Ondaatje's 'Anil's Ghost': the only thing that's important

On Books

April 30, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Michael Ondaatje came crashing onto America's stage with the immense success of the movie adaptation of his 1992 novel "The English Patient." To me, the film was a trivial -- though slick and engaging -- entertainment, in contrast to the book, which is splendidly purposeful, humane and artful.

Now comes "Anil's Ghost," (Knopf, 311 pages, $25), Ondaatje's first novel since "The English Patient." Born in Sri Lanka and living in Canada since 1962, he has published two other novels, a memoir, three prose anthologies and 11 volumes of poetry.

"Anil's Ghost" has to be the best thing he has ever done.

Anil Tissera had left Columbo, Sri Lanka, when she was 18, for a hard-earned education in Britain and the United States. At 33, she now is returning to the land of her birth as a U.N. human rights official. A forensic anthropologist, she begins examining the remains of people who have been killed for political reasons.

The story starts as a very simple narrative of her getting to work with a partner, a local scientist, with whom there is a kind of minor, silent hostility. It unfolds as a detective tale -- an intricate effort to identify a skeleton that has been found in a site that was accessible only to high government officials.

Sri Lanka is described in fast-moving swatches, statistics, geography. Then, almost coldly, there is a list of "disappeareds" -- people who have vanished, all presumably because of their roles in some facet of hideous disputes -- tribal or ethnic or whatever you choose to call internecine warfare.

Since 1983, there has been a "continual emergency" -- racial attacks, political killings turned into a way of life: "The reason for war was war," Ondaatje writes.

The details of forensic analysis -- the tiniest imperfections in a badly battered corpse, or in the state of long-dried bones -- is an ongoing, fascinating fabric of the book.

Alongside the puzzles of bodies of people who have been murdered, mutilated, tortured, there is a counterpoint of archaeological history. There is the residue of effective hospitals that functioned five centuries before Christ. The historic and spiritual depth of Sri Lanka's Buddhist culture is poetically developed in presenting the almost saintly life of an eminent scholar who in his old age has become a contemplative ascetic.

By interweaving them, Ondaatje produces a timelessness -- or a sense of human experience beyond the reach or limits of time -- that is sustainingly moving.

But what is most compelling is the power of language:

"The victims of 'intentional violence' ... were nearly all male, in their twenties, damaged by mines, grenades, mortar shells. The doctors on duty put down Queen's Gambit or The Tea Planter's Bride and began arresting the haemorrhages. They removed metal and stone from lungs, sutured lacerated chests. In one of the hospital texts that the young doctor Gamini read was a sentence he became excessively fond of: In diagnosing a vascular injury, a high index of suspicion is necessary."

And a short while farther on, Ondaatje writes that Gamini, a doctor who is one of the book's major characters, "had heard grown men scream for their mothers as they were dying. 'Wait for me! I know you are here!' This was when he stopped believing in man's rule on earth. He turned away from every person who stood up for a war. Or the principle of one's land, or pride of ownership, or even personal rights. All of those motives ended up somehow in the arms of careless power. One was no worse and no better than the enemy. He believed only in the mothers sleeping against their children, the great sexuality of spirit in them, the sexuality of care, so the children would be confident and safe during the night."

One of Ondaatje's great strengths is to make irresistibly vivid the banality of war, of sustained terror, and of the process of violence -- war's purpose being no more -- or less -- than sustaining war.

"Anil's Ghost" is a novel about a quest for truth, the discipline of scientific precision. Yet the farther that progresses, the more dangerous -- and finally futile -- it becomes to life and values around that quest.

Thoroughly a Westerner, Anil does not relent. But her devotion, her very values become irrelevant to the ghastly drama that surrounds her inquiry.

Anil's partner, Sarath, who is the doctor Gamini's brother, is an archaeologist whose more natural and preferred pursuits are ancient artifacts and cave inscriptions -- not fresh skeletons.

"Half the world, it felt, was being buried, the truth hidden by fear, while the past revealed itself in the light of a burning rhododendron bush" in an ancient cave. "Anil would not accept this old and accepted balance. Sarath knew that for her the journey was in getting to the truth. But what would the truth bring them into? ... As an archaeologist Sarath believed in truth as a principle. That is, he would have given his life for the truth if the truth were of any use."

Ondaatje is a magnificent writer. Precision of expression, concision of thought, cleanness, clarity of detail permeate every page. He is a storyteller, and his stories work marvelously, but he is also a thinker, an explorer, a seeker of truth.

In an immense and awful consciousness of random killing, of the utter casualness of pitiless slaughter, there is also a sense of the exquisite beauty of individual life. The reader is drawn deeply to the importance and dignity of the physician's task, of healing, but more than that of saving.

Ondaatje's declaration is that survival is sublime -- that individual life is beautiful, and -- above all else -- that is what really matters.

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