Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought the story to a vast new audience. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, went on to win numerous prizes, among them nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Worldwide English-language sales of the book topped two million copies.
But in April 2000, Anil’s Ghost was widely hailed as Ondaatje’s most powerful and engrossing novel to date. Winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and the Giller Prize, Anil’s Ghost became an international bestseller. “Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully,” said The New York Times Book Review.
The setting is Sri Lanka. Steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition, the country has been ravaged in the late twentieth century by bloody civil war. As in The English Patient, Ondaatje’s latest novel follows a woman’s attempt to piece together the lost life of a victim of war. Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka but educated in England and the U.S., is sent by an international human rights group to participate in an investigation into suspected mass political murders in her homeland. Working with an archaeologist, she discovers a skeleton whose identity takes Anil on a fascinating journey that involves a riveting mystery. What follows, in a novel rich with character, emotion, and incident, is a story about love and loss, about family, identity and the unknown enemy. And it is a quest to unlock the hidden past – like a handful of soil analyzed by an archaeologist, the story becomes more diffuse the farther we reach into history.
A universal tale of the casualties of war, unfolding as a detective story, the book gradually gives way to a more intricate exploration of its characters, a symphony of loss and loneliness haunted by a cast of solitary strangers and ghosts. The atrocities of a seemingly futile, muddled war are juxtaposed against the ancient, complex and ultimately redemptive culture and landscape of Sri Lanka.
Anil’s Ghost is Michael Ondaatje's first novel to be set in the country of his birth. “There’s a tendency with us in England and North America to say it’s a book ‘about Sri Lanka.’ But it’s just my take on a few characters, a personal tunnelling into that … The book’s not just about Sri Lanka; it’s a story that’s very familiar in other parts of the world” – in Africa, in Yugoslavia, in South America, in Ireland. “I didn’t want it to be a political tract. I wanted it to be a human study of people in the midst of fear.”
About the author
Michael Ondaatje (born 12 September 1943) is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet of Colombo Chetty and Burgher origin. He is perhaps best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film.
He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971. He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983. His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998). His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996. Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells The Story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group.
Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto with his wife, Linda Spalding, with whom he edits the literary journal Brick. His new novel is Divisadero (2007).
- Winner, Scotiabank Giller Prize
- Winner, Prix Medicis
- Winner, Kiriyama Prize for Fiction
- Winner, Irish Times International Fiction Prize
- Winner, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
Excerpt: Anil's Ghost (by (author) Michael Ondaatje)
She arrived in early March, the plane landing at Katunayake airport before the dawn. They had raced it ever since coming over the west coast of India, so that now passengers stepped onto the tarmac in the dark.
By the time she was out of the terminal the sun had risen. In the West she'd read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognize 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.
As soon as her passport with the light-blue UN bar was processed, a young official approached and moved alongside her. She struggled with her suitcases but he offered no help.
'How long has it been? You were born here, no?'
'You still speak Sinhala?'
'A little. Look, do you mind if I don't talk in the car on the way into Colombo — I'm jet-lagged. I just want to look. Maybe drink some toddy before it gets too late. Is Gabriel's Saloon still there for head massages?'
'In Kollupitiya, yes. I knew his father.'
'My father knew his father too.'
Without touching a single suitcase he organized the loading of the bags into the car. 'Toddy!' He laughed, continuing his conversation. 'First thing after fifteen years. The return of the prodigal.'
'I'm not a prodigal.'
An hour later he shook hands energetically with her at the door of the small house they had rented for her.
'There's a meeting tomorrow with Mr. Diyasena.'
'You have friends here, no?'
Anil was glad to be alone. There was a scattering of relatives in Colombo, but she had not contacted them to let them know she was returning. She unearthed a sleeping pill from her purse, turned on the fan, chose a sarong and climbed into bed. The thing she had missed most of all were the fans. After she had left Sri Lanka at eighteen, her only real connection was the new sarong her parents sent her every Christmas (which she dutifully wore), and news clippings of swim meets. Anil had been an exceptional swimmer as a teenager, and the family never got over it; the talent was locked to her for life. As far as Sri Lankan families were concerned, if you were a well-known cricketer you could breeze into a career in business on the strength of your spin bowling or one famous inning at the Royal-Thomian match. Anil at sixteen had won the two-mile swim race that was held by the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Each year a hundred people ran into the sea, swam out to a buoy a mile away and swam back to the same beach, the fastest male and the fastest female fêted in the sports pages for a day or so. There was a photograph of her walking out of the surf that January morning — which The Observer had used with the headline 'Anil Wins It!' and which her father kept in his office. It had been studied by every distant member of the family (those in Australia, Malaysia and England, as well as those on the island), not so much because of her success but for her possible good looks now and in the future. Did she look too large in the hips?
