19 November 2020

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje



I really got into Ondaatje when I studied English lit in university but my attempts to read his books since have been hit and miss. I love The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion but wasn't a big fan of Divisadero. I found this book at Value Village earlier this year and finally had some time to spend on it. 

Ondaatje is such a beautiful and descriptive writer that it's never really mattered to me what the actual plot of the book is, however, in Anil's Ghost Anil is a forensic anthropologist who has returned home to investigate the human rights abuses of the civil war in Sri Lanka. If that isn't the most interesting job/setting/activity I don't know what is. 

I know absolutely nothing about Sri Lanka or their civil war, I actually had to look up where the country is on a map and was shocked to learn it's basically the other side of the world. Ondaatje is from Sri Lanka so it's easy for him to romanticize it in his writing.

It was a fearful nation, public sorrow was stamped down by the climate of uncertainty. If a father protested a son's death, it was feared another family member would be killed. If people you knew disappeared, there was a chance they might stay alive if you did not cause trouble. This was the scarring psychosis in the country. Death, loss, was 'unfinished,' so you could not walk through it."

The book is primarily told from Anil's perspective but there are also parts told from her project partner named Sarath, as well as a few other characters. To be honest, some storylines I could not make sense of. Ondaatje's writing can get to complicated and go over my head at times. 

Michael Ondaatje


There are a lot of really personal accounts of the civil war told by different characters in a way that really humanizes the experience. It's much easier for me to understand the concept of war as it pertains to families or relationships than in terms of countries, armies, etc. I really appreciated the careful way Ondaatje weaves the war into the story without turning it into a history lesson. I loved parts like this told from the perspective of a doctor about how the war ruined his new marriage:

The bodies were coming in by truckloads. She didn't love the smell of scrub lotion on my arms. The fact that I would use medicinal aids during my shifts. So that later I was not fully awake in her company. Not great courtship. I'd get into a bath and pass out. My honeymoon was at a base hospital. The country was falling apart and my wife's family complained about my unavailability. I was supposed to have my shirt ironed and go to a dinner party, hold her hand as we waited for the car..."

The idea of "truth" was a recurring theme throughout the book. Anil is digging up bodies buried during the civil war and using them to investigate human rights crimes, but she is so focused on a single objective truth and struggles with the idea that it might depend on who she's asking. This idea comes up again and again as she gets deeper into her investigation of one particular body and is caught in the middle of a government scandal. 

'They still don't know what the truth was. We have never had the truth. Not even with your work on bones.'

'We use the bone to search for it. The truth shall set you free. I believe that.'

'Most of the time in our world, truth is just opinion.'"

She is also fixated on the "truth" as it pertains to an affair she had back in America that she reflects on often in the story. She doesn't trust what she remembers about their relationship - suspecting it exists better in her memory than it did in real life... ain't that the truest thing I ever heard... I am really interested in anthropology so her field work was interesting but I still found her reflections on her affair to be the most interesting parts of the book.

The disintegration of the relationship was so certain on her part that she would never replay any of their days together. She had been fooled by energy and charm; he had wept and burrowed under her intelligence until she felt she had none left."

Overall, it's no English Patient, but I enjoyed it way more than the last Ondaatje I read. It is still a more difficult read just because of how he jumps around from perspective to perspective and through different periods of time, but it's worth the effort if you enjoy really descriptive storytelling. 

One last funny thing is that Anil recalls how in Sri Lankan movie theatres if there's a funny or really good part of the movie the audience yells until the projectionist replays the scene. Meg would lose her mind. 

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