Before I let myself even open Michael Ondaatje’s newest title, The Cat’s Table, which hit shelves earlier this month, I was determined to read his previous novels that I had somehow missed. The realization that I have now earned access to Table is rather bittersweet as I know even more clearly that the wait for Ondaatje’s next book will be considerable (sniff, sniff).
Even more than his 1992 Booker Prize-winning The English Patient (which I feel I must now re-read), Anil’s Ghost proves to be a more lasting novel for me, as much for what appears on the printed page as what does not.
Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, arrives in her native Sri Lanka after 15 years of living in the West, not so much because of family or cultural ties, but because she is sent by a Swiss human rights group to investigate the escalating numbers of alleged murders. The Sri Lankan government and various rebel factions have been carrying on a brutal, stealthy war for decades and the body count continues to multiply. Paired with a local archeologist, Sarath Diyasena, Anil is never quite sure whom she can trust. The two form an uneasy bond over a certain skeleton – dubbed Sailor (along with its companions, Tinker, Tailor, and Soldier) –whose murder Anil is determined to prove.
Fluidly passing back and forth from the present to disparate moments in the past, Ondaatje creates an elliptical landscape of a woman’s life in constant flux. Anil regularly discards parts of her life, from her given name (at 12, she buys her brother’s name from him for 100 rupees, a pen set, 50 cigarettes, “and a sexual favour”) to her married lover whom she leaves with a knife buried in his flesh with the admonition, “‘Remember this is what I did to you in Borrego Springs.’”
Her time in Sri Lanka will (predictably) be temporary; what she learns of her native country and especially its people – Sarath’s disgraced teacher-mentor, Sarath’s doctor brother Gamini, the sculptor Ananda and his disappeared wife – will eventually force her to flee. Her tenuous relationship with Sarath must come to an abrupt end, and she will again leave behind another unresolved life.
For every fact that Ondaatje (who is also Sri Lankan-born, and long Canadian-domiciled) presents, he invites new questions for which he does not offer clear answers. The ghosts throughout are many, not limited to Anil and her past selves, but even more the countless missing persons both named and unnamed. Part mystery, part thriller, perhaps even part memoir, Anil’s Ghost haunts long after the final page.