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Anil's Ghost
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on 17 April 2002
There are many good things in this novel but ulimately it doesn't add up to the sum of its parts.

The first half is particularly good setting the scene in Sri Lanka in a state of civil war and the descriptions of the lives of the medical staff are particularly involving and moving. He also does a good job of setting all this in the historical background.

However, about 2/3rds of the way through Ondaatjie seems to loose interest in his nominal 'plot' -the search for the identity of a skeleton found by the main protagonists. We then get a long digression into the life of what had previously been a minor character. When we finally get back to the plot it ends in such a perfuctory way that I was left with a feeling of is that it?

Some wonderful writing, but a lack of coherent structure or plot, plus characters who remain somewhat enigmatic means that the whole thing is much less involving and moving than you might expect.

Maybye the whole thing works much better if you know something about Sri Lanka?
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on 25 November 2010
Although this is a work of fiction, its detailed analysis of Sri Lanka's conflict read more like a documentary. Ondaatje's understanding of forensic anthroplogy and for the gruelling work the medical staff dealing with numerous bomb and minefield victims was impressive. For the most part the reader is given a politically neutral observation of the troubles. The character of Anil did not work for me and the principal reason I did not enjoy the novel. Anil's character was meticulously drawn and there were interesting aspects to her background: how she became to be called Anil: a woman who had left Sri Lanka aged 18, studied medicine in England and North Amrica, and worked in troubled spots in Africa and Guatamala, and a relationship with a married man called Cussil but sadly Ondaatje's Anil is cold and dispassionate and her role in the novel virtually peters out by the end. Ondaatje may have been using this technique deliberately after all the book is called Anil's Ghost but I wondered why the novel seems to focus on Gamini towards the end whose tenuous connection to Anil through Sarath seemed flimsy other than to bring the brutally ugly experiences for a Doctor in Sri Lanka at the time. All in all Ondaatje evokes heart rending detail but as a novel I was less interested.
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VINE VOICEon 25 July 2001
More than anything else, Anil's ghost is a complete novel in the sense that it fills out and is built within a typical Ondaatje framework; a detailed examination of the lives of a few characters thrown fatefully together into a setting which magnifies their natures for the reader to see. Ondaatje sets out to show what these people are like under the circumstances he creates. He does not set out to explore or explain the circumstances themselves, and anyone who is looking for an examination of the political situation in Sri Lanka would be rightly disappointed. Ondaatje concentrates instead on extracting details from his characters and stretching them out into his own poetic language. He is to be praised for the scale of his achievement in giving such an involved picture of these characters without getting stuck in politics.
If all you are looking for is a beautiful and simple narrative and loving treatment of characters then this novel will provide it and leave you feeling complete.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 August 2016
Having left Sri Lanka to train in the West, forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera has been selected by an international human rights group to investigate possible atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government in its attempt to control insurgents in the north and separatist guerrillas in the south. This involves working with Sarath Diyesena, the enigmatic archaeologist whom she is unsure how far to trust, because one of his relatives may be a government minister. For whatever reason, he discourages her from reading too much into the skeleton nicknamed “Sailor”, which she is convinced belongs to a recent victim, hidden amongst older human remains at a site not open to the public. Admittedly, there are some grounds for Sarath’s cynicism over short-term visitors from the West who, based in luxury hotel rooms, make casual assumptions about the country, distorted by “false empathy and blame”. “I’d believe your arguments more if you lived here,” he tells her. “You can’t just slip in, make a discovery and leave”.

The opening chapters led me to expect a political thriller in the mould of Graham Greene, but since the author is in fact more of a poet than a novelist, the narrative drive, which has a low priority for him, soon splinters into a disjointed, sometimes dreamlike sequence, swerving back and forth in time, between different viewpoints. These include: Sarath’s brother Gamini who has become obsessed with caring for war casualties, high on the drugs he needs to keep himself going; Ananda, sometime painter of eyes on the face of carved Buddhas; Palipani, translator of ancient scripts and rock graffiti who seems to have ruined his reputation by fabricating a text, when in practice perhaps he had found “hidden histories intentionally lost”, a parallel for the suppression of truth in the recent history of Sri Lanka.

I appreciate that a stream of consciousness may reveal more about the complex interweaving of culture and individual relations in the real-life struggles of a war-torn country than a straightforward documentary approach, but I found this book hard-going, mainly because of the written style. I assume that Ondaatje undertook impressive reseach of, for instance, forensics and medical practice, but this tends either to be presented in rather unnatural dialogue and passages of condensed information, like the notes for a novel rather than the work itself, or through grim scenes of death and treatment of hospital patients which tend to drift into inappropriate sentimentality.

Perhaps the weakest aspects of the story are the flashbacks to Anil’s unsatisfactory relationships with a married American writer called Cullis and a female former work colleague called Leaf. Their sketchiness and irrelevance to the drama of Sri Lanka may of course be intentional, suggesting the disjunction between Anil’s westernised persona and her native roots.

Although Ondaatje is clearly capable of writing realistic dialogue, too often it does not ring true. The wording of sentences often jars, as if written by someone with an imperfect grasp of English, but the author has spent most of his life in England and Canada. Many incidents verge on the implausible or ludicrous, such as the verging on necrophilic scenes involving the skeleton Sailor who is at various points laid out to communicate with the stars, danced with, or his former occupation deduced from the most tenuous evidence.

Despite its huge potential and originality, there is in general a self-indulgent, rambling, pretentious quality to the novel which grates on me. I accept that this view is a question of taste, and many readers may be entranced by, say, the flash forward images of Palipana’s niece honouring his death:

“She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock…which she had held onto like a raft in her years of fear. She had chiselled it where the horizon of water was, so that depending on tide and pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above their reflection or be revealed in both elements. Now she stood waist deep in the water cutting the Sinhala letters….He had once shown her such runes, finding them even in his blindness, and their marginalia of ducks, for eternity….In the tank at Kaludiya Pokuna the yard-long sentence still appears and disappears..” and so on in Kubla Khanish vein. Except that Coleridge did not mix up his romantic poetry with the exposure of political corruption and the rootless alienation of a young woman caught between different cultures, in an infusion that fails to coalesce.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 August 2016
Having left Sri Lanka to train in the West, forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera has been selected by an international human rights group to investigate possible atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government in its attempt to control insurgents in the north and separatist guerrillas in the south. This involves working with Sarath Diyesena, the enigmatic archaeologist whom she is unsure how far to trust, because one of his relatives may be a government minister. For whatever reason, he discourages her from reading too much into the skeleton nicknamed “Sailor”, which she is convinced belongs to a recent victim, hidden amongst older human remains at a site not open to the public. Admittedly, there are some grounds for Sarath’s cynicism over short-term visitors from the West who, based in luxury hotel rooms, make casual assumptions about the country, distorted by “false empathy and blame”. “I’d believe your arguments more if you lived here,” he tells her. “You can’t just slip in, make a discovery and leave”.

The opening chapters led me to expect a political thriller in the mould of Graham Greene, but since the author is in fact more of a poet than a novelist, the narrative drive, which has a low priority for him, soon splinters into a disjointed, sometimes dreamlike sequence, swerving back and forth in time, between different viewpoints. These include: Sarath’s brother Gamini who has become obsessed with caring for war casualties, high on the drugs he needs to keep himself going; Ananda, sometime painter of eyes on the face of carved Buddhas; Palipani, translator of ancient scripts and rock graffiti who seems to have ruined his reputation by fabricating a text, when in practice perhaps he had found “hidden histories intentionally lost”, a parallel for the suppression of truth in the recent history of Sri Lanka.

I appreciate that a stream of consciousness may reveal more about the complex interweaving of culture and individual relations in the real-life struggles of a war-torn country than a straightforward documentary approach, but I found this book hard-going, mainly because of the written style. I assume that Ondaatje undertook impressive reseach of, for instance, forensics and medical practice, but this tends either to be presented in rather unnatural dialogue and passages of condensed information, like the notes for a novel rather than the work itself, or through grim scenes of death and treatment of hospital patients which tend to drift into inappropriate sentimentality.

