Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje (2000)

CSI meets Virginia Woolf in Sri Lanka. As in Coming Through Slaughter and The English Patient, Ondaatje is here historically specific in subject and gauzy as a fever dream in style. The titular character, a Sri Lankan forensic examiner who long ago left home, returns to serve a stint working for a human rights organization investigating war crimes and terrorism. (Crimes which have been going on for more than twenty years, and show no signs of abating.) She encounters, as you might expect, a lot of cloak and dagger doings, and characters who may or may not be trustworthy.

Two things of particular interest, one formal and one conceptual. Ondaatje uses close third person narration throughout, but has no qualms at all about bouncing from one character’s point of view to another, sometimes switching every other paragraph or even sentence in a single scene, cycling through all the heads in the room. This is, I believe, against the rules. But somehow, I found it quite accessible and even appropriate. This may have something to do with the detached, lyrical voice which governs the book.

The other issue is that of Orientalism. If paleface me were to rhapsodize about the cinnamon-scented dusty sunshine and all that, that would be icky. But if Ondaatje does, then that’s just claiming his heritage, right?

This isn’t as complex or strange as other books of Ondaatje’s, but I was taken with the way in which different varieties of inquiry and knowledge — scientific, spiritual, artistic, political — are shown to be equally useful, equally valid, equally doomed.

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