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.”
Author of eleven books of poetry, four novels and a fictionalized memoir, Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Colombo, capital of the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Of Tamil, Sinhalese and Dutch descent, he was the youngest of four children. He grew up during the halcyon days of colonial Ceylon on the Kutapitiya tea estate, “the most beautiful place in the world,” as he described in an interview with The Guardian. His mother’s real gift to Michael was her enthusiasm for the arts. Of his father, who served in the Ceylon light infantry, Ondaatje has said: “My father was in tea and alcohol; he dealt in tea and he drank the alcohol.” He died of a brain hemorrhage after Michael had left Sri Lanka, so Michael never got to know his father as an adult. “He is still one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut. He was a sad and mercurial figure. There was a lot I didn’t know about him … In all my books there are mysteries that are not fully told.”
When Michael was five his parents separated. His mother soon went to England with two of her children; Michael stayed behind and lived with relatives, joining his mother and siblings at the age of eleven. He relinquished his sarong and donned a tie – an item of clothing he’d never seen before – to attend Dulwich College, whose alumni include writers Graham Swift, P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. (One of Michael’s former teachers expressed surprise when Ondaatje won the Booker, since he had “always seemed more interested in cricket.”) In 1962, at the age of nineteen, he went to Quebec, where his brother Christopher (today a businessman and explorer) was living. It was in Canada that Michael Ondaatje’s writing life began in earnest: “[Y]ou felt you could do anything. I wouldn’t have been a writer if I’d stayed in England … where you feel, what right do you have to do this because of John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney. England felt repressive in the fifties … Moving, you learn twice as much; it doubles you in some way, like living three or four lives.”
Ondaatje obtained a B.A. from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from Queen’s University, then taught at the University of Western Ontario and at York University. In the seventies he edited poetry, produced anthologies and critical works and short documentary films, and began his involvement with the small press Coach House.
Although he was thrust onto the world stage by the tremendous success of The English Patient, Ondaatje, who lives in Toronto, remains an intensely private person. “Privacy is essential,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of writers being interpreted by their personalities – Ginsberg, Layton …You want the book to be read, not the author.” When he won the Booker Prize in 1992, he used the money to inaugurate the Gratiaen award – named after his mother – as an annual literary prize for Sri Lankan writers.
In his writing Ondaatje employs a technique of blurring fact and fiction in an imaginative collage. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, contain fact alongside fiction. For example, in Coming Through Slaughter he relates the real and imagined life of New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden; in Running in the Family, he writes a fictionalized memoir of the unconventional life of his parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon. Some of Ondaatje’s major influences come from Henri Rousseau paintings, Diego Rivera murals, Sri Lankan temple sculpture and, most of all, the music and rhythms of jazz. “If I could be Fats Waller, I wouldn’t be writing.”
"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)