Anil's Ghost

Paperback | April 17, 2001

byOndaatje, Michael

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Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought the story to a vast new audience. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, went on to win numerous prizes, among them nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Worldwide English-language sales of the book topped two million copies.

But in April 2000, Anil’s Ghost was widely hailed as Ondaatje’s most powerful and engrossing novel to date. Winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and the Giller Prize, Anil’s Ghost became an international bestseller. “Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully,” said The New York Times Book Review.

The setting is Sri Lanka. Steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition, the country has been ravaged in the late twentieth century by bloody civil war. As in The English Patient, Ondaatje’s latest novel follows a woman’s attempt to piece together the lost life of a victim of war. Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka but educated in England and the U.S., is sent by an international human rights group to participate in an investigation into suspected mass political murders in her homeland. Working with an archaeologist, she discovers a skeleton whose identity takes Anil on a fascinating journey that involves a riveting mystery. What follows, in a novel rich with character, emotion, and incident, is a story about love and loss, about family, identity and the unknown enemy. And it is a quest to unlock the hidden past – like a handful of soil analyzed by an archaeologist, the story becomes more diffuse the farther we reach into history.

A universal tale of the casualties of war, unfolding as a detective story, the book gradually gives way to a more intricate exploration of its characters, a symphony of loss and loneliness haunted by a cast of solitary strangers and ghosts. The atrocities of a seemingly futile, muddled war are juxtaposed against the ancient, complex and ultimately redemptive culture and landscape of Sri Lanka.

Anil’s Ghost is Michael Ondaatje's first novel to be set in the country of his birth. “There’s a tendency with us in England and North America to say it’s a book ‘about Sri Lanka.’ But it’s just my take on a few characters, a personal tunnelling into that … The book’s not just about Sri Lanka; it’s a story that’s very familiar in other parts of the world” – in Africa, in Yugoslavia, in South America, in Ireland. “I didn’t want it to be a political tract. I wanted it to be a human study of people in the midst of fear.”

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From the Publisher

Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought th...

From the Jacket

Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought th...

Author of eleven books of poetry, four novels and a fictionalized memoir, Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Colombo, capital of the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Of Tamil, Sinhalese and Dutch descent, he was the youngest of four children. He grew up during the halcyon days of colonial Ceylon on the Kutapitiya tea estate,...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 7.98 × 5.16 × 0.88 inPublished:April 17, 2001Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676973612

