Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost recounts Sri Lanka’s civil war that has raged for years and has claimed thousands of lives. The struggle has also left parts of the country in desolation. However, the novel is more metaphorical than realistic in its rendering of the events, more poetic than historical in its approach. The religious, political, and ethnic complexities that lie behind the killing and the destroying are vaguely defined. After all, Sri Lanka’s conflict counts as one among many in obscure parts of the world—the kind of news that gets a few lines on the inside page of an overseas newspaper.
The island nation of Sri Lanka lies off the southern coast of India. Lush and exquisitely beautiful, the country possesses extensive natural resources, including rubber, minerals, and rich soil perfect for growing tea. In better days, its beaches attracted European tourists. Under the rule of the British Empire for nearly a century, the nation gained independence in the 1950’s and changed its name from Ceylon to the historical Sri Lanka. Civilization had flourished there for centuries before the British arrived, and scores of temples and archaeological sites dot the countryside. While the historical and geographical background is implicit in the novel, it never comes to the forefront.
No one side in the conflict receives favored treatment. All are guilty: the government officials attempting to put down the rebellion at whatever cost and the sundry rebel groups fighting for a variety of causes ranging from separate statehood to religious domination. Instead, Ondaatje focuses on the way an atmosphere of violence affects the characters’ lives.
Anil’s arrival on the island initiates the action. Raised in Sri Lanka and educated as a forensic anthropologist in England, then working all over the world for human rights organizations and in archaeological sites, Anil has not returned to her homeland since she left to attend the university in London. This visit, though, is hardly a sentimental journey into the past; instead, Anil has been assigned by a human rights organization connected with the United Nations to investigate suspected violations by the Sri Lankan government against its citizens.
Once settled in the capital city of Colombo, Anil meets the archaeologist Sarath, who has been assigned to assist her. Their relationship turns into a shaky one at times, considering that Anil is investigating the government for which Sarath works. The suspicions that arise between the two add to the narrative tension.
As they travel around the country, sometimes in adverse conditions, they discover numerous grave sites on government ground. They approach their assignment in a strictly scientific manner—that is, by focusing on a single skeleton they discover and allowing their findings on this specimen to represent a multitude of bodies. As scientists, they set out on their task methodically, without becoming emotionally involved. Ondaatje records their research meticulously, even though the details are gruesome at times. The narrative occasionally resembles a treatise on pathology.
The skeleton, which they name “Sailor,” evolves into one of the characters as the dead man’s background is revealed. An innocent bystander, a simple villager and laborer, he was killed in the ever-present violence, then turned into a piece of evidence. After all of Anil’s and Sarath’s work, their plans go awry when they attempt to present Sailor to the government officials. Sarath becomes a victim himself, and Anil flees the island.
The work with Sailor and the climactic moment at the government agency serve as the main narrative. Interspersed between these events are glimpses of the characters’ earlier lives. Both Anil and Sarath grew up in Colombo in professional homes and had enjoyed privileged childhoods. The time after independence had been peaceful, and vestiges of British colonialism still dominated the way the upper class lived. While Anil left early on and carried memories of only the good years, Sarath stayed and faced the transition from the old order into the era of chaos, becoming bitter and hardened, especially after his wife’s suicide.
Episodes from Anil’s years in London and the United States also appear, including a brief description of her failed marriage and her disastrous affair with a married man. Also, there is a suggestion of a lesbian relationship....
(The entire section is 1805 words.)