Painting the eyes of a god

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," returns with a shimmering, suspenseful tale of a skeleton with a dreadful secret.

Published April 25, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Michael Ondaatje breaks the rules. He forces the novel to do things it isn't supposed to do and he gets away with it. His fiction plays an elusive and dazzling game of tag with a dreamlike other reality, one more intense, more implausible and above all more romantic than that found in novels that merely aspire to reflect the world. The Sri Lankan-born Ondaatje is a poet, and he throws himself headlong at beautiful sentences, revelatory scenes, larger-than-life moments. He treats plot as if it were a line of verse: What's important is that it scan and swell, not that it ticktock along with the weary world.

Ondaatje specializes in glory. He is drawn to those moments when the world puts on its finery, when reality billows out to match the gaudy banners of the imagination. Like Shakespeare's late plays, his novels are filled with stunning visions, bravura set pieces, extraordinary coincidences. His universe is one in which a bridge worker reaches up and catches a falling nun ("In the Skin of a Lion"), a doomed lover soars in a plane carrying his beloved's dead body (the Booker Award-winning "The English Patient"), a chicken grabs the entrails of a cursing, gut-shot gunman ("The Collected Works of Billy the Kid") and an artist paints the eyes on a statue of a god ("Anil's Ghost").

With their exotic locales and high-octane plots, their heart-stopping prose arias, their soaring, fatal love affairs, their relentless sublimity, Ondaatje's novels resemble operas. In the hands of a lesser writer, they could sag into the wish-fulfilling bathos of melodrama, but two things save him from this fate. First, there's his virtuoso prose, at once passionate and meticulous, that lets him simply write his way out of any corner he has painted himself into. Second, there's his deep grounding in history and place. He has the poet's ability, abetted by exhaustive research, to render things with visceral clarity. Some of the great scenes in Ondaatje's work are lucid, economical descriptions of men at work -- a thief seeing everything as he enters a darkened room, a daredevil bridge builder counting each second that passes as he swings through the air, a bomb-disposal expert singing words from a pop song to keep his mind clear as he sits in freezing water defusing a bomb. Like narrative searchlights, these scenes illuminate, for a moment, the architecture of the world -- and make us fall in love with it.

"Anil's Ghost," Ondaatje's fifth novel (fourth if you count "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," which Ondaatje's own publishers seem uncertain how to classify, as a poem), is the most restrained and plot-driven of his books. This description is relative, of course: Even a subdued Ondaatje is more of a shape shifter and trickster than 99 percent of his peers. The polyphonic elements -- the use of multiple stories of equal or almost equal weight -- that are an Ondaatje trademark are still here, as are the majestic set passages, but for the first time in his career a single story forms the skeleton of the book.

And that story unfolds in a much more conventional, suspense-driven form than the plots in Ondaatje's other works, which are loose and baggy monsters riddled by poetry and intoxicated by flashbacks, dreamlike tales that fade out more than end. In perhaps the most disconcerting development of all, "Anil's Ghost" even has a surprise ending.

The novel tells the story of Anil Tissera, a 33-year-old forensic anthropologist, who returns for the first time in 15 years to her native Sri Lanka after living in America. Anil, a veteran of the killing fields of Guatemala, Congo and other places -- her work consists of scientifically analyzing human remains to determine where and how death occurred -- has come back to do fieldwork and file a report for an international human rights group about the political violence that has ravaged the island for years.

The group's investigation is on a short leash, since the government, as well as insurgent groups, is known to be involved in the violence. Anil is assigned to work with an archaeologist named Sarath Diyasena, a man in his late 40s whose wife committed suicide some years before. In the course of their investigation, she discovers that a skeleton found in a government-controlled dig site is not hundreds of years old, like the others, but no more than six years old -- clearly the remains of someone killed by the government. Anil thinks, "Who was he? This representative of all those lost voices. To give him a name would name the rest."

Anil and Sarath's search for the identity of the skeleton they name "Sailor" leads them on a strange, secretive, surreal journey across a land paralyzed by fear. ("It's a national disease," says Sarath.) They seek out an old professor of Sarath's, now blind and living in the ruins of a forest monastery with a young girl whom he saved from madness after she witnessed the killing of her parents. With his help, they make contact with a drunken miner who, before his wife was murdered, had occupied one of the most honored artisans' posts in the culture: He was the one chosen to paint the eyes on the statues of the Buddha, an act of religious significance because it endows the Buddha with vision.

