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Customer Review

on 19 July 2001
Anil's Ghost" is Ondaatje's fictional response to the violence that gripped his native land in the eighties. Although the author had described some actual events or had created similar events, and in spite of its terseness at times, to me the novel as a whole is weak and unconvincing.
The novelist does not provide or allude to any analysis of the cause of political terror. Ondaatje who left the country more than four decades ago (in 1962, or so) when he was barely twenty years, understandably does not seem to have a grasp of the social, economic and political changes that had taken place in his native land to depict their effects. Neither does he seem to have a proper understanding of the cultures of the people. One must live in the land among its people to develop such intimacy and knowledge. It is extremely unlikely that Ondaatje had witnessed the war or the terror either, the theme of his novel. Use of Anil as his protagonist, and the novelist's expatriate stance appears to be a clever ploy intended to overcome these deficiencies.
With his obvious limitations and the lack of knowledge of his native land, the novelist has opted to become a passive observer to the tragedy. Hence his tone of voice. Making no distinction between the Sinhala and the Tamil militancy, he says tautologically, "the reason for war was war" which also appears to be the novelist's point of view. His apolitical gaze is a convenient way to avoid the real tragedy- the cause of the terror and the crisis. Given that politics pervade to all aspects of life in a country such as ours, this "attitude" seems irresponsible, apart from also being an insincere and unsympathetic view of the plight of all those victims and the survivors.
With the unfolding of the melodramatic and somewhat weird episode relating to Sailor, Ondaatje provides an account of the personal tragedies of Sarath, his brother Gamini and the alcoholic artist Ananda. Conflict between Sarath and Gamini and their lives is probably intended to symbolise the moral crisis of the society. Without much subtlety of psychological analysis or insight to the culture of the people or the traditions of the land, these descriptions only lead to pages and pages of jejune and dull reading. The visit to the Grove of Ascetics, where we are introduced to Palipana, the blind epigraphist spending his last days in a forest almost like a monk- looked after by his orphaned niece, is a digression- though written well. Episodes relating to the abduction of Dr Linus Corea, assassination of President Katugala (the faithful re-enactment of President Premadasa's death) have no apparent purpose in the novel, apart from possibly being intended for the consumption of the western reader. There is a fine piece of writing (when taken separately) at the end describing the reconstruction of the Buduruvagala Buddha statue where the author brings back Ananda, his alcoholic "apologist", to paint the eyes. We are told: "if he (Ananda) did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons, spectres of retaliation."
The novelist has essentially chosen to portray the JVP victims (southern guerrilla group) and how the insurrection in the south was crushed in 1988 -90 era. Although he speaks analogously about a Hundred Years War sponsored by gun and drug-runners and backers being on the sidelines in safe countries, nothing is really presented (mercifully) on the fighting in the north or the Tamil victims of the war. As if suddenly becoming conscious of his oversight, in a clumsily contrived episode Ondaatje places Gamini in a Quickshaws Taxi and sends him to Trincomalee from Nugegoda for a holiday in Nilavali Beach Hotel- with a day's sojourn at a forest monastery near Arankale! We are then told about his brief encounter with the youthful Tamil militants at Trincomalee to whom Gamini acts as a doctor under bizarre circumstances. There is also an earlier similar episode in the novel relating the reunion between Anil and Lalitha, her Tamil Ayah who had been quite close to Anil from her childhood. This episode loses whatever its intended significance as Lalitha vanishes from the convoluted narrative and from the mind of the reader- as soon as Anil leaves her.
In the absence of a "plot", Ondaatje seems guilty of resorting to techniques used by inferior novelists to "propel" his novel. One technique is to provide a prelude of one or two pages about a character (or an episode) in italicised font, before the reader could make the acquaintance of that character or the significance of the episode is related in the proper place of the novel. These preludes or premature insertions could be a hindrance to a first time reader. Probably Ondaatje is attempting to achieve brevity here. More irksome are those interruptions to the narrative where details of Anil's life overseas are forced on the reader. We are thus told intermittently and convolutely about Anil's failed first marriage, her tutelage, her childhood details, and her friendship with a married American man whom she stabs, and her close friendship with the lesbian lover, Leaf who is dying of illness. To me these details are impossibly boring and insipid.
Jayantha Anandappa (Australia)
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