Anil’s Ghost

“Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus –  in the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.”

Anil Tissera is a native Sri Lankan who left her country at 18 and is returning after 15 years as a forensic anthropologist investigating political murders.

This is a story of juxtaposition. There is that lush and idyllic Sri Lanka, with its monasteries and temples. It is a beautiful, extravagantly abundant setting over which the spectre of war hovers. Death, blood lurks in the jungles, on the streets, in the hospitals:

“He would lie there conscious of the noises from the surrounding ocean of trees. Farther away  were the wars of terror, the gunman in love with the sound of their shells, where the main purpose of war had become war.”

I can’t help but fall for this place Ondaatje so vividly describes. How in movie theatres in Sri Lanka, “if there was a great scene – usually a musical number or an extravagant fight – the crowd would yell out ‘Replay! Replay!’ or ‘Rewind! Rewind!’ till the theatre manager and projectionist were forced to comply.” Or how Anil begins her day:

“She woke early the next morning in her rented house on Ward Place and walked into the darkness of the garden, following the sound of koha birds busy with their claims and proclamations. She stood there drinking her tea. Then walked to the main road as a light rain began. When a three-wheeler taxi stopped by her she slipped into it. The taxi fled away, squeezing itself into every narrow possibility of the dense traffic. She held on to the straps tightly, the rain at her ankles from its open sides. The bajaj was cooler than an air-conditioned car, and she liked the throaty ducklike sound of the horns.”

I’ve only previously read Ondaatje’s The English Patient and have often hesitated in picking up his other books, I’m not sure why. After reading Anil’s Ghost, I was awed by his lyrical writing and the complexity (but still accessible) of his characters. There were such great little details that made these characters come to life. Anil, for example, bought her name from her brother with cigarettes and rupees at the age of 13. Gamini, a doctor and her colleague Sarath’s brother, was nicknamed ‘Meeya’ or Mouse as a child, and who later in life “felt himself on a boat of demons and himself to be the only clearheaded and sane person there. He was a perfect participant in the war”.

This book doesn’t travel too far in terms of a plot and it does take a little while to sink into, plus the shifting perspective can be a little confusing. However, Ondaatje has written such a beautiful, rich book that it would be such a shame to pass it by.

Anil’s Ghost is my second read for the Sri Lankan leg of the Reading the World Challenge. It was a perfect fit for this challenge, bringing the country of Sri Lanka to life.


  1. I’ve read a couple of his other novels and have this one in reserve. I agree that it take some time to adjust to the pace of his writing — it forces me to slow — but oh, so beautiful. I listened to a podcast with him through the BBC World Writers Program last summer and even though it was an older presentation (2007), it reminded me how much I enjoyed him and made me want to start with his early work and read straight through.


  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one more than your previous Sri Lanka read…

    I can’t believe how much time has gone by and I’m only just catching up on a simmer’s worth of what everyone’s been reading for the Round the World Challenge… so my apologies for not dropping by sooner.


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