In his first novel since the internationally acclaimed The English Patient – winner of the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award – Michael Ondaatje gives us Anil’s Ghost, a work displaying all the richness of imagery and language and the piercing emotional truth we have come to know as the hallmarks of his writing.
The time is our own time. The place, Sri Lanka, the island nation off the southern tip of India, a country formerly known as Ceylon, which is steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition – and forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war and the consequences of a country divided against itself.
Into this maelstrom steps a young woman, Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka, educated in the West, a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human-rights group to work with local officials to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island.
Bodies are discovered. Skeletons. And particularly one, nicknamed “Sailor.” What follows, in a novel vivid with character and event, is a story about love, about family, about loss, about the unknown enemy and the quest to unlock the hidden past – all propelled by a riveting mystery.
Unfolding against the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka’s landscape and ancient civilization, Anil’s Ghost is a literary spellbinder – a timeless work of art and a revelatory journey.
From the Hardcover edition.
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.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"Unquestionably Ondaatje's finest work." --The Globe and Mail
"From the universally acclaimed novelist and poet, winner of the Governor General's Award, the Booker Prize, and the Canada-Australia Prize: "A powerful and resonant novel--etched against a background of natural beauty and human brutality [that] assumes the tensions of a thriller--. Ondaatje's novel satisfies one of the most exalted purposes of fiction: to illuminate the human condition through pity and terror. It may well be the capstone of his career." -Publishers Weekly