No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 27, 2010

2010/19: Anil's Ghost -- Michael Ondaatje

The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilocus -- in the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was. (p.11)

Anil Tissera is a young female anthropologist who returns from a successful career in America to her native Sri Lanka. She has been employed by the UN to investigate political murders, and finds herself obliged to work with archaeologist Sarath Diyasena. They discover a skeleton buried at an archaeological site, but considerably more recent than the other remains there. They codename him 'Sailor'. The quest for Sailor's identity, his story, binds them together and makes each question their own pasts. Sarath has survived years of civil war by cultivating a peculiar detachment, but his true self emerges when he's with his brother, a doctor broken by what he's seen and what has happened to those he loves, but still determined to make a difference. (in later years he would be vivid only with strangers -- in the storm of the last stages of a party or in the chaos of emergency wards (p.223))

This was a hard, unsettling novel to read. It's not wholly linear; fragments of the protagonists' pasts are interspersed with the story of Sailor, and sometimes it's hard to place a scene within the larger timeframe. The prose is arresting, vivid, restrained. I was particularly impressed by the relationship between Anil and Sarath: a lesser novelist would perhaps have framed it in more familiar terms, as a romance or a conflict. Here it is a professional collaboration.

Anil learns something about herself and where she belongs. Sarath and his brother Gamini learn, or (more accurately) recognise, what lengths they will and must go to in order to do their jobs with honesty and clarity. The ending is not what one might expect: it's subtle, allusive, and it requires unlayering. Impressive, but grim: and yet there's light and warm rain and forest monasteries and simple rituals that retain their meaning amidst carnage and fear.

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