Perhaps the weakest aspects of the story are the flashbacks to Anil’s unsatisfactory relationships with a married American writer called Cullis and a female former work colleague called Leaf. Their sketchiness and irrelevance to the drama of Sri Lanka may of course be intentional, suggesting the disjunction between Anil’s westernised persona and her native roots.

Although Ondaatje is clearly capable of writing realistic dialogue, too often it does not ring true. The wording of sentences often jars, as if written by someone with an imperfect grasp of English, but the author has spent most of his life in England and Canada. Many incidents verge on the implausible or ludicrous, such as the verging on necrophilic scenes involving the skeleton Sailor who is at various points laid out to communicate with the stars, danced with, or his former occupation deduced from the most tenuous evidence.

Despite its huge potential and originality, there is in general a self-indulgent, rambling, pretentious quality to the novel which grates on me. I accept that this view is a question of taste, and many readers may be entranced by, say, the flash forward images of Palipana’s niece honouring his death:

“She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock…which she had held onto like a raft in her years of fear. She had chiselled it where the horizon of water was, so that depending on tide and pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above their reflection or be revealed in both elements. Now she stood waist deep in the water cutting the Sinhala letters….He had once shown her such runes, finding them even in his blindness, and their marginalia of ducks, for eternity….In the tank at Kaludiya Pokuna the yard-long sentence still appears and disappears..” and so on in Kubla Khanish vein. Except that Coleridge did not mix up his romantic poetry with the exposure of political corruption and the rootless alienation of a young woman caught between different cultures, in an infusion that fails to coalesce.
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on 13 February 2009
I'm still not quite sure what I made of this. It's certainly a very dense novel set against a fascinating and gruesome period. I liked the multiple viewpoints and stories, but ultimately found it a little disappointing in terms of 'closure' - so many stories are left unfinished. Perhaps the very point is that during times of war, ends are never tied up, people disappear, stories fade away without reaching conclusion. It's a fair artistic point, but a little unfulfilling in a novel. Nonetheless, a worthy read.
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on 29 March 2011
A delicate and awfully sad piece. Written with elegance but at the same time intense emotivity. I would have expected nothing less from such an author. Ondatje casts his troubled characters against the shadow of a terrible and extremely complicated civil war very successfully, so much so that one is brought to hard consideration of mankind's tendency to unspeakable cruelty. I strongly recommend this book to a more involved and sensitive readership.
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on 3 March 2016
In some ways this felt slight (plotwise), disjointed and inconsequential (nothing much really happens in the end), but it's full of evocative images and I was fascinated by the descriptions of the life of a doctor patching up victims of torture and civil war. In fact I'd have been happier if the whole book were about Gamini rather than Anil, who I found less compelling
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on 4 February 2013
Set in Sri Lanka, a story about loss, trust, the past and letting go. Tells the story of the atrocities of the civil war in Sri Lanka while the central character comes back to her own country and revisits the past and comes to terms with how her country has been hiding its past. strong characterisation of the central characters. Very atmospheric.
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on 30 May 2000
This brilliant, stimulating novel reminded me a great deal of 'The Color Purple', especially regarding the theme of subjectivity. Some of the critics of Walker's book said that for Celie to desire to become her own person, to express her subjectivity was wrong, since it was the overbearing subjectivity of the White European male which had created the tradition of slavery that still coloured Celie's life decades after its abolition
