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12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

The beauty of truth

Reviewed by Willa Thayer

Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje, London: Bloomsbury, 2000.pp311

In a remote area of a war-torn country, a skeleton is discovered. For the forensic anthropologist who exhumed these remains, they tell of both a life lived and a recent and untimely death. Evidence regarding the circumstances of this death is what the heroine of Michael Ondaatje's latest novel, Anil's Ghost, has returned to her native Sri Lanka for, after some 15 years in the West.

On an investigative mission for an international human rights organisation, Anil seeks information about the fate of dissidents who went missing from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. For Ondaatje's heroine, the search for truth becomes an end in itself and her obsession with it dominates the novel, at the most obvious level through her attempts to identify the skeleton which she nicknames "Sailor." At the same time, Anil begins to confront the elusiveness of the ideal of truth in her own life and the lives of her friends, colleagues and people she comes into contact with during her mission.

Centring on a woman investigating human rights violations in her country of birth, where she is considered both an "insider" and an "outsider," the plot raises expectations that the politics implied in this situation will be thoroughly explored. Ondaatje, however, avoids problematising Anil's political position in the midst of a setting characterised by massive political upheaval. Instead the main didactic contribution of this work is an extended rumination on the meaning of "truth."

Confronting Anil with danger at every step, Ondaatje has concocted an engaging plot that draws the reader into his musings on this ideal. In her quest to learn about Sailor's life and death, Anil is accompanied by a state-employed archeologist named Sarath. With a cousin in the cabinet, Sarath's loyalties are as unclear to Anil as her motives are to him. Early on she tries to smooth over their mutual distrust. "I know you feel the purpose of truth is more complicated, that it's sometimes more dangerous here if you tell the truth," she says.

But Ondaatje and his characters stop far short of pleas for cultural relativism in their criticism of Anil's mission. What they question is not the right or wrong of her search, but its relevance in light of the uncertainty, danger and even loss that fills their daily lives. Anil, it seems, begins to realise this when a sculptor named Ananda whose wife was killed -- probably at the hands of an army death squad -- attempts suicide after reconstructing Sailor's face. For Anil, the sculptor completed the face in a manner that "was in no way a portrait of Sailor, but showed a calm Ananda had known in his wife, a peacefulness he wanted for any victim."

Even when they do not hinder her quest, challenges to truth accompany Anil at every step of her investigation. At a chaotic hospital emergency room, where doctors on call have nowhere to sleep but the waiting room, she is unable to distinguish between patients and physicians.

While conducting her investigation, Anil comes to question whether the pursuit of truth is always the best intellectual and moral choice and whether it is even a realistic one. These questions emerge out of her experience investigating Sailor's death and as she ponders her personal relationships. A failed relationship with a married man seems to evoke feelings of relief, while the diagnosis of one of her close friends with Alzheimer's -- a disease that wipes out the very truths of one's life as it erases memories -- fills her with worry.

Added to the danger and excitement of this story, Anil's Ghost is also filled with beauty and pathos. Ondaatje's descriptions of cave paintings -- a motif familiar to readers of his novel The English Patient -- are imbued with both of these qualities. Ondaatje provides a vivid description of the paintings themselves, as well as their power to move those beholding them with their affirmation of the universality of human experience. There is a captivating cinematic quality to the author's prose. Although concise and devoid of flowery language, his rendering of the physical setting makes the feel of rocks, streams, rain and soil palpable.

In spite of Ondaatje's mastery of the formalistic dimensions of this novel, one cannot help but feel that his treatment of the international human rights movement is rather superficial given its centrality to the plot. By the end of the novel, Anil's faith in truth as an end in itself seems to have been shaken. And, by implication, Ondaatje seems to gently criticise the emphasis Northern-based human rights organisations place on their own quests for "truth" through reporting rights violations in Southern countries. None of which is to suggest that either Ondaatje (or this reviewer) advocates the abandonment of such work, or even suggest that it is unimportant. What is disappointing is that this novel fails to increase the reader's understanding of human rights struggles in Southern countries, while also neglecting to illuminate the political contexts in which rights violations, such as disappearances, occur.

Although a novel and not a political analysis, Ondaatje's work can be legitimately criticised in this way due to the existence of other contemporary novels that offer greater insight into political issues. For example The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, known for the philosophical bent of his novels, manages to reveal much about how Czechoslovakians coped with communism in the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who has read works by Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi cannot help but view Ondaatje's exploration of Anil's East-West identity as deficient.

And in fact, Ondaatje has himself handled such issues better, for example his portrayal of the work struggles in the 1920s by immigrants to Canada as they built the infrastructure for the country's industrial heartland in his novel In the Skin of the Lion. But the tone of his last novel The English Patient, which emphasised the romantic, perhaps indicates that Ondaatje is moving toward privileging the universalistic over the particular.

With such limited insight provided by Anil's Ghost into the situation in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje has sadly reduced the location of his novel to little more than an exotic backdrop. Likewise disconcerting is his failure to address the fact that Anil's mission does not explicitly contend with critical human rights issues, such as chronic malnutrition, inadequate shelter and lack of access to health care, all of which cause life-long hardship, if not untimely death. Ondaatje's omission in this regard, makes this reviewer hesitant to recommend Anil's Ghost to anyone engaged in local human rights struggles.

Nonetheless, its genuine and moving concern for the human condition, its high ideals and poetry, would seem to make Anil's Ghost a work of art befitting the political movement it presents.

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