The aftershocks of the recent bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, and of doomed efforts to name and remember that afflicted country's ``disappeared,'' are explored with commanding poetic intensity in this striking latest from the Canadian (and Sri Lankan–born) author of (this novel's immediate predecessor) The English Patient (1992).
As he did in that earlier tale, Ondaatje analyzes the effects of political catastrophe on several deeply involved characters brought randomly—and explosively—together. Anil Tissera, a ``forensic anthropologist'' who had emigrated to America and now works for an international Human Rights organization, returns to her homeland to participate in an investigation into suspected mass political murders. She is assigned to work with Sarath Diyasena—a phlegmatic archaeologist whose own political affiliations remain cloudy—and is soon involved in the process of ``restoring'' skeletons officially declared ``prehistoric remains'' (though it's obvious they're the remains of recently deceased victims of torture). Ondaatje's plot is mined with ingenious surprises, but the story’s structure is relentlessly meditative and ruminative—as becomes apparent when it expands to include other principal characters: Sarath's younger brother Gamini, a doctor abducted by rebel insurgents, who shares with Sarath a history of fraternal intrigue and sexual rivalry; Sarath's mentor Palipana, a venerable ``epigraphist'' (i.e., an interpreter of ancient ruins) who has become a blind recluse; and Ananda Udagama, an ``eyepainter turned drunk gempit worker turned headrestorer,'' whose unusual artistry is commandeered in the violent climactic pages. The actions and thoughts of these and several other dramatically conceived characters often exude a hallucinatory power; and as often, unfortunately, drain away the story's immediacy, in capriciously positioned flashbacks burdened with explaining their past lives and present interrelationships. The reader becomes lost in thickets of speculation and reverie.
Impressive and often fascinating, but not a success. There's ample evidence that Ondaatje worked diligently, and perhaps for several years, on Anil's Ghost. But he doesn't seem to have finished it. (First printing of 200,000)