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 burned, bamboo, the smell of petrol and grenade. The crack of noise as a layer of rock on his arm exfoliated in heat. The face open-eyed in the great rainstorms of May and June. The weather formed in the temperate forests and sea, in the thorn scrub behind him in the southeast, in the deciduous hills, and moving towards the burning savanna near Badulla, and then the coast of mangroves, lagoons and river deltas….

In an impassively brief author’s note at the beginning of the novel Ondaatje puts us in the picture, as would be said in army circles:

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Sri Lanka was in a crisis that involved three essential groups: the government, the anti-government insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north. Both the insurgents and the separatists had declared war on the government. Eventually, in response, legal and illegal government squads were known to have been sent out to hunt down the separatists and the insurgents.

With the usual sad result that the populace, caught between the warring sides, was the main body to suffer. “Today,” the author’s note unhopefully concludes, “the war in Sri Lanka continues in a different form.”

Anil is a young Sri Lankan paleontologist and bone expert who has been working in rather similar situations of political upheaval in Central America. Her task as she arrives in Colombo on behalf of an international human rights organization is to identify corpses, or bits of them, and to decide how they died and when. Before her work in America she had been a student at Guy’s Hospital in London, and there she met and briefly married a fellow Sri Lankan student. This London episode, typical of the way students love and live nowadays, is tersely and brilliantly described. Anil’s young husband, like most of their cosmopolitan and classless kind, sees “no difference…between privacy and friendship with acquaintances.” Ondaatje writes that “later she would read that this was the central quality of a monster.” But we are not told where she read it, or why it might be true.


This tendency to be cryptic, sometimes in apparently unconsidered or unmeaningful ways, is characteristic of Ondaatje’s manner, but in the brief interlude which describes Anil’s marriage it can be very effective:

She was suspicious of his insights and understanding. He appeared to spend all his spare energy on empathy. When she wept, he would weep. She never trusted weepers after that.

When she gets away from her husband, Anil buries herself in her work, drawing her studies close to her, “more intimately and seriously than she had imagined possible”:

In her work Anil turned bodies into representatives of race and age and place, though for her the tenderest of all discoveries was the finding, some years earlier, of the tracks at Laetoli—almost-four-million-year-old footsteps of a pig, a hyena, a rhinoceros and a bird, this strange ensemble identified by a twentieth-century tracker. Four unrelated creatures that had walked hurriedly over a wet layer of volcanic ash. To get away from what? Historically more significant were other tracks in the vicinity, of a hominid assumed to be approximately five feet tall (one could tell by the pivoting heel impressions). But it was that quartet of animals walking from Laetoli four million years ago that she liked to think about.

Later, in Arizona, she studied “the physical and chemical changes that occur in bones not only during life but also after death and burial.” The femur becomes her bone of choice.

In this way Anil becomes familiar with the dead, both those who died last week, and violently, and those who died from unknown causes centuries ago. Back in Sri Lanka, and faced with the many victims of the violence, she finds herself traveling with parts and bones, known and unknown, as if she were taking part in their posthumous life. She wills the unknown personalities now vanished to tell her what they were like and who they were.

Anil’s own life is so caught up in her work that the rest of it is necessarily perfunctory. So much so that she and the few other characters—friends from the past, including the archaeologist Sarath and a sculptor she meets—lead an existence that remains shadowy. This may be a necessary consequence of the local situation, through which Anil moves like a sleepwalker with a special expertise, carrying with her the relics of one of the victims of the government squads, whom she has called “Sailor.” Ananda, the sculptor, though frequently drunk, has made a head that represents what this victim would have looked like, and this head becomes part of the life of the characters, a symbol of the killing, open or secret, which has been going on. Ironically, art has made this head “comfortable with itself” in a way that no living person in this tormented situation can be:

In the courtyard a torch of twigs was stuck into the earth. Sailor’s head was on a chair. Nothing else, only the two of them and the presence of the head.