ISBN - 13:9780676973617

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Read from the Book

Chapter OneShe arrived in early March, the plane landing at Katunayake airport before the dawn. They had raced it ever since coming over the west coast of India, so that now passengers stepped onto the tarmac in the dark.By the time she was out of the terminal the sun had risen. In the West she'd read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognize the phrase physically. Though it was never abrupt thunder to her. It was first of all the noise of chickens and carts and modest morning rain or a man squeakily cleaning the windows with newspaper in another part of the house.As soon as her passport with the light-blue UN bar was processed, a young official approached and moved alongside her. She struggled with her suitcases but he offered no help.'How long has it been? You were born here, no?''Fifteen years.''You still speak Sinhala?''A little. Look, do you mind if I don't talk in the car on the way into Colombo — I'm jet-lagged. I just want to look. Maybe drink some toddy before it gets too late. Is Gabriel's Saloon still there for head massages?''In Kollupitiya, yes. I knew his father.''My father knew his father too.'Without touching a single suitcase he organized the loading of the bags into the car. 'Toddy!' He laughed, continuing his conversation. 'First thing after fifteen years. The return of the prodigal.''I'm not a prodigal.'An hour later he shook hands energetically with her at the door of the small house they had rented for her.'There's a meeting tomorrow with Mr. Diyasena.''Thank you.''You have friends here, no?''Not really.'Anil was glad to be alone. There was a scattering of relatives in Colombo, but she had not contacted them to let them know she was returning. She unearthed a sleeping pill from her purse, turned on the fan, chose a sarong and climbed into bed. The thing she had missed most of all were the fans. After she had left Sri Lanka at eighteen, her only real connection was the new sarong her parents sent her every Christmas (which she dutifully wore), and news clippings of swim meets. Anil had been an exceptional swimmer as a teenager, and the family never got over it; the talent was locked to her for life. As far as Sri Lankan families were concerned, if you were a well-known cricketer you could breeze into a career in business on the strength of your spin bowling or one famous inning at the Royal-Thomian match. Anil at sixteen had won the two-mile swim race that was held by the Mount Lavinia Hotel.Each year a hundred people ran into the sea, swam out to a buoy a mile away and swam back to the same beach, the fastest male and the fastest female fêted in the sports pages for a day or so. There was a photograph of her walking out of the surf that January morning — which The Observer had used with the headline 'Anil Wins It!' and which her father kept in his office. It had been studied by every distant member of the family (those in Australia, Malaysia and England, as well as those on the island), not so much because of her success but for her possible good looks now and in the future. Did she look too large in the hips?The photographer had caught Anil's tired smile in the photograph, her right arm bent up to tear off her rubber swimming cap, some out-of-focus stragglers (she had once known who they were). The black-and-white picture had remained an icon in the family for too long.She pushed the sheet down to the foot of the bed and lay there in the darkened room, facing the waves of air. The island no longer held her by the past. She'd spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity. Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus — In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. Juxtapositions and fragments are central to the style and structure of Anil's Ghost. The novel opens with a scene in italics, in which we are introduced to Anil as part of a team of scientists unearthing the bodies of missing people in Guatemala. Then there is a brief scene in which Anil arrives in Sri Lanka to begin her investigation for the human rights group. This is followed by another scene in italics, describing "the place of a complete crime" -- a place where Buddhist cave sculptures were "cut out of the walls with axes and saws" [p. 12]. How do these sections -- upon which the author does not comment -- work together, and what is the cumulative effect of such brief scenes?2. Why is the story of how Anil got her name [pp. 67-8] important to the construction of her character? Does it imply that she has created an identity for herself, based on fierce internal promptings, that is at odds with her parents' wishes for her? Is Anil's personality well-suited to the conditions in which she finds herself in Sri Lanka?3. Forensic expertise such as Anil's often occupies a central place in the mystery genre -- as in the popular Kay Scarpetta mysteries by Patricia Cornwell or in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In what ways does Anil's Ghost fit into the genre of mystery fiction, and how does it transcend such a classification?4. How does the section called "The Grove of Ascetics" extend the novel's exploration of the meaning of history? What is the relevance, if any, of Palipana's knowledge? How does the ancient culture of the island relate to its present situation? Does the past have permanence?5. If you have read The English Patient, how does Anil's Ghost compare with that novel? Is it similar, with its focus on war, on history, on how people behave in dangerous political situations -- or is it quite different?6. What does Anil's affair with Cullis, as well as what we learn about her marriage, tell us about her passion and her sensuality? Given her past, is it surprising that there is no romantic involvement for her in this story?7. Michael Ondaatje has published many books of poetry; how do the style and structure of this novel exhibit the poetic sensibility of its author?8. Is there a single or multiple meaning behind the "ghost" of the book's title? Who or what is Anil's Ghost?9. Why are Anil, Sarath, and Gamini so consumed by their work? What parts of their lives are they necessarily displacing or postponing for the sake of their work? Is the choice of professional over personal life the correct one, ethically speaking, within the terms of this novel?10. Does the story of Gamini's childhood provide an adequate explanation for the rivalry between him and Sarath? Or is the rivalry caused solely by the fact that as adults they both loved the same woman? Does Sarath's wife love Gamini rather than her husband? Which of the two brothers is the more admirable one?11. As Anil thinks about the mystery of Sailor's death, the narrator tells us, "She used to believe that meaning allowed a person a door to escape grief and fear. But she saw that those who were slammed and stained by violence lost the power of language and logic" [p. 55]. How does this insight about the loss of language and logic explain Ananda's behavior? Is Anil's search for "meaning" ultimately to be seen as naive within a context which, as the narrator tells us, "The reason for war was war" [p. 43]?12. The acknowledgments at the end of the book tell us that the names of people who disappeared (mentioned on p. 41) are taken from an actual list in Amnesty International reports (see p. 310). Similarly, the description of the assassination of the president [pp. 291-95] is based on true events, though the president's name has been changed. Why does Ondaatje insert the names of real people, and the real situations in which they died or disappeared, in a work of fiction?13. Certain tersely narrated episodes convey the terrifying strangeness of Sri Lanka's murderous atmosphere. About the bicycle incident he witnessed, in which the person being kidnapped was forced to embrace his captor as he was taken away, Sarath says, "It was this necessary intimacy that was disturbing" [p. 154]. Another scene describes Anil and Sarath's rescue of the crucified Gunesena; another the disappearance of Ananda's wife. How does Ondaatje's handling of these three separate examples of violence and its victims make the reader understand the horror of living with politically-motivated murder as an everyday reality?14. What are the elements that give such emotional power to the scene in which Gamini examines and tends to the body of his murdered brother?15. Given the crisis that occurs when Anil testifies about Sailor at the hospital, has she brought about more harm than good? If so, is she ultimately to be seen as an outsider who has intruded in a situation she doesn't fully understand? Is Sarath the true hero of the novel, and does he sacrifice his life for hers?16. The novel ends with a chapter called "Distance," in which a vandalized statue of Buddha is reconstructed and Ananda, the artisan, is given the task of sculpting the god's eyes. Does this religious ceremony cast the novel's ending in a positive or hopeful light? How important is the theme of Buddhism, and the presence of the Buddha's gaze, throughout this story?17. How does Ondaatje manage to convey a powerful sense of place in this novel? What are the details that communicate Sri Lanka's unique geographical and cultural identity?

