Like an archaeologist delving into the earth, unsure of what he'll find, Toronto author Michael Ondaatje immerses himself in the writing process. "I don't have a plan for a story when I sit down to write. I would get quite bored carrying it out," he said. He knows in time, all will become clear.
"It's a discovery of a story when I write a book, a case of inching ahead on each page and discovering what's beyond in the darkness, beyond where you're writing."
What he's unearthed in his gripping new book, Anil's Ghost, may surprise readers who know Ondaatje only from his previous work, the Booker Award-winning novel The English Patient. While The English Patient is dreamily set in an abandoned villa at the end of World War II, Anil's Ghost, which took seven years to write, takes place in the violent present. Set in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Ondaatje was born, it tells the story of Anil, who like the author, is both a native of the country and a stranger to it.
"I'm a Canadian citizen," said Ondaatje by telephone, his voice low and musical. "But I always want to feel at home in Sri Lanka. I'm a member of both countries." Both the author and his protagonist have beautiful memories of growing up there, memories overlaid by horror.
"Sri Lanka now is a more complicated world morally," said Ondaatje, and in his new book he writes, "The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. But the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared to what was happening here."
Anil, who has lived abroad for 15 years, returns to her old home as a forensic anthropologist on a human rights mission to find, examine, and identify the bones of the Disappeared. During Sri Lanka's 16-year conflict which began in the mid-1980s, the government struggled to crush uprisings by the Tamil Tigers and separatist guerrillas, and thousands of people simply vanished. Most were assumed to have been killed, their bodies flung into mass graves. However, without remains, without proof, the government-sanctioned massacres could not be proven, and the families of the Disappeared could find no peace.
As he writes in Anil's Ghost, Death, loss, was ”unfinished', so you could not walk through it. "It is," said Ondaatje, "a subject I wanted to write about for some time, but I didn't know how to encompass it." He chose to do it one body at a time. In the midst of her forensic work on a skeleton, "Anil stops to reach forward and lift [the skeleton] into her arms, to remind herself he was just like her. Not just evidence but someone with charms or flaws, part of a family, a member of a village who in the sudden lightning of politics raised his hands in the last minute so they were broken." Ondaatje's depiction of Anil's painstaking work reading the bones of the dead is as haunting as it is true to life. He interviewed and worked with forensic anthropologists to understand and portray the details of their craft. "To me, the book is dedicated to people like that and to doctors, who tend to be unsung heroes in these situations."
Anil and her archaeologist partner Sarath aren't the only of Ondaatje's characters to descend into the earth. In his second novel, In the Skin of A Lion (1987), characters mine and tunnel. In The English Patient (1992), Almasy discovers a cave and Kip, the sapper, lowers himself into the earth to diffuse bombs. "I'm just fascinated by other much more physical careers," said Ondaatje, who notes that writing isn't as far from these other fields as it seems. For the author, the goal is the same to get at the truth.
"A writer uses a pen instead of a scalpel or blow torch. As a writer, one is busy with archaeology, he said. It's what the writer does with any character. On one level you're moving forward, but in the other, you're revealing the past." Ondaatje has a gift for linking the most disparate things. It's why he writes so fully and fluidly about other lives, other professions, about what is, at first glance, outside his realm. The prevailing literary wisdom may be to write what you know, but the author prefers to write what he doesn't know. "That's how you learn," he said. "You don't want to write your own opinion, you don't want to just represent yourself, but represent yourself through someone else. It doubles your perception, to write from the point of view of someone you're not. To write about someone like myself would be very limiting. It seemed very natural for me to start with Anil."
Ever interested in craft, Ondaatje has studied his own process over a 30-year literary career. He's written two other novels, a memoir about growing up with his wonderfully eccentric father entitled Running in the Family (1982) and 11 books of poetry. "Prose is much more public; I would like it to be as private, intimate, casual, not structured as poetry, not having an agenda. That's why I do not plan my novels."
Earlier works like Running in the Family, his first two novels, and a book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), focused on a single character. The last three books are much more a case of a moment of history, what happened almost by accident or coincidence, like being in the same elevator or lifeboat. Then you see the link between strangers, which we do all the time, wherever we are. We may be strangers brought up in different cultures, but there's always a link. What links Anil's Ghost and The English Patient is their depiction of strangers thrust together in a time of war. Anil neither knows nor trusts her Sri Lankan partner Sarath when they first meet, but by the end of the book, her life depends on him.
Ondaatje, who sees connections between all things, hastens to add that the situation in Anil's Ghost is not endemic only to Sri Lanka. "Other countries, other cultures have tried to obliterate the truth, obliterate their very own history. It's more a state we're all living in now, in Africa, in Yugoslavia, in South America. It's a very contemporary situation that goes on everywhere around us."
It is still difficult for the author to reconcile the Sri Lanka of his childhood with what it has become. "I grew up in a country that was very different the germs of racism were there then, I just wasn't aware of it. But I didn't want the dark violence to be the only portrait of the country. It's not just a culture of death, it's an intricate, subtle, and artistic culture," said Ondaatje. "I wanted to celebrate it. In a way, the archaeology was there for that purpose, as well. I allowed that to represent the country, not just generals and politicians."
Though it explores the darkness, Anil's Ghost shimmers with beauty and hope and ends with a human touch. "I had no idea how I was going to end that book," Ondaatje said, and laughed. "I was terrified." He wrote until he reached the truth, the bones.
Ellen Kanner writes from Miami.