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Anil's Ghost, written by Michael Ondaatje

A book review by Maribeth Griffin
Associate Director of Housing
Western Connecticut State University

I'll admit it right now. I'm a sucker for historical fiction - made up stories about real events. Anil's Ghost was, for me, a sublime read. It's not at all the traditional fiction, full of action and adventure (although it lacks for neither). Instead, it is a slow, hot, oppressive hunt for the "truth" of human rights violations and political murders in Sri Lanka during the 1980's and 1990's. And, like Ondaatje's most well-known work, The English Patient, Anil's Ghost leaves us with almost as many questions as it answers.

Anil Tissera is a native Sri Lankan who left for school in the West 15 years earlier and never returned. A forensic anthropologist, she is assigned by the human rights organization for which she works to return to Sri Lanka to investigate the political murders that have been occurring for the last few decades. Sarath Diyasena, an archeologist, is her appointed government partner. The two form an uneasy alliance, and, like Anil, we are unsure of Sarath's loyalties - are they to the truth the two are allegedly seeking, or do they reside with the Sri Lankan government who may be behind the murders being investigated?

The story centers around the discovery, during one of Sarath's archeological digs, of bones which definitely do not come from centuries before. "Sailor" is the name given to one of these skeletons. His bones reveal pieces of his story: that he was initially killed and buried elsewhere, then dug up and moved to the place of his discovery; that he was partially burned before being buried; that he worked in a plumbago mine. Anil's job is to build these clues into the story of a man, and that is the task that joins her to Sarath in the novel.

What I found most fascinating about Anil's Ghost is that the beauty of the prose comes not in the descriptions of the lives and memories of the two main characters, but in the moments we glimpse of the lives and deaths of incidental characters. For instance, there's Leaf, a co-worker from New Mexico with whom Anil had an intense relationship. After disappearing for 6 months, Leaf suddenly calls and asks Anil to meet her at the Very Large Array in the New Mexico desert, greeting her with the devastating news that she has developed Alzheimer's and is dying.

'Do you think they can hear us? Leaf asked? That giant metal ear in the desert. Is it picking us up too? I'm just a detail from the subplot, right?'"

The most exquisite scene of this sort is the death of Palipana, Sarath's former teacher and mentor. He has retreated to the jungle in his old age, now all but blind and living with his niece, who has been mute since witnessing the murders of her parents. The two have settled into a quiet, compassionate life. When the niece knows of her uncle's impending death, she begins to construct a fitting tribute to this archeologist.

She had already prepared a pyre for him on the edge of the pokuna, whose sound he loved. She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock, one of the first things he had said to her, which she had held onto like a raft in her years of fear. She had chiseled it where the horizon of water was, so that, depending on tide and the pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above their reflection or be revealed in both elements... the girl who stood waist-deep and cut it into the rock in the last week of Palipana's dying life and carried him into the water beside it and placed his hand against it...so that in the last days of his life he was accompanied by the great generous noise of her work just as if she was speaking out loud. Just the sentence...just a gentle sentence once clutched by her...

It is these glimpses of love, of honor, of the search for truth in the midst of unimaginable horror - these flashes of brilliance in ordinary lives, which weave this incredible tale into a rich, delicious tapestry for all your senses. If you read for answers, this book will disappoint. If you read for insight and honor, for courage in the face of personal loss and hopelessness, Ondaatje cannot disappoint.