Editorial Reviews

"Read this book. Be changed."—The Globe and Mail“Unquestionably Ondaatje’s finest work ... A book that surpasses The English Patient in both depth of feeling and intellectual reach … Anil’s Ghost is the most remarkable of the many remarkable novels Michael Ondaatje has written.”—The Globe and Mail“Anil’s Ghost moves with the suspense of a mystery, yet with breathtaking grace … A rare triumph.”—The Guardian (London)“A truly wondrous book. The layers of human history, the depth of the human body, the heartache of love and fratricide have rarely been conveyed with such dignity and translucence. I was enthralled as I have not been since The English Patient.”—Ariel Dorfman“Ondaatje’s most mature and engrossing novel … In Anil’s Ghost he has employed all his talents to create a searing, compassionate novel of extraordinary beauty and desolation.”—Daily News“Breathtaking ... Stunningly beautiful … Compelling ... Michael Ondaatje once again commands both astonishment and admiration – astonishment at the quality of his prose and admiration for the emotional energy that informs his work ... With the consummate skill of the master novelist, Ondaatje, each word carefully chosen, builds his story toward its startling conclusion … His sense of sad inevitability and his exquisite use of imagery lend themselves to the themes of displacement and loss that lift the novel far beyond the familiar. Anil’s Ghost is a brilliant book, emotionally well-informed, graceful and, in a word, superb.”—The London Free Press“Virtually flawless, with impeccable regional details, startlingly original characters, and a compelling literary plot that borders on the thriller, Ondaatje’s stunning achievement is to produce an indelible novel of dangerous beauty.”—USA Today“A new masterwork by one of contemporary fiction’s titans.”—San Francisco Chronicle“There are times when the only response to the book is silence, the feeling that something beautiful is being whispered to you in a crowded room, something you will remember forever, but cannot immediately respond to … [Anil’s Ghost] deserves, like a skeleton that forms its mystery, to be read over and over again.”—National Post“The story here, meticulously researched for seven years, is that of ordinary people caught up in a war not of their own making and professionals trying to keep up with their consciences. Excavation is the theme – finding out exactly who had inhabited the body of a contemporary skeleton, nicknamed ‘Sailor’ by Anil, unearthed at a government archaeological site. But it is Anil, too, who is being unearthed, challenged, her liberal values tested on the touchstone of terror. Each character has his or her own ghosts to come to terms with.”—A. Sivanandan, author of When Memory Dies“It is Ondaatje’s extraordinary achievement to use magic in order to make the blood of his own country real ... Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully.”—The New York Times Book Review“[This] is war as no one else has written of it: where the tragedy, the terrible waste and horror of war is transformed into a kind of hallucinatory poetry [that] engages our deepest concerns.”—Anita Desai, Good Book Guide“Sinuous, intelligent, graceful.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)“As in The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje is able to commingle anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times“Ondaatje is a choreographer of images ... What gives his writing its particular weight and magic is the labyrinthine consciousness at its center ... A novel of exquisite refractions and angles.”—The Boston Globe“Anil’s Ghost is the most harrowing of Ondaatje’s novels. It is also the toughest, most sincere and in some ways the best since Coming Through Slaughter … His images [are] genuinely, eerily, almost inappropriately beautiful.”—The Toronto Star“This work of ‘fiction’ will endure as a history of these times, showing us how we may face even the most extreme actions of our civilization through wise, compassionate re-creation.”—The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)