Working with Sailor's skull, this artist, Ananda, re-creates the man's face. Meanwhile, Anil and Sarath's forensic expertise -- Anil analyzes the pupae of insects that have eaten the corpse -- allows them to establish where Sailor was killed and his likely occupation. Having learned the man's identity, Anil and Sarath must figure out how to make their findings public without getting themselves killed and their evidence destroyed. As the plot moves toward its powerful climax, Ondaatje paints an obsessively dreamlike portrait of a land devastated by horror and of three people -- Anil, Sarath and Sarath's doctor brother, Gamini -- whose struggles to overcome the tragedies and losses in their own lives mirror those of their native land.

Ondaatje's moral concerns are more central here than in his earlier works, and his politics more nuanced -- certainly more than in "The English Patient," where the Indian sapper Kip's outrage at the bombing of Hiroshima leads him to violently reject Western civilization and storm away from his white friends. Such dabblings in heavy-handed Third World solidarity are gone, replaced by a darker, deeper emotional bedrock: the hard-bitten, half-desperate solidarity of men and women who have been pushed to the breaking point by the dreadful things they have seen but who nevertheless refuse to stop fighting. The doctor Gamini, a driven, heroic speed addict who is perhaps the book's most clearly etched character, seems to speak for Ondaatje:

He had heard grown men scream for their mothers as they were dying. "Wait for me!" "I know you are here!" This was when he stopped believing in man's rule on earth. He turned away from every person who stood up for a war. Or the principle of one's land, or pride of ownership, or even personal rights. All of those motives ended up somehow in the arms of careless power. One was no better and no worse than the enemy. He believed only in the mothers sleeping against their children, the great sexuality of spirit in them, the sexuality of care, so the children would be confident and safe during the night.

The gravity of Ondaatje's subject in "Anil's Ghost" is undoubtedly connected to the book's rhetorical restraint, its psychological gloom and the heightened importance of its plot. Dealing with a contemporary nightmare, Ondaatje lets the story lead. The result is a central plot arc that's more morally clear-cut (the final twist has an almost Dickensian feeling) and, in purely what-happens-next narrative terms, more satisfying than those in his previous books. (The story of Almasy and Katherine in "The English Patient" is one of enormous romantic pathos, with a tragic beginning, middle and end, but it's only one of three or four stories in the book -- and so the overall feeling one is left with is of messy Shakespearean richness, not finely honed closure.)

But the strength of the story in "Anil's Ghost" also creates some dissonances. In an attempt to make all the elements of his novel come together at the same time, Ondaatje meters out what he tells us about his characters, so that the plot crisis and psychological revelations hit at the same time. This gives the climax a superficial sense of dramatic unity, but at a cost.

Ondaatje's approach to his characters has always been audacious. He writes simultaneously through their eyes and from an omniscient perspective, making the men and women in his books feel godlike, doubled, incandescent. Ondaatje's voice is so strong, he is so exuberantly heedless of the conventions of psychological realism, that he tramples the boundary between writer and character. His characters do not always seem to have a life separate from the one that seethes in his extravagant imagination; they move through their own lives as if through destinies.

It's very tricky to write a novel that is both story-driven and character-driven: Ondaatje tries to do this in "Anil's Ghost," but the expectations aroused by his strong, conventional plot undercut the more elliptical way he reveals character. The circling, fragmented, deferred way the characters' stories are revealed -- a technique that works beautifully in the death-obsessed, memory-haunted world of "The English Patient" -- seems inexplicable, even contrived here. It's hard for us to know or care as much about them as we need to when we don't have all the information until so late.

Anil, for example, starts out as a much more distanced, externally observed character than we're accustomed to in Ondaatje's work. For much of the book, her personality is pretty much a clear glass; what she does is more important than who she is. Unlike such amorphously expanding characters as Hana in "The English Patient" or Patrick in "In the Skin of a Lion," whose consciousnesses are lyrically explored and amplified by an all-knowing narrator, Anil for much of the book remains a pretty straightforward and limited character: a tough cookie who loves her job, with an embarrassing marriage and a passionate, failed love affair with a married man behind her, who has little connection with her homeland. Gradually, more and more is revealed about both Anil and, to a lesser extent, Sarath, until in the book's homestretch their secrets are revealed.

The problem is, they aren't secrets: There isn't any clear reason why Anil's story isn't laid out earlier. It isn't as if she's a repressed character like Nick Adams in Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," where the gradual revelation of a wounded core is the whole point. As a result, Ondaatje's approach to her feels too much like narrative sleight of hand, designed to achieve an effect.

Anil seems to go slightly in and out of focus, from being a typical Ondaatje character -- deep, ambiguous, around whom everything revolves and from whom everything emerges -- to a tougher, smaller, stripped-down model, the kind you'd find in a Larry McMurtry novel. Either approach is fine, but you can't do both. By the end, you know enough about Anil's traits and life history that she ought to come alive, and Ondaatje in several virtuoso passages takes us deep into her soul. But she still feels somehow constructed, pieced together.

Perhaps the same confusion accounts for one or two passages that seