Anil Tissera has many enigmatic qualities as the protagonist in Ondaatje’s first novel since The English Patient. Since my parents gave me the same first name, the most salient enigma for me was that Tissera is female while I am not. So, I went to hear Ondaatje read from the book primarily to have my question about the name answered. I need not have bothered. The explanation, an important clue to her character, is in the book. Without giving away the answer let me say that Ondaatje who emigrated from his native Sri Lanka to Canada, has come up with another clear winner, a tale of love in a time of war.
Tissera, a forensic pathologist by trade, is sent to Sri Lanka by an international agency to investigate human rights abuses. She is in many ways a sensitive female alter ego for Ondaatje himself. Both are Sri Lankan by birth; both emigrated at a young age to the West, Tissera to the U.S., Ondaatje to Canada. Tissera returns as an outsider who knows many things local intimately but is unwilling to accept all the norms and values of a culture to which she has a natural claim. Ondaatje returns as the writer researching his story and characters. He lives Anil’s naiveté and expertise, her enthusiasm and fear. To compare their experiences, one fictitious another real, is to go through a brain-warping juxtaposition of the writer and his alter ego.
The book appealed to me at different levels. Up front it is bound to invoke the themes of The English Patient. War, in this case the civil war, in Sri Lanka is the backdrop. There is love but it is all messed up with the bloody and often senseless carnage. Bombs blow up without notice. People disappear. And no one appears to be able to offer solace. In the end each is left to find one’s own peace. This is as haunting as it gets and it may be too much for some readers.
Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka of mixed Sri Lankan and Dutch heritage, moved to Canada while still in his teens and made Toronto his home. Anil lets him go back not just physically but spiritually and in that it is a first for the author. His earlier books have had little to do with Sri Lanka. The only thing that carries over from his other books is his style. If Ondaatje’s work were music it would probably sound like jazz. Although his narrative is more accessible than the Rushdiesque flights of fantasy, his story-telling does jump scales. At his Toronto reading he confessed that his novels are seldom written from the beginning to the end. The vignette that opens the book and tells of a young Tissera searching for bones in the jungles of Guatemala came to him half way through the book. Writing, he says, is an exploration, and some of it is as much a revelation to him as it is to the character or the reader.
In The English Patient style, there are several main characters. I like this feature of Ondaatje novels. It cuts across the grain of popular mainstream culture in which Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter) tries to pour all stories into a boy-meets-girl mould. The love interest is the main story and everything else is relegated to the background. (The wildly successful English Patient the movie suffered this fate by having its four main book characters reduced to two main movie characters.) There are many ghosts in Anil’s story. There is Sarath, a forty-something local anthropologist who has lost his wife through neglect and war; Gamini, the doctor and brother to Sarath, who must conduct meatball surgery in twenty-four-hour shifts and look the other way when inexplicable wounds show up at the hospital; there is Ananda the unhappy artist whose wife disappeared. Ananda, once a renowned painter of Buddha’s eyes, an honour bestowed only on a chosen few, now searches for his lost wife in the faces of the missing that he is commissioned to reconstruct. Another haunting character is the great teacher-philosopher Palipana who is part sage, part intellectual and part a power-wielding autocrat. But by the time we meet him he is near the end of his journey living in the forest with a teenaged orphaned niece. Now nearly blind, a man who never lost a showdown, is negotiating the final stages of his exit. Ondaatje lets us meet each in depth and there is a profound sense of loss when we are parted.
The plot revolves around a victim, nicknamed the Sailor, whose bones have been found and need to be identified to see if human rights abuses took place. To people familiar with the excesses of the Sri Lankan civil war, this is no cliff hanger. No big deal. Abuses are common on both sides or rather on all sides. To bring home the point, Ondaatje injects a lesson from the European holocaust that “to name Sailor is to name them all.” Thus, it is a big deal and in the end a rather heavy price is paid.
At another level, Anil’s Ghost succeeds as few other books have in telling a story set in the third world in the voice of an insider-outsider. Although English writers from South Asia have made a big splash in the last twenty-five years by winning the highest awards, few have offered new insights about South Asia in particular and the third world in general. Naipaul’s lens is, by his own admission, western in its perspective. Rushdie’s and Seth’s stories are largely about the middle class. Other writers dwell on the poverty, squalor and social injustices. Ondaatje, a writer who researches his characters and topics with the zeal of a graduate student defending a doctoral dissertation, gives us a feel for this far away place and its problems without dismissing it all as vagaries of the third world. Neither do his subjects lecture each other on how things are done in the West. Anil’s Ghost tells us about the fight for human rights at a human level. It is a masterly work that should find a prominent place on history’s bookshelves.
Anil Verma lives and teaches in Toronto.