Even Michael Ondaatje’s most ardent admirers admit that there’s an act of faith involved in reading his work. Words like ‘precious’, ‘portentous’, ‘a struggle’ and ‘slightly implausible’ regularly crop up in even the most enthusiastic reviews – but are then explained away as necessary sacrifices to his higher purpose. His books are designed on grand, operatic lines; and they take everything – from love and death to 1940s pop music and bowling – very, very seriously. As a consequence, they risk pratfalls and sniggers. Is he poetic or ‘poetic’? Are his metaphors daring and striking, or patently absurd? Are his lyrical interludes spellbinding or stultifying? Does he turn out prose of Biblical grandeur or thumping pomposity? Is his narrative technique beautifully oblique and prismatic, or disconnected and frequently preposterous?
Now, after the success of The English Patient, Ondaatje is safely running with what one of his characters, typically, called ‘the giraffes of fame’ – guaranteeing large print-runs and dozens of reverential profiles. So there is, perhaps, a particular justification in examining the case against him. For example: does he, for all the geographical and historical range of his stories, escape the parochialism of much literary fiction, or is he really a solipsist, looking beyond his own hobby-horses only with difficulty? Is he a graceful polymath or an information-scattering obscurantist? Does he manage to be politically ‘relevant’, or is he just an opportunist with a gift for platitudes? How can books that feature so much horrifying violence remain slightly smug? As in one of Ondaatje’s outlandish figures of comparison, the excellent novelist and the hammy, rather suspect wordsmith seem intertwined.
Anil Tissera, the heroine of the new novel, is a 33-year-old forensic pathologist, employed by a UN-affiliated human rights organisation. She grew up in Colombo, but went to Europe and North America to study. In the early 1990s, she returns to Sri Lanka, which is in the grip of a brutal three-way civil war – it is her first visit in 15 years. In the interim, her parents have died; she now has few friends or relations in her former home-town. She is paired with Sarath Diyasena, a Colombo archaeologist, for a short and unpromising human rights project – more a Government gesture than a proper investigation. She’s unsure of Sarath, sometimes suspecting that he has been assigned to keep an eye on her. When she finds some recent bone fragments among much older remains taken from a site he has been excavating, Anil persuades Sarath that they should investigate. Three skeletons have already been found, but in the far reaches of a cave, Anil discovers a fourth, ‘whose bones were still held together by dried ligaments, partially burned. Something not prehistoric’ Under Anil’s scrutiny, these remains start to tell a story. ‘Sailor’, as the fourth skeleton is nicknamed (‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor’), appears to have suffered a recent and violent death, before being reburied in the cave. And since only officials have access to this sacred historical site, Anil decides that she has unearthed the victim of a traceable and symbolically important crime. Solving it could point the finger at the Government: ‘Who was he? This representative of all those lost voices. To give him a name would name the rest.’
The method is familiar from Ondaatje’s earlier work. Though the story of Anil and Sailor could be the basis for a detective story or political thriller, he’s more interested in epiphanies, in visual tableaux, in evoking the worlds of specialised work and craftsmanship. He muffles or elides the most important plot ‘beats’, missing out the deaths, building up to revelations that never come, suddenly presenting others without much prior explanation. This is a syncopated, fragmented narrative full of abrupt changes of perspective and style: an account of an unnamed guerrilla killing an official on a train; an excerpt from the lists of the disappeared; flashbacks to Anil’s love affair with a married writer, Cullis. There are many digressions, lyrical and discursive – often both – on maps, geology, bird species or recent Sri Lankan history. The locations are, as you would expect, exotic and unusual. Sarath and Anil work in an old passenger liner moored in Colombo harbour. Their investigations lead them first to ‘the Grove of Ascetics’, where Sarath’s academic mentor Palipana lives in monk-like retirement; and then to a secluded, run-down country house, where they are joined by Ananda – a painter of sacred statues whom they employ to make a model of Sailor’s face.
From the blood-splattered Wild West of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid onwards, Ondaatje has pitted brutal subject-matter against his lyrical, ethereal style. In Anil’s Ghost, various isolated and damaged people gather around a mysterious figure, against a backdrop of war and brutality (here, as elsewhere, there are enough echoes of The English Patient to suggest some degree of brand management). Documentary detail and subjective perception, cold fact and warm flesh, are crammed into close proximity; a series of disjunctions reflected in the characters’ own dislocations – they are immigrants, loners, widowers, divorcees, amputees. The presiding metaphors are of discovery, unearthing, reconstruction: of Sailor’s life, of crimes, of missing loved ones, of the past. These are overlaid with secondary riffs: Ananda and Sailor turn out to be miners; Sarath and Palipana both try to re-create the ancient life of the island by deciphering tiny clues, like rock graffiti and traces in the soil. Quasi-mythical themes are thrown in: Anil is, obviously, the returning exile; the island’s civil war is reflected in the frosty relations between Sarath and his brother Gamini (a doctor who spends his life tending to its casualties). The links between all of these are suggested by some suitably grand authorial commentary. ‘The most precisely recorded moments of history,’ Ondaatje writes, ‘lay adjacent to the extreme actions of nature or civilisation.’
In The English Patient, and to a lesser extent in In the Skin of a Lion, the hit and miss, cut and paste Post-Modernism of Ondaatje’s earlier work – Billy the Kid and Coming through Slaughter – was effectively toned down, and concessions were made to traditional narrative, while the books remained innovative and striking. The final product was always a bit high, but with Anil’s Ghost it has definitely gone off, congealing into a syrupy, belletristic mishmash of character study and quotation, procedural novel and poetry. On an earlier literary visit to Sri Lanka – recorded in the memoir Running in the Family – Ondaatje meditated on the difficulty of recovering the true stories from the external facts: ‘individuals are seen only in the context of ... swirling social tides,’ he explained, while ‘nothing is said of the closeness between two people: how they grew in the shade of each other’s presence.’ The social tides of Anil’s Ghost are very different from the charmed lives of Ondaatje’s wealthy relations, but he seems to be influenced by the same considerations: how to balance big stories with evanescent emotional truths, how to show the way people carry on with their everyday lives while the world falls apart around them.
But he doesn’t achieve the right balance here. Readers are unlikely to be enlightened, for instance, by the two-page description of Anil dancing to her personal stereo – ‘A girl insane, a druid in moonlight, a thief in oil’; or by the lengthy disquisition on her fondness for the dirty song ‘The Good Ship Venus’: ‘She loved songs of anger and judgment ... and played them on her lips, a faux tuba. “One of the greats,” she muttered to herself. “One of the crucial ones.” ’ The justification for these defiantly whimsical interludes is possibly to be found in In the Skin of a Lion: ‘The first line of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” ’ Yet Ondaatje’s novels have more to do with recurring obsessions than the disclosure of a ‘human order’: whatever their age, sex or surroundings, his characters are often strikingly similar, and their loves, interests and histories follow a set of pre-ordained rules. It’s no surprise, for instance, that Anil, like Kip in The English Patient, and like Ondaatje himself, was brought up by an ayah, to whom she was closer than to her parents. Or that many characters share their author’s distinctive style of logorrhoea. ‘Dr Palipana’s conversation always seemed to include remembered phrases from historical texts,’ reads one give-away line; but he’s not the only one who speaks in a rather strange way. Like Ondaatje, his characters love lists and abstract nouns: ‘I know the names of several bones in Spanish,’ one outburst begins. And another: ‘We are full of anarchy.’ When ‘lazily, post-coitally conversing’, Anil and her lover speak in an affected, cadenced way that reads like an unkind satire of an arty novel:
‘I’m sleepy, Cullis. Can hardly talk. Read me something.’
‘I’ve written a piece on Norwegian snakes.’
‘A poem, then.’
Ondaatje’s solipsistic fictions contain memorable figures, like Billy the gunslinger, driven to violence by his susceptibility to sensation; or the English patient, who seems to know everything in the world except his own name. Their alienation from the surrounding world often seems to be his real subject. Yet sometimes his lack of interest in the bigger picture is all too apparent, especially since he arrogates importance to his work by writing about so many big ‘issues’ (the condition of the urban poor, Hiroshima, imperialism). The story of Anil’s Ghost has close parallels to the real events of 1994 – when the Sri Lankan Government started to investigate its own human rights abuses, particularly the thousands of ‘disappearances’ that had occurred since the civil war began. The disappeared, occupying a space ‘somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead’, as Andrew O’Hagan wrote in a different context, seem ideally suited to a writer like Ondaatje, who is happy to operate on the borders of realism.
The meticulous detail doesn’t compensate for shortcomings in the more basic elements of a fiction, however. While the lighting of a beedi occasions a discussion of ‘its rich 32 rumours of taste’, the basic plot is left blowing in the wind. It seems unlikely that a Government official would try to cover his tracks by hiding a corpse in an archaeological site, where, more than anywhere else, it would be likely to be closely scrutinised. Why Sailor’s particular case should be so important is also something of a mystery. State-sponsored extra-judicial killings are not exactly rare in Sri Lanka: the many corpses that Anil examines or reads about – tortured, burnt, dropped to their deaths from helicopters – tend to make this point. It often seems as if Ondaatje is attempting one of postwar literary fiction’s musty standards: the detective narrative that gradually implodes as the real world around it proves too complex. We are led to believe that Anil’s investigative style is inadequate: Western forensics have taught her ‘to expect clearly marked roads to the source of most mysteries’, but ‘here, on this island’, things are different. Appropriately, the book is scattered with possible clues that lead nowhere. So it’s odd that, in the end, we do reach creaky but generic pay-off, and good prevails, albeit at a cost. Ondaatje certainly seems embarrassed by the implications and devotes considerable space to assuring us that attributing blame in Sri Lanka is not easy. And to self-conscious questioning of Westerners’ right to comment. ‘Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit,’ Gamini tells Anil at one point.
The sudden winding up of the main story is followed by two sequences. The first is a clear-eyed, slow-motion account of a suicide-bombing in Colombo – which recalls the assassination of President Premadasa in 1993. The second, which ends the novel, finds Ananda painting the eyes on a huge statue of the Buddha, blown apart by thieves but now restored. The painting of the eyes is the finishing touch which sanctifies the craftsman’s work; but the implied parallel with the novel is far from justified. Instead, the impression is of a writer dropping metaphorical cluster bombs to cover his tracks, subsuming the real into the figurative, anaesthetising the reader to the horror of what has come before with photogenic exoticism and pointless detail. As in Handwriting, his most recent book of poetry – which mines many of the same seams as Anil’s Ghost – Ondaatje takes refuge from Sri Lankan politics in sensual unmeaning:
recognition and caress,
the repeated pleasure
of finite things.
Hypnotised by lyric.