The most disturbing aspect of Ondaatje's novel is that were it not for his reputation with his previous novels, Anil's Ghost would have gone the same way as so many other novels about Sri Lanka's dark recent past and present. The story is familiar to many who lived through the 'troubles' of the early 1990s, in fact I was often overcome with a serious sense of deja-vu, with whole passages seeming to have been repeated from conversations that many Sri Lankan's hold with their own families.
Where Ondaatje excells is in describing the terminally complex politics of the island in a way that is at least accessible to the layman. In this respect there can be little doubt that this is one of the most readable novels of the period, but often seems to be displaced from the reality of the daily Sri Lankan experience. Quite simply, were it not for the names, it could be anywhere.
The device of Anil's name itself is a nice one, with the character choosing the name for herself, somewhat like Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, formally Serendipity, nee Lanka, and sometimes Shri Lanka. It is an aspect of the novel which could have been developed far more. But this is one of the many problems with the novel. The only way to tell such a story is by stripping it down to the bare bones. Yes, it is poetic and subtle, and manages to avoid the mire of Sri Lankan politics, but in doing so it also looses its identity as a novel about Sri Lanka.
The one real difficulty that I have with the novel is that, while it illustrates the horrors of the island, it does so at the expense of the reality. Sri Lanka has a sense of humour, but that is never conveyed in the text and makes it seem that we all live in terminal fear. Indeed, Anil defines her autopsies by the 'fear gland'. This does undermine the sense of humanity that is so strongly needed in a novel of this sort. Ultimately Anil's Ghost had to be written by a writer of Ondaatje's stature, simply to make people listen. It is a book that everone who read the affected English Patient, and all those navel gazing literary critics should read with a passion. But it must, however, be remembered that there are many other Sri Lankan writers who are equally eloquent, and far too many who never find a voice in Sri Lanka's continuing 'horror'.