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Michael Ondaatje: Anil's Ghost


Anil's Ghost

Author: Michael Ondaatje

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If Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was about the spaces in war that allow humanity to slip through, the same can be said of his follow-up, Anil's Ghost. That it deals with an entirely different sort of war, however, makes a great difference. Set in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's birthplace and home to an ongoing, undeclared war between the government and various factions of rebels, Anil's Ghost concerns the efforts of Anil, a Western-trained forensics expert returning to her homeland and finding the chance to prove an unidentified skeleton the victim of government assassination. Aided at various times by an archeologist, his estranged doctor brother, and a drunken artist, she encounters obstacles at nearly every turn. Less concerned with the mystery than what it means to pursue it and what pursuing it means to each character, Ondaatje's richly textured novel explores its explosive scenario by portraying the aftermath—the weary camaraderie of the overcrowded emergency room, the haunted lives of those left behind—with the poetic grace and awareness of moral ambiguity he brought to The English Patient. In the process, Ondaatje makes his story recognizable as all too universal. "Only our weapons are state-of-the-art," a character laments at one point, and the reference could apply just as easily to Somalia or Central America. That Ondaatje musters up something like a hopeful ending says much about the generosity of spirit at work in his book, and it says even more that it can ring true after such an unflinching portrayal of violence, absurdity, and loss.