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Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 852
  • Category: Novel

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Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje carries us to Sri Lanka, a country shaped in century-old customs and shoved into the tail-end of the twentieth century by the chaos of civil war. The setting is cast under the awning of Sri Lanka’s provocative backdrop with a landscape of ancient civilization. In this story of love, family, and the dark, mysterious antagonist—our enemy—we find a quest to unbury the past by hiking the jungle settings of spellbinding intrigue.

As Anil begins her journey of forensics, the stage of Sri Lanka is set. Ondaatje grips the reader by casting picturesque undertones. He writes: The geological map reveals peat in the Muthurajawela swamp south of Negomombo, coral along the coast from Ambalangoda to Dondra Head, pearl banks offshore in the Gulf of Mannar. Under the skin of the earth are even older settlements of mica, zircon, thorianite…

The countryside is sea-locked, a living-breathing landscape that does battle with two basic monsoon systems—the Siberian High during the northern hemisphere winter and the Mascarene High during the southern hemisphere winter. These directly affect the time and location of trade routes, which, in turn, tells archeologist when travelers docked on this mysterious island, as this expedition of murder begins to unravel. Furthermore, from September to December mild sea winds loom toward the land during the day and reverse their direction during the night. Here, the author uses storms and natural elements to alter the route—even the lives—of some characters that struggle to find answers during this murderous time.

A landscape of topographical jungle-density makes for treacherous climbs. Beneath this, swirling virgin caves and rock shelters weave into the unknown reaches of humanity. The story gathers even more steam with the notion of discovering all these skeletons, in a land that was nearly uninhabited back in the early part of the twentieth century. This isolation casts a feeling of timelessness to this region.

As archeologist’s unearthed skeletal remains of human beings, a sacred and haunting sensation can be felt by the author’s ingenious timing and use of poetic details. The hunt to solve the mysteries of all the buried dead is painted in such a way as to display the idea that the treasures of success are not all buried underground, but visible to those willing to take the journey and understand its history. The graffiti at the great rock fortress, wrote Ondaaatje, of Sigiriya was located on an overhang at the first quarter-mile mark of ascent. Older than the more famous paintings of goddesslike women on the Mirror Wall, it had been cut into the rock most probably in the sixth century.


Even with this weight-gain in regard to the story-teller’s theatrical ability to create a scene that is supported by setting, we are never left feeling off-balance. The story continues to unfold before our very eyes, just as the timelessness of the vivid scenery is described. Ondaatje weaved culture into the story by tapping into the ancient past and mixing it with his zest for poetic eloquence.

Intense grief is created by Ondaatje, which lies in his ability to reach the reader on a level that the pain is actually felt, almost seeping off the page. What follows is one example that can make you cringe. We have seen so many heads stuck on poles here, these last few years…the families heard about them and came and removed them and took them home. Wrapping them in shirts or just cradling them.

In The Grove of Ascetics segment of the novel, we are shown how powerful the past actually is—beyond the tombs and skeletal forensic findings. Paliapana, a famed writer, tells of how he could feel history all around him. In fact, he got engrossed in ancient culture and its effects on them today. Palipana completed far-reaching research about the context of ancient cultures. He determined that, although European culture was old, Asian culture was antique. Archeological findings helped support his theory. Ondaatje wrote, He had discovered and translated a linguistic subtext that explained the political tides and royal eddies of the island in the sixth century….perhaps for him it was not a false step but the step to another reality, the last stage of a long truthful dance.

Parallels were also drawn between the sixth-century sect of monks and the mysteries of the unearthed skeletons. Proof, however, seemed to be fading away as Paliapana, now into his seventies, was wearing thin himself. Was murder part of past culture that was still present today? The deepening of the mystery was held together by setting the cultural influences of Europe and Asia into the story.

Modern human rights activism is so in touch with political upheaval, and Anil’s Ghost is a clear example of this struggle. Dangerous political situations can corrupt minds and send people, even nations, on killing sprees—just like the wars that are waged today against Terrorism. In fact, politically-motivated murder would not be possible in the story without the deep connection with clashing cultures—even lost cultures—that Ondaatje brought to life in Anil’s Ghost.

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