·Karen·'s Reviews > Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
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's review
Jul 10, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: canada, mttbr-2012

Against the obscenity of large numbers

When a writer, dauntless and unflinching, turns his piercing gaze on mass murder, how does he drag it back into the realm of the human? In 2666 Bolano gave to each and every one of the women murdered in Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juarez), a name, or the clothes they were wearing, or where they were murdered, or, at the very least, how they were found and what happened to the corpse afterwards. He turns each one into an individual, even in the relentless cataloguing of their deaths we never lose sight of the individual human being, loved and missed and mourned. Some 300 pages that retain a steadfast sobriety, as any descent into bathos would become unbearable, self-defeating. Now, that is perhaps just possible when dealing with numbers that creep into the hundreds, but what do you do with this particular breathtaking footnote of history? The civil war that flared up in Sri Lanka in 1983: by early 2000, 18 years of war had claimed the lives of more than 64,000, mostly civilians. Sixty four thousand. Sixty four thousand.

One village can speak for many villages. One victim can speak for many victims. In a sixth century Buddhist monks' burial midden, located in a government archaeological preserve, four modern skeletons are found. Anil Tissera is a forensic pathologist, sent by a Geneva Human Rights organization, teamed with a Colombo archaeologist in a seven week project as a gesture to placate trading partners in the West. Anil and her partner name these four skeletons Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor. Sailor is the only skeleton with a skull. They work to uncover the truth of his particular fate. Proof of one type of crime, that will speak for many crimes. One victim that will speak for many victims. But at a time of war the truth is a flame against a lake of petrol. Anil's status as a delegate of a Western organization might protect her - but what of her colleague?

Ondaatje uses a narrative style that skirts around the story. Obtuse, dislocated, off-centre, like Anil herself, born in Sri Lanka, now ex-pat, she has created a new centre of self around her intellect and her scientific, rational approach to life, an approach which holds her at a distance, protects her from pain. The narrative too holds us at a distance which makes the swift and sudden incursion of horror all the more intense. Gradually, like the reader, Anil is made to look straight at the face of death, rather than busying herself with the details of forensic evidence. In a process that reflects precisely what this novel does, Ananda, the artist, recreates an individual face out of the skull. But Ananda has lost his wife in the terror, so the face is peaceful: "It's what he wants of the dead."

Anil rose and walked back into the dark rooms. She could no longer look at the face, saw only Ananda's wife in every aspect of it. She sat down in one of the large cane chairs in the dining room and began weeping. ... Her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she could see the rectangular shape of a painting and beside it Ananda standing still, looking through the blackness at her.

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Reading Progress

July 10, 2010 – Shelved
March 27, 2012 – Started Reading
March 28, 2012 –
page 79
April 2, 2012 –
page 146
46.95% ""I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear...""
April 9, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Hayes (new)

Hayes Rats... I wasn't planning on reading this one, but onto next year's list it goes!

Larry Downard Wasn't planning on reading and struggled through the beautiful prose about unspeakable horrors of the aftermath of a poorly understood war. Difficult book that I must say I am happy to have finished. Read it to try to understand what happened in Sri Lanka but be prepared to be confused.

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