The photographer had caught Anil's tired smile in the photograph, her right arm bent up to tear off her rubber swimming cap, some out-of-focus stragglers (she had once known who they were). The black-and-white picture had remained an icon in the family for too long.
She pushed the sheet down to the foot of the bed and lay there in the darkened room, facing the waves of air. The island no longer held her by the past. She'd spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity. Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus — In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.
"Read this book. Be changed."
—The Globe and Mail
“Unquestionably Ondaatje’s finest work ... A book that surpasses The English Patient in both depth of feeling and intellectual reach … Anil’s Ghost is the most remarkable of the many remarkable novels Michael Ondaatje has written.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Anil’s Ghost moves with the suspense of a mystery, yet with breathtaking grace … A rare triumph.”
—The Guardian (London)
“A truly wondrous book. The layers of human history, the depth of the human body, the heartache of love and fratricide have rarely been conveyed with such dignity and translucence. I was enthralled as I have not been since The English Patient.”
“Ondaatje’s most mature and engrossing novel … In Anil’s Ghost he has employed all his talents to create a searing, compassionate novel of extraordinary beauty and desolation.”
“Breathtaking ... Stunningly beautiful … Compelling ... Michael Ondaatje once again commands both astonishment and admiration – astonishment at the quality of his prose and admiration for the emotional energy that informs his work ... With the consummate skill of the master novelist, Ondaatje, each word carefully chosen, builds his story toward its startling conclusion … His sense of sad inevitability and his exquisite use of imagery lend themselves to the themes of displacement and loss that lift the novel far beyond the familiar. Anil’s Ghost is a brilliant book, emotionally well-informed, graceful and, in a word, superb.”
—The London Free Press
“Virtually flawless, with impeccable regional details, startlingly original characters, and a compelling literary plot that borders on the thriller, Ondaatje’s stunning achievement is to produce an indelible novel of dangerous beauty.”
“A new masterwork by one of contemporary fiction’s titans.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“There are times when the only response to the book is silence, the feeling that something beautiful is being whispered to you in a crowded room, something you will remember forever, but cannot immediately respond to … [Anil’s Ghost] deserves, like a skeleton that forms its mystery, to be read over and over again.”
“The story here, meticulously researched for seven years, is that of ordinary people caught up in a war not of their own making and professionals trying to keep up with their consciences. Excavation is the theme – finding out exactly who had inhabited the body of a contemporary skeleton, nicknamed ‘Sailor’ by Anil, unearthed at a government archaeological site. But it is Anil, too, who is being unearthed, challenged, her liberal values tested on the touchstone of terror. Each character has his or her own ghosts to come to terms with.”
—A. Sivanandan, author of When Memory Dies
“It is Ondaatje’s extraordinary achievement to use magic in order to make the blood of his own country real ... Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“[This] is war as no one else has written of it: where the tragedy, the terrible waste and horror of war is transformed into a kind of hallucinatory poetry [that] engages our deepest concerns.”
—Anita Desai, Good Book Guide
“Sinuous, intelligent, graceful.”
—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“As in The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje is able to commingle anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Ondaatje is a choreographer of images ... What gives his writing its particular weight and magic is the labyrinthine consciousness at its center ... A novel of exquisite refractions and angles.”
—The Boston Globe
“Anil’s Ghost is the most harrowing of Ondaatje’s novels. It is also the toughest, most sincere and in some ways the best since Coming Through Slaughter … His images [are] genuinely, eerily, almost inappropriately beautiful.”
—The Toronto Star
“This work of ‘fiction’ will endure as a history of these times, showing us how we may face even the most extreme actions of our civilization through wise, compassionate re-creation.”
—The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)