Michael Ondaatje

Anil’s Ghost

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Anil’s Ghost Summary

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Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is a literary thriller that analyzes the intersection of the political and personal in a modern Sri Lanka haunted by its brutal civil war. Seen through the eyes of a prodigal daughter, Anil’s Ghost showcases the very human toll of war on a group of academics and investigators striving to find justice for a murdered man, whose mysterious fate unleashes a dangerous set of revelations and questions onto the group.

The novel’s protagonist is the forensic pathologist Anil Tissera, who is returning to Sri Lanka after fifteen years away. Having left at just eighteen, she returns to her home country as part of a human rights investigation, examining massacres and counter-massacres in the country’s long-running civil war. Assigned to assist her is an archeologist named Sarath, whose motives Anil does not entirely trust.

While exploring a 6th century site, Sarath and Anil come across the remains of a man that seem to be much more recent than the surroundings. Nicknaming the man “Sailor,” Anil and Sarath set out to identify him with the help of Sarath’s former teacher Palipana, who suggests that they connect with a sculptor to help reconstruct the face of the dead man. Given the nature of the security on the site where the body was found, the evidence points to the government being involved in the man’s death. Though Anil remains suspicious of Sarath, she accepts his help and takes Palipana’s advice, connecting with the sculptor-cum-drunkard Ananda in the small village Galapitigama. There, Anil also meets Sarath’s brother, the doctor Gamini, who works relentlessly at the hospital, helping patients directly affected by the war’s violence Gamini has given up any semblance of a personal life (his wife has left him) to throw himself into his work.

Through delays and increased skepticism, Ananda does eventually produce the likeness, though the toll of that effort drives him to a suicide attempt which is narrowly averted by Anil. With the sculpted face and remains in hand, Anil plans to bring her claims of state-sponsored terrorism to the authorities. Before she can do so, the remains disappear and her research is seized, only to resurface in the hands of Sarath, who urges her to fake a report and leave the country. She does so, but Sarath loses his life as a result of the investigation. The novel ends with Ananda returning to the sacred duty of painting the eyes on a reconstructed statue of Buddha.

The novel is divided into eight sections: “Sarath”, “Grove of Ascetics”, “A Brother”, “Ananda”, “The Mouse”, “Between Heartbeats”, “The Life Wheel”, and “Distance,” most beginning with a prologue of a short anecdote from a character’s past. Though mostly linear, this character-focused structure serves to underline the human cost of war, and emphasize the richness of each character’s personal narrative and how it’s been impacted by the country’s violence. Though each character has experienced loss (all having lost their wives either through direct or indirect involvement with the war), they are still very much tied to the war through their work, some, like Gamini, digging deeper to escape confronting the personal toll of war. This theme is brought to the fore through an anecdote told by Sarath of an abduction: an unsuspecting man is captured by two armed men on bicycles, and in order to maintain his balance, he must wrap his arms around one man’s neck. So, in order to survive in the short term, he is forced to physically cling to his captor. Much like the kidnapped man, the men in the novel find themselves flung into situations where they must directly confront their own unpleasant histories with their country’s violent civil war, and find only more violence instead of any sense of absolution.

Anil, meanwhile, spends the novel as an outsider. An orphan, whose adult life has been spent in the West, her identity is less defined by her country’s violence than those around her. In fact, she is mostly remembered for her past as an accomplished teen swimmer, and chafes at being identified as such. Additionally, she barely speaks Sinhala and has only acquaintances left in the country. It is her position at a remove from her home country that motivates her unmuddied pursuit of the truth, a truth which Sarath warns to be more complicated, and for which he ultimately gives his life.

Anil’s Ghost showcases the true and personal toll of a war fought between countrymen, where truth and the pursuit of justice are dangerous and unfulfilling pursuits. It may be only in the figure of the hermetic Palipana who finds any sort of freedom from the chaotic world surrounding him, and that’s only through rejecting it entirely. Ultimately, Ondaatje’s novel highlights how war in the age of terrorism creates an uncertain reality where truth and justice are perhaps too costly, and spring from a naivety that only those unaffected by violence can hold onto.