The firelight set the face in movement. But what affected her—who felt she knew every physical aspect about Sailor, who had been alongside him now in his posthumous life as they travelled across the country, who had slept in a chair all night while he lay on the table in the Bandarawela rest house, who knew every mark of trauma from his childhood—was that this head was not just how someone possibly looked, it was a specific person. It revealed a distinct personality, as real as the head of Sarath. As if she was finally meeting a person who had been described to her in letters, or someone she had once lifted up as a child who was now an adult.

She sat on the step. Sarath was walking towards the head and then walking backwards, away from it. Then he would turn, as if to catch it unawares. She just watched it point-blank, coming to terms with it. There was a serenity in the face she did not see too often these days. There was no tension. A face comfortable with itself. This was unexpected coming from such a scattered and unreliable presence as Ananda. When she turned she saw that he had gone.

“It’s so peaceful.” She spoke first.

“Yes. That’s the trouble,” Sarath said.

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I know. It’s what he wants of the dead.”

“He’s younger-looking than I expected. I like the look on him. What do you mean by that? ‘What he wants of the dead’?”

“We have seen so many heads stuck on poles here, these last few years. It was at its worst a couple of years ago. You’d see them in the early mornings, somebody’s night work, before the families heard about them and came and removed them and took them home. Wrapping them in their shirts or just cradling them. Someone’s son. These were blows to the heart. There was only one thing worse. That was when a family member simply disappeared and there was no sighting or evidence of his existence or his death. In 1989, forty-six students attending school in Ratnapura district and some of the staff who worked there disappeared. The vehicles that picked them up had no number plates. A yellow Lancer had been seen at the army camp and was recognized during the roundup. This was at the height of the campaign to wipe out insurgent rebels and their sympathizers in the villages. Ananda’s wife, Sirissa, disappeared at that time….”

“My God.”

“He told me only recently.”

“I…I feel ashamed.”

“It’s been three years. He still hasn’t found her. He was not always like this. The head he has made is therefore peaceful.”

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. She could not face Sarath with this. 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.

Such scenes exhibit the dreamlike quality of Ondaatje’s novels, which is very much a part of his technique. It can be overdone. But it seems to suit the Sinhalese civil war and background to it which are built up in Anil’s Ghost. It suits too her ghostlike existence; at home neither in England nor America nor in her native Sri Lanka when she returns, she can feel in her proper element only in her own lab and her own researches into paleontology. And her lab itself, where she and her colleague do their work, seems fittingly situated on a ship that no longer sails, an ancient British liner now permanently berthed in Colombo harbor:


The Oronsay, a passenger liner in the old days of the Orient Line, had been gutted of all valuable machinery and luxury furnishings. It had once travelled between Asia and England—from Colombo to Port Said, sliding through the narrow-gauge waters of the Suez Canal and journeying on to Tilbury Docks. By the 1970s it made just local trips. The rooms of tourist class were broken apart to become a cargo hold. Tea, fresh water, rubber products and rice replaced difficult passengers, save for a few souls, such as nephews of shareholders of the shipping line looking for work and adventure. It remained a ship of the Orient, a vessel that could survive the heat of Asia, that still contained the smells of salt water, rust and oil, and the waft of tea in cargo.

The quality of such writing, holding the attention of the eye and the mind with every object and detail it touches, indicates that Ondaatje’s real forte is as a prose-poet, a worker in successive scenes and pictures that, as Conrad once put it, are intended to “make us see,” rather than to create a coherent fictional world within its own artificial frame of convention. A plotted story here would be pointless. Or rather, perhaps, Ondaatje’s own kind of ghost story comes into being inside the words and scenes which we are shown. Anil’s friend Sarath tells her of an “episode” he once witnessed:

“I was in the south…. It was almost evening, the markets closed. Two men, insurgents I suppose, had caught a man. I don’t know what he had done. Maybe he had betrayed them, maybe he had killed someone, or disobeyed an order, or not agreed quickly enough. In those days the justice of death came in at any level. I don’t know if he was to be executed, or harassed and lectured at, or in the most unlikely scenario, forgiven. He was wearing a sarong, a white shirt, the long sleeves rolled up. His shirt hung outside the sarong. He had no shoes on. And he was blindfolded. They propped him up, made him sit awkwardly on the crossbar of a bicycle. One of the captors sat on the saddle, the one with the rifle stood by his side. When I saw them they were about to leave. The man could see nothing that was going on around him or where he would be going.

“When they took off, the blindfolded man had to somehow hang on. One hand on the handlebars, but the other he had to put around the neck of his captor. It was this necessary intimacy that was disturbing. They wobbled off, the man with the rifle following on another bike.

“It would have been easier if they had all walked. But this felt in an odd way ceremonial. Perhaps a bike was a form of status for them and they wished to use it. Why transport a blindfolded victim on a bicycle? It made all life seem precarious. It made all of them more equal. Like drunk university students. The blindfolded man had to balance his body in tune with his possible killer. They cycled off and at the far end of the street, beyond the market buildings, they turned and disappeared. Of course the reason they did it that way was so none of us would forget it.”

“What did you do?”


There is no more for anyone, let alone for a novel, to say. And it is the same when experience is of a very different kind, although the writer’s prose patterns have the effect of causing all experience to blend, as if in some Buddhist exercise:

Once she and Sarath had entered the forest monastery in Arankale and spent a few hours there. A corrugated overhang was nailed into the rock of a cave entrance to keep out sun and rain. Beyond was a curved road of sand to a bathing pool. A monk swept his way along the path for two hours each morning and removed a thousand leaves. By late afternoon another thousand leaves and light twigs had fallen upon it. But at noon its surface was as clear and yellow as a river. To walk this sand path was itself an act of meditation.

The forest was so still that Anil heard no sounds until she thought of listening for them. Then she located the noisemakers in the landscape, as if using a sieve in water, catching the calls of orioles and parrots. “Those who cannot love make places like this. One needs to be in a stage beyond passion.” It was practically the only thing Sarath had said that day in Arankale. Most of the time he walked and slept in his own thoughts.

They had wandered within the forest, discovering remnants of sites. A dog followed them and she remembered Tibetans believed that monks who hadn’t meditated properly became dogs in the next life. They circled back to the clearing, a clearing like a kamatha, the threshing circle in a paddy field. On a ledge of stone a small statue of the Buddha rested, a cut plantain leaf protected him from glare and rain. The forest towering over them so they felt they were within a deep green well.

It is not without interest that Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard, a member of the Ceylon Civil Service before the First World War, wrote a short novel about his experiences called The Village in the Jungle. Although long out of print and forgotten, it conveys a sense of place and time with something of the same feeling and atmosphere as Ondaatje’s book, just as it looks forward in its own way to the novels Woolf’s wife would have been writing. Clearly Ceylon/Sri Lanka was, at it chanced, a potent field or incubator for an imaginative mind, although the classical and traditional novel was still very much on top. A Passage to India, published during the same period as Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse, shows cunning old E.M. Forster’s remarkable talent for fellow-traveling with pioneering Bloomsbury while making use of every hoary old fictional device known to Trollope, Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett.

Ondaatje is very much a state-of-the-art writer who has created his own combination of experimental techniques (he observes in passing that only guns and other weapons are “state-of-the-art” in contemporary Sri Lanka); but at the same time his prose-poetry is well ballasted with sober and factual reference and on-the-spot data. Living as he does in Toronto, he is clearly obsessed not only with memories, but with visits to his native island, and his book is in its own way a memorial, as well as a labor of love, for a place. Among the entries in his concluding page of acknowledgments he mentions his close study of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, with its account of the “eye ceremonies,” which celebrated the life created by the sculptor in the eye of the Buddha. But also acknowledged are works on reconstructing life and age from bones, to say nothing of pamphlets on war surgery, and the nature of injuries inflicted by antipersonnel landmines. It is a relief to hear from another quoted source that historic Sri Lanka possessed its own version of a health service three centuries before Christ.

For this reader at least it was something of a disappointment that Anil—her friends too—could, in the nature of Ondaatje’s specification, remain little more than ghosts. I wanted to know more about their feelings and their ongoing private lives. But every novel has its own way of conducting its business. Sri Lanka itself, its landscape and tradition, certainly remains in the mind after Anil has completed her intricate and expert job, and departed into the limbo inhabited by the nonpersons of Ondaatje’s fictions.

This Issue

November 2, 2000