Study Guide

Anil's Ghost

by Michael Ondaatje

Anil's Ghost Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anil’s Ghost takes place during a gruesome civil war during the 1980’s in Sri Lanka. It explores the legacy left by colonialism, represented through the actions of Anil Tissera, a forensic pathologist revisiting the country after a fifteen-year absence as part of a U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses. Alienated from Sri Lankan culture, Tissera blinds herself to the mortal danger in which her investigations place her fellow archaeologist, Sarath Diyasena, affiliated with the government.

Although the delicacy of language describing mental and physical wounds becomes “balm” to war’s brutality, in Anil’s Ghost Ondaatje most often reflects brutality directly, replacing the lushness of his earlier work with spare, straight narrative. Indeed, as seventy thousand citizens are quietly spirited away and murdered, silence replaces words as a reaction to repression. Characters find release in extreme acts: For example, Sarath’s brother, Dr. Gamini Diyasena, lives like a beggar, snatching sleep at the hospital and taking drugs to continue performing round-the-clock surgery on civil war victims. When Anil discovers scientific evidence implicating the government in war crimes, Sarath tells her to abandon her notes and equipment and to leave the country. Her departure means that she is also abandoning those she has tried to help. Indeed, Ondaatje shows that Tissera, with her Western need to uncover “Truth,” causes the suppression of the very truth she seeks.

Soon, Gamini discovers Sarath’s dead body on a gurney. The novel concludes with Gamini pondering his surrender of his emotional and material existence to others. For both Anil and Sarath, science and politics intersect disastrously; for Gamini, deeply attuned to his community, they work together to offer a protective camouflage enabling him to live to feel the “sweet touch of the world.”

Anil's Ghost Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The terrorism which has thrived in Sri Lanka since the early 1980’s forms a backdrop for this novel, although the historical factions involved in its ongoing guerrilla war are never explicitly named. Instead, Ondaatje’s focus is on themes of family, history, identity, and the effects of violence on these important elements of humanity. The novel is developed with Ondaatje’s characteristic indirection, but it is told primarily from Anil’s point of view, moving backward and forward through her own history as she grapples with the problem of collecting evidence which will prove that the skeleton with which she is entrusted met with a recent and violent death.

Anil’s life has been privileged. She grew up in a well-to-do Sri Lankan family and studied first in London and then in the United States, where she participated eagerly in the strange community of forensic investigators. Now she has been called by a human rights organization to use her considerable analytical skills in her native country, a nation which feels familiar to her in many ways. She knows its language, food, clothing, and customs; she even has a few acquaintances left in the capital city. However, she is also aware that the country’s political turmoil means that no one can be taken at face value; no secret is entirely safe. For that reason she cannot feel quite sure that Sarath, the archaeologist with whom she must work, can be trusted when she realizes that the skeleton they have...

(The entire section is 445 words.)