Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

Anil’s Ghost

by Michael Ondaatje

In his controversial and quotable 1998 essay “The English Patient and Other Hams of a Superior Sort,” Philip Marchand gets caustic with Michael Ondaatje. Everything, it seems, is wrong with The English Patient. Ondaatje is author of more than a dozen books – poetry, novels, a memoir – but Marchand claims the Toronto writer has never been interested in “personality,” and so his characters go without. The English Patient is a “contemporary Gothic romance” he says; he means it as an insult. Marchand ends with a cautious request: “It would gladden the heart if his next book were a piece of writing that did not take itself quite so seriously…. But if that next novel were more playful, less ‘moral,’ less ‘beautifully written,’ then great numbers of his ardent admirers would be sorely disappointed.”

Esthetic judgements like Marchand’s are necessary for the health of literature. His qualms about the beatified Ondaatje’s talents are like vaccination: a few well-timed pokes can prevent disease and foster vitality, even if some shots cause queasiness. The accomplished new novel Anil’s Ghost – arriving eight years after The English Patient – adheres to some of the credos that Marchand claims might revitalize Ondaatje’s allegedly failing craft.

1. It is less “beautifully written” than his other novels. At times, Ondaatje forsakes dense images and lyricism, his trademark poetic vision, and opts for documentation. In other words, it’s more “readable,” even if the structure eschews linearity.

2. Marchand probably means “moralizing,” not “moral,” and this novel is less of both. Since we are familiar already with the kinds of horrors depicted in Anil’s Ghost, the narrator merely observes and reports.

3. The novel is playful, too, although its context prohibits outright slapstick.

Anil is a forensic anthropologist who returns to her war-defiled birthplace, Sri Lanka, as a human rights investigator. She discovers evidence of government complicity in tortures and murders, and the novel follows her intense present, her past, the country’s history – both its ancient civilization and post-colonial identity – and the psychic war zones of certain characters, especially those who practise medicine. Anil’s work on human bones and their secrets inverts the novel’s active metaphor: “to study history as if it were a body.” If sentences are less lyrical and images more fractured in this book, the setting – without the romance of a ruined Italian villa and North African desert – complements Ondaatje’s esthetic shifts.

Playfulness in a land bloodied by random dismemberment may seem callous, but Ondaatje’s humour – his comic self – is subtle. When we learn that the amphetamine-glazed Dr. Gamini Diyasena was, at 11 years old, “proud of being a good mimic, could imitate the quizzical expressions of concerned dogs, for instance,” we recall the hundreds of other dog references in Ondaatje’s oeuvre, and recognize the author’s own identity as a dog-lover.

This sort of narrative intrusion irritates readers like Philip Marchand, those who believe a good story, a true story, is more important than its stylish telling or stylish teller. Ondaatje’s novels, including the first, Coming Through Slaughter, are governed by an omniscient narrator who asks that we observe the world his way, according to his version of beauty, and we are led again and again to experience art’s interface with intellect. This Ondaatje narrator is a poet, and in Anil’s Ghost, while the perspective switches between many characters – some dead, some nearly – it is always directed by a kind of corporeal spirituality (contradiction intended). Such omnipresence represents a somewhat dated notion of the role of narrator, but Ondaatje knows the risks involved. This, too, is playful.

As for the personality Marchand hopes for, Ondaatje struggles. While Anil is a strong character, she never graduates to compelling. The author constructs her with bits of popular culture and vogue. She is a fan of Prince and quoter of song lyrics (James Taylor?!). She is a movie-lover, particularly, like Ondaatje, of westerns – she’s fascinated by the trajectory and effect of bullet wounds. She is recovering from an affair with a married writer (who isn’t?). Even her occupation – and those of her colleagues in the other hip forensics – seems ultra-cool. Why should we miss her at the book’s end?

Marchand suggests that those who admire Ondaatje’s technique will eventually grow up and move on – but that’s a thin criticism. The mature reader might, in one quiet weekend,

1. Read his lush and comic memoir of the Country Formerly Known As Ceylon, Running in the Family;

2. On Saturday night, move to Handwriting, the 1998 poems about his spiritual return to Sri Lanka;

3. Then, after church on Sunday, finish with the suicides, severed heads, and profound acts of reverence of Anil’s Ghost.

It is difficult to resent a narrator who crafts each sentence, each line, and each image to embroider “the body of history” of a small, colonized nation at war always with itself. Hard to dismiss an author who similarly decorates the realms of lovers and dogs.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 311 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-6893-X

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 2000-5

Categories: Fiction: Novels

Tags: ,