July 13, 2009

"Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje - Documents Sri Lanka's Unsung Civil War.

Michael Ondaatje, better known for his Booker Prize winning novel "The English Patient" that was made into an Oscar Winning movie, believes ''Writing is a kind of archaeological act, ... In all my books there is a discovery of a story. You're unearthing and you're learning. The drama is to find out about the characters.''

Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost is in fact about an archaeological adventure undertaken by his protagonist Anil in the picturesque island nation of Sri Lanka, once the homeland of both Anil and the author. Anil, a forensic anthropologist, comes to Sri Lanka on an international human rights fact-finding mission to investigate possible war crimes committed in the Sri Lankan Civil War during the 1980s. Shortly into the novel, she unearths her first lead, a 'subject', which apparently is a displaced skeleton; possibly that of a tortured war victim in the 1980s. Collaborating with her on her humanitarian fact-finding mission is a native archaeologist Sarath who, as the reader finds out, also has some 'personal unearthing' to do as well. During the course of the novel, both Sarath and Anil discover closely guarded secrets of the Civil War as a result of their archaeological quest; just as they do secrets about themselves; ones that they've never admitted to, so far. Ondaatje's novel is as much about self discovery as it is about throwing light on the innumerable brutalities that went undocumented during the Sri Lankan Civil War; while Anil and Sarath, the archaeologists, open graves, Ondaatje, the writer, opens up their past to the reader with "a pen instead of a scalpel or blow torch...It's what the writer does with any character. On one level you're moving forward, but in the other, you're revealing the past."

This novel must have been special for Ondaatje since it is based in his native country of Sri Lanka that he left at the age of eight. In fact he shares this commonality with the protagonist Anil who "was a stranger but who had come from that country... who had been liberated by living in the West and was now in a country that was a male world.'' By having a female protagonist, Ondaatje gave himself "an extra pair of glasses" that "allowed (him) to see the place differently.'' Clearly, here is a novelist who wants to explore situations and identities with a plethora of lenses. However, at times, the lens is torturous, especially when focusing on the violence that became so commonplace in Sri Lanka during the 1980s.

A very intense read.


Saadia said...

Sounds very engaging, given especially, the recent Tamil defeat, thrusting Sri Lanka into the limelight. And I, for one, should read this, because during my recent trip to London, I saw some people condemning the Sri Lankan government as terrorists, at the parliament square. I couldn't understand that, so obviously, I'm not very well aware of either side of the story.

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

Your description of that book is really well made. I'll try to find it at Amazon.fr.

Just go on like this.


Swapan said...

An intense read it sure is..! Funny how little snippets stay with you - somehow the first thing that I always remember of this book even after years of reading it, is a brief description of how the eyes of the Buddha are painted on a sculpture in Sri Lanka. The eyes are said to bring the sculpture to life and are considered so sacred that the artist cannot look at the eyes he is painting. He needs to paint them over his shoulder while looking at the reflection in a mirror..!