Forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera returns to her native Sri Lanka at the beginning of Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel Anil’s Ghost. The country is still in the throes of a brutal civil war and Anil’s reappearance after many years away is facilitated by an international human rights group. Her ostensible first point of contact is the archaeologist Sarath, a man about whom Anil has some doubts. Which side is he on? Does the fact that a relative of his is a member of the government compromise him and, by extension, any investigative work they will undertake together?
This is only one of the aspects of her homecoming that she finds off-putting. Years after the fact, the enduring memory some of her compatriots have of her is the victory she achieved in an open-sea swimming race when she was a girl. She is terse in her dismissal of her one-time accomplishment. She has a serious mission ahead of her and is committed to unearthing the truth about the murder campaigns sweeping the blighted nation, a land where summary executions and disappearances have been occurring daily.
In fact Anil need have little worry about Sarath (one who never left Sri Lanka). He supplies her what she requires for her work and seeks not to stand in her way when she makes the extraordinary discovery that some of the bones he turned up in a dig at an ancient burial site are those of a recent, obviously civil war, victim. The pair subsequently set out on a quest to affix an identity to the skeletal remains.
This is a treacherous endeavour in a land where the government is battling separatists in the north and insurgents in the south, where fear is everywhere. As a firsthand witness to the horror in the cities and rural areas, Sarath understands this better than Anil. He relates incidents to her, among them the assassination of the monk Narada (the brother of Sarath’s teacher Palipana), and steers her with impeccable calm through sticky situations encountered on the road. Sarath has learnt to be happiest in his world, the ancient land no less. The war-scarred variant is a tragic reality but foreign to him. One suspects this has been the case since he split with his wife Ravina, the wife with whom his younger brother Dr Gamini was in love.
Mr Ondaatje often breaks the forward momentum of his principal narrative line to back story. We are provided glimpses of Anil’s upbringing, her years studying, living and working in the United States and Europe. She is far from a traditional South Asian woman despite the fact that in the past she has dutifully donned the saris relatives at home make a point of sending her. She ‘had courted foreignness, was at ease … she felt completed abroad‘ (Page 50), we are told. She has readily adapted to local mores, including the far looser ‘morality’ of the west. She is comfortable with, likes herself, as a lover, a fact she demonstrates in her overseas affairs and friendships, first and foremost with the married science writer Cullis and her American friend Leaf.
Sarath is a different kettle of fish. Anil thinks he is closed, as does his younger brother Gamini, a man who spends long hours tending horribly maimed victims of the war.
Anil would not understand this old and accepted balance. Sarath knew that for her the journey was in getting to the truth. But what would the truth bring them into? It was a flame against a sleeping lake of petrol. Sarath had seen truth broken into suitable pieces and used by the foreign press alongside irrelevant photographs. A flippant gesture toward Asia that might lead, as a result of this information, to new vengeance and slaughter. There were dangers in handing truth to an unsafe city around you. As an archaeologist Sarath believed in truth as a principle. That is he would have given his life for the truth if the truth were of any use. (P152 / 153)
Gamini, who Anil meets early on, tellingly remarks in her presence, ‘This was a civilised country. We had ‘halls for the sick’ four centuries before Christ … we were always good with illness and death. We could howl with the best. Now we carry the wounded with no anaesthetic up the stairs because the elevators don’t work.’ (P188)
Such a biting assessment should resonate with one as erudite as Anil, whose CV lists experience with the attempted identification of skeletal remains from some equally unrelenting civil conflicts in other parts of the globe. One of the countries she has worked in is Guatemala. Even a little reading up on the history of that nation will have alerted her to the glorious achievements of the ancient Mayans in centuries past. Achievements evidenced in the same areas that late 20th century warfare has laid asunder and drenched with rivers of blood.
An old and accepted balance is personified too in the now blind Palipana, whose counsel and advice Sarath and Anil seek, and Ananda, the man Palipana suggests they go to for help to ‘rebuild’ the head of the recent victim. In his field Palipana is a legendary though ultimately disgraced figure, now living the last phase of life amid a beloved setting of ruins, cared for in his decrepitude by his niece, the orphaned Lakma, a girl almost emotionally destroyed when she witnessed the killing of her parents. Rebuilding is the crucial next step in the process, especially for the truth hungry Anil. She is aware that no suspect / s will ever be found without first identifying the victim.
Ananda is an alcoholic gem pit miner whose young wife was ‘disappeared’ at an earlier stage of the ongoing conflict. He is also a craftsman, a painter of the eyes of Buddhist statues, an exceptional and venerated talent inherited from his father and grandfather before him. His is the ‘scattered and unreliable presence‘ (P180) of a person beset with grief. He yearns still for the young wife whose ultimate fate he has never heard a word about. More than anything his ‘reconstruction’ for Anil and Sarath reflects his heartache and a longing that his wife, and all the deceased, will have found peace. But he is vital in helping Anil (and Sarath) to understand better.
As they edge nearer their goal, Anil has cause to doubt Sarath anew. But her uncertainty is as misplaced here as when the pair first met. Sublime historical discoveries will continue to be made in the vicinity of the grossest modern-day atrocities, framed by ‘countless dirty little acts of race and politics‘. (P152)
Half the world, it felt, was being buried, the truth hidden by fear, while the past revealed itself in the light of a burning rhododendron bush. (P152)
Mr Ondaatje’s poetic prose is a joy to read throughout. A passage such as:
She needs to step backwards out of the maze they have innocently entered. He is content to be near her, the beauty of this ear and earring, then a comparison with the other side of her head, the way the moon is over them and also in the water, the way the water holds the night lilies. The false and true alternatives surround them. (P245)
could easily stand alone as a prose poem. There are many like it in this study of anomaly, of savage modern conflict in a land steeped in thousands of years of exalted tradition.