Ondaatje's landscape is similar. Okay, so Ondaatje's intention is to supply fictional biography (as opposed to Celie's fictional autobiography), but the same issue of subjectivity resounds. 'Anil's Ghost' is at heart a novel about language. A novel about meaning. Ondaatje promotes the very sound notion that language is all around us: there is the language of touch (the personal way Ananda touches Anil in the novel), the language of noise (the ancient culture centred around music, the drumming that awaits identification of the head that Ananda fabricates), the language of sight (Anil sees Palipana at one point as an 'idea'). The author reminds us of that primeval language, of a time before written symbols, and recites a humorous, but significant tale of what a certain order of monks used to do to graven images. It's probably no accident that Anil's favourite rock star is Prince, or 'The Artist Formerly Known As...'. I never had much sympathy for Prince before I read Ondaatje's novel and put down his decision to change his name to a symbol as typical showbiz eccentricity. But now I feel disappointed that the symbol has reverted to 'Prince', a gesture that resounds with the coincidence of this novel.
Anil, the female forensic brought in by the UN to examine alleged human rights' abuses in Sri Lanka, is the one character that seems determined to project her subjectivity in this way. She demands to define herself, to name herself. As a young woman growing up in Sri Lanka, she won a swimming contest. As she returns to her homeland, she finds that the fame of her sporting exploits has reached everyone she works with, even although it was one event decades before. Anil brushes such labels aside, "I'm not a swimmer" she declares. Even although, in a previous life, her 'fame' as a swimmer had helped to break her shyness at parties. Now that she has defined herself as 'forensic scientist', she is no longer a swimmer; no longer needs to be a swimmer. But even labelled by her occupation, she seems to be guided by simplicity, and her instinct is to create order out of chaos, to find her truth.
Anil's antagonist in the swimming debate is Sarath, an archaeologist employed by the government, who much prefers complexity and silence. For him, the 'truth' is a dangerous concept, which should never be discussed when there are recording devices around. Anil is suspicious of him, for he works for, and has relatives in, the government, which seems to be very much involved in the killings. Doubt resounds within Anil because Sarath seems to be a decent man, and pupil of the great Palipana. Here Ondaatje seems to be dealing with the ancient binary opposition of the West as rational and the East as irrational, with Anil embodying the values of the West, and Sarath embodying those of the East. Yet there's also a binary opposition, which has the West as powerful male and the East as cowering female. Ondaatje seems to have swapped the genders here, since Anil is most assuredly female (she claims she longs for the privacy of the West, but delights bathing in open air showers).
It is tempting to think that Ondaatje's treading the ground of neutrality here as Sarath seems to (there's no mention of 'Tamil' along with 'Tiger'), but both appear rather to opt for complexity over simplicity (I was surprised to learn that there were two factions fighting the government in Sri Lanka). 'Truth is mere opinion' is the belief uttered here, with the suggestion that there's always a large dosing of fiction mixed with any fact. Palipana's reputation as an archaeologist is damaged when he insists on seeing a truth, which lies beyond the 'facts' (just as his physical sight deteriorates). Ondaatje doesn't give us a tedious list of 'rights' and 'wrongs' in the Sri Lankan context, but merely conveys that everyone has lost someone, and carry with them a ghost. Lots of people have disappeared without explanation, without context in the conflict - the survivors too scared to ask for clarity in case they're next (and without context, you cannot create meaning, as Anil's friend Leaf discovers). Instead, they invent the histories of the lost ones, who are signified by any remaining talisman, such as a sarong.
Anil sees that she and Sarath can do something, for they have evidence in the form of the body of one of the 'disappeared', a corpse that they have called 'Sailor' (from the rhyme 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor'). But such is the dominance of Western popular novels on Sri Lankan bookshelves, with each Agatha Christie a reminder of colonialism, that one can't help but think of Sailor as 'Spy': that Death as well as the stars looks over the characters in this novel.
Here, Ondaatje has produced a startling book, which is extremely topical (note the impotent UN). There is also a lot of humour (Anil's letter to John Boorman concerning Lee Marvin's gunshot wound in the opening of 'Point Blank'). But mostly this is a treatise on subjectivity: a force used for ill by all those murdering in their bid to create subjects (where 'subjects' = 'objects', the silent mass to be multiplied by fear), and as a force used for good. After all, it is Ananda, the artist, who breathes life into objects by painting their eyes.
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