The art of writing about distant places, exotic places, has always been widely practiced in the novel. In the days of “the mysterious East” Kipling and Conrad and many a lesser writer made their reputations in this way. They knew about the East at first hand, but they deployed their knowledge in skillful and colorful ways which would not unduly disturb the naive images of distant places which their homebound readers had already formed. A fine example is the climax of Conrad’s novella Youth, when the crew of a ship burned at sea at last bring their boat into the safety of a small harbor. Utterly exhausted they collapse into sleep, still in the lifeboat, and “the East watched them without a sound.” Youth is a wonderful story, the title itself suggesting an innocent dream of hardship and adventure, but the East is brought on to take the part of a picturesque backdrop: its existence is entirely two-dimensional.
Things are very different today. The merger between East and West at all levels—social, spiritual, technological—now seems more and more complete. But paradoxically some of the best and most sensitive travelers and writers, such as V.S. Naipaul, continue to harbor a nostalgic feel for the magic of Awayness, although Naipaul’s most haunting evocation of the mysterious inside the ordinary, The Enigma of Arrival, finds its mystery no further than a house in Wiltshire and in the surrounding countryside.
Naipaul’s mystery is always pellucid, and the accurate observation of his Awayness has a quizzical air: there is nothing torrid and exotic about it. Michael Ondaatje, by contrast, achieves the mystery of Awayness by means of a series of often stunning but habitually opaque and puzzling effects. The reader has to grope his way with none of the clarity of revelation that Conrad was able to contrive in his great Oriental and African setpieces.
Anil’s Ghost is a much more straightforward book than The English Patient. Set in Ondaatje’s native Sri Lanka, it takes the form of a series of sketches, left unarticulated, but so closely and delicately written that a composite picture emerges, a vista of the contemporary state and culture of the island. Naturally enough this is not a reassuring one: its outlines are grim. But there remains an impression of peace at the center of life and of an ancient and enduring civilization. By means of oblique and yet precise touches Ondaatje conveys a subtle sense of these things to the reader, showing at the end of the book the face of the great Buddha, vandalized in the political troubles, being carefully and lovingly restored by a young boy, perched high above the plain as he works with his father’s chisel on the stone eye of the statue:
He could feel each current of wind, every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud. There was a girl moving in the forest. The rain miles away rolling like blue dust towards him. Grasses being …