anil's Ghost

by Daphne Frostchild

A forensic pathologist sets out to solve a government-backed murder in Sri Lanka. But as she 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.

With his new novel, Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje demonstrates quite beautifully how well-positioned post-colonial fiction is, as a genre, to blur the lines between apparent opposites--truth and fiction, poetry and documentary, the past and the present, the living and the dead--and offer Western readers much more complicated models of how we should realistically expect to pass through our seemingly self-isolating global society.

As Anil's Ghost opens, Ondaatje's heroine, Anil Tissera--a thirty-three-year-old Sri Lankan forensic pathologist who travels under a British passport--has returned to Sri Lanka after fifteen years as part of a Geneva-based human rights investigation into the mass murders being committed in the island's three-sided 'unofficial' war. (Ondaatje himself

Anil's Ghost
Michael Ondaatje
Alfred A. Knopf
312 pp.
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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 are."


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.




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