Between Realism and Schmaltz: Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost.

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 22, 2003 | Destinations: Sri Lanka / Colombo


In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. --Ernest Hemingway

These prophetic words of Hemingway's could have formed the epigraph of Michael Ondaatje's most recent novel, Anil's Ghost, because the novel concerns the war in Sri Lanka. Like the wars in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the war in Sri Lanka always seems to be there, and nobody goes to it anymore. Anil's Ghost partially explains why.

Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and has Sri Lankan ancestry. Though he now lives in Toronto, his identification with the island remains strong. This was especially clear in his most recent collection of poems, Handwriting. But Handwriting shied away from the civil war, focusing instead on Sri Lankan culture. Some of Handwriting's beautiful imagery bleeds into Anil's Ghost, but most of Ghost's is drawn from the horrible incivility attending all civil wars.

Man's inhumanity to man is a theme common to Ondaatje's best-known novels: In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, and now Ghost. Unrestrained passions, whether those of obsessive love or internecine friction, always lead to misery. But in Ondaatje, tools, machines, and weapons always speed the way. Human passions and human technology combine to create gruesome ends. In Patient a man falls "burning into the desert." In Ghost a man is crucified to the pavement.

Injunctions against passion are central to Buddhism, Sri Lanka's religion, but the Buddha could not have foreseen technology's enormous capacity for amplifying passion's effects. This is Ondaatje's concern. His two most memorable characters are Patient's Kip the sapper and Anil the forensic pathologist - both dispassionately dedicated to restoring some order to a world exploded by passion, and the bombs and bullets nowadays used to express it.

Anil's task, however, is much harder than Kip's was. For her, order is truth. But the truth she discovers -- that the government of Sri Lanka may be secretly murdering its own people -- is unacceptable to Sri Lanka. Anil becomes a target of extreme suspicion. And she must re-learn that in Sri Lankan, as in many Asian cultures, truth is relative, and harmony usually preferred. She can't even trust Sarath, the Sri Lankan colleague assigned to assist her.

Born in Sri Lanka, Anil left at a young age for England and the U.S. The human rights organization she represents is based in Geneva. So the Sri Lankans now regard her as foreign. The failure of her investigation is an indictment of all facile and fleeting attempts to end conflicts that are not our own: Vietnam, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. A harried and bitter Sri Lankan doctor asks Anil:

"American movies, English books - remember how they all end? The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it.... He's going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That's enough reality for the West. It's probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit."

As Ondaatje probably well knows, this accusation could easily include him: "Go to Toronto. Write a book. Hit the circuit...." But though Ghost is political writing (what writing is not?), it has no clear political position. Like the best anti-war novels, including Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, it appeals to conscience only by depicting the extremes of fear and violence that war engenders. (The constant reference to Hemingway is not idle: his preoccupation with violence and simple declarative sentences has greatly influenced Ondaatje's themes and style.)

But like Farewell, Ondaatje's book is fatalistic. "The main purpose of war," he writes, "had become war." Anil's mission fails, not because of her negligence, but because of the Sri Lankan conspiracy of silence, born of fear. The fear perpetuates war -- and war, fear. The circle of violence is vicious.

Ondaatje nonetheless finds room for the aspects of life that justify life amidst so much death. In Patient, we find old books, hopscotch, found wine, condensed milk. In Ghost, we find drunken bowling, spaghetti Westerns, the black humor of pathologists - and, of course, songs.

But these life-affirming things are mostly found in Anil's past in the West, so they only confirm Anil's naiveté. They make Anil's Ghost less depressing, but they do not make Anil more compelling, only more shallow. Her recurring, sentimental memories of a love affair in America serve no purpose, except to include the obligatory love affair.

Some authors and readers have deplored Ondaatje's evolution as a writer. He has gotten sloppy, they say - undisciplined. His writing has become too political, and its longevity diminished by references to Van Morrison, to Hollywood actors. The success attending The English Patient, they say, has contributed to the writer's bank account, but ruined his writing.

I do not think that the increasingly political nature of Ondaatje's works is to blame. Instead, his works are not political enough, or they should not be political at all. Anil's Ghost should have been two books: one about the conflict in Sri Lanka, one about Anil in the West. All of the debris of Western civilization intended to make Anil plausible instead makes her unlikable. The Sri Lankans are right: Go home. Go bowling.

In this vein of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding between East and West, one can imagine what a film version of Anil's Ghost would be like. Hopefully Hollywood, and Ondaatje, who wrote The English Patient screenplay, will spare us. He is among the world's best internationalist writers, but if the film version of Patient is any indication, Hollywood would strip his internationalism away.

Kip, who played a major role in Patient the book, played a minor role in the film - evidently because Kip is a Sikh. Kip appeared in the film for little more than sex appeal. The sapper's past, especially his conflict with his brother, is completely erased. (Tellingly, this conflict is over how political a person should be.)

Should Anil's Ghost become a film, we can expect to find a great deal of drunken, bowling Oklahoman pathologists, and very little of harried, captious Sri Lankan doctors. Perhaps Ondaatje was feeling a little penitent for his own Westernization of The English Patient when he wrote, "That's enough reality for the West." Anil's Ghost is disturbing, but not too disturbing. It portrays just enough of Sri Lanka's reality to sell itself in the West, and no more.

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Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje. Vintage Books, 2001.

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Available at ThingsAsian Books.