Anil’s Ghost

It’s spring here in Australia, and the weather’s been quite unstable but lovely over the past few days – we stored all the gas heaters away last Monday, only to wake up to a wintry Tuesday. The day after, however, it was quite warm again. Yesterday it was sunny with a nasty breeze; today it’s pouring. I’m sure normal people enjoy spring, but it drives me mad because I have hayfever. On top of that, I came down with the most awful cold last week. I don’t actually mind much; I plan on reading all day instead of studying.

But firstly, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. I really love this book; it’s one of my favourites, and it captivates me more every time I read it. I’m halfway through my fourth reading right now, and it definitely flows better now that I’m accustomed to his poetic style. This is the only Ondaatje I’ve read, at first I was rather confused at the half completed sentences, and what not – I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that he was a poet.

In the end, though, I suppose it’s really the writing itself that drew me in, because I can’t really seem to pinpoint any one character I loved. The most interesting characters, by far, were Sarath and Gamini – the Mouse. Those two brothers were really what held the story up for me. I detested Anil. In an attempt to create a tough, independent protagonist, Ondaatje created this aggressive and completely unrealistic psychotic woman who stabs her brother a sexual favour in order to ‘win his second name’ (she wasn’t born ‘Anil’ – apparently that’s a male name). She’s just completely out of touch with it all. Even to Cullis (her ex), she remains a mystery until the day they part –

“I can’t imagine your childhoood. You are a complete stranger to me.”

Sometimes she says clever, witty things – “to the comfort of servants. A vainglorious government. Every political opinion supported by its own army.” At times, I could perceive the character trying to break free from Ondaatje’s uncomfortable mould, but it was just awkward. From the first page of the novel, to the very last, Anil remains the same naive, egocentric hot-tempered girl. Conversely, Sarath goes from being a broody, reserved fence-sitter to a martyr for his country (sorry, spoiler there). Ananda, too, fascinated and moved me much more than Anil ever did. The final scene where he paints the Buddha’s eyes was just terrific. The ambiguity of it was just so delicate and heartbreaking.

Many, I know, have criticized Anil’s Ghost because of its ambiguity; however, I think that’s what completes this novel. How else could Ondaatje have portrayed a world in which the reason for war was war? The truth of the matter is that the Sri Lanka of Anil’s Ghost, and of today, is a place of moral ambiguity. There’s no hope of affixing blame; no one can tell who the victims are. Of course, as a poet, Ondaatje also succeeds in creating these breathtaking passages that capture perfectly the atmosphere of Ceylon/Sri Lanka:

In the West she’d read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognise 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.

Mm, and the monsoons –

The touch of rain on her shirt, the smell of dust in the wetness. Clouds would suddenly unlock and the city would turn into an intimate village full of people acknowledging the rain and yelling to one another.

Initially, I was furious with Michael Ondaatje; he had allowed Sarath to die because of Anil’s stupidity. Then I realised that perhaps Sarath would have died, regardless. Re-reading it makes me realise that the government already knew about the true nature of their investigation.


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