I thought Richard Price might qualify as my new author discovery of ’08, but he fell out of favor after my reading of Clockers recently ( Cf. comments from Dec.4). Paul Auster was a contender (Cf. on The Book of Illusions from Dec. 4.) However, my encounter with Anil’s Ghost sealed the deal for Michael Ondaatje. The man is one of those authors, like J.M. Coetze, whose work is on another plane even from those most of us consider excellent.
Like Ian McEwen, Ondaatje likes to inhabit a variety of minds, times, and professions. In the two books I have read, he has presented convincing gypsies, historians, carpenters, equestrians, physicians, among others. His time span ranges from medieval to the present. You’re liable to find yourself in California on one page, France on the next, and Sri Lanka on the next. And Sri Lanka is, indeed, the primary (but not sole) setting for Anil’s Ghost.
Anil is a forensic graphologist. One who is able to discern from bones–old or new–not only the age and sex of an individual who once fleshed out an exhumed skeleton, but the probable occupation, marital status, cause and place of death, and any number of other particulars. She is sent by a human rights organization to Sri Lanka to investigate charges about the activities of the various groups engaged in armed civil conflict with one another. She welcomes the assignment because she spent a good part of her childhood in the country, her father having been a respected physician there. She teams up with a forensic anthropologist who is nominally her host, but who has conflicting family and political alliances–most of them unknown to Anil–which complicate the situation. The setup is perfect for Ondaatje’s skills since, aside from being born in Sri Lanka himself, the vague and shifting ambiguities of religion, politics, loyalties, and fears inherent in the situation are part and parcel of the reality one finds in his books.
I won’t go farther into the plot. You should discover that for yourself. I will dip a hesitant toe into the waters of MFA terminology to say that if there are indeed (And I dispute the notion.) plot-driven, voice-driven, or character-driven novels, Ondaatje’s novels might be called spirit-driven, borne on the breath of language and soul as expressed in terms of character and action. Witness this one short section of Anil’s return to a childhood domicile:
The day after she arrived. . . Anil had sent a letter [we don’t know to whom or about what at this point] but there had been no reply. So she didn’t know if this would be a wasted trip, whether the silence meant acceptance or the address she had was extinct. She knocked, then looked through the bars of the window, turning around quickly as she heard someone come out onto the porch. Anil could hardly recognize the tiny aged woman. They stood facing each other. Anil stepped forward to embrace her. Just then a young woman walked out and watched them without a smile. Anil was aware of the stern eyes that were taking in this sentimental moment.
No backstory about who these women are or why Anil has come to see them. We learn all we need from the gestures and the reactions and the remark about the unanswered letter. We also get foreshadowing of trouble in the “stern eyes” of the onlooker. What would have taken most writers several pages, Ondaatje accomplishes in a short paragraph packed with action and emotion. And at the center of the event is the beating heart of past and present wrapped in what the “young woman” sees as merely a “sentimental moment.” That’s mastery.
Anil’s Ghost is a relatively short book, but it has Tolstoyan impact. It’s religious, political in scope, yet entirely individual in its subject and its action. Ondaatje is not prolific. That’s too bad. The world badly needs more of him. But I’m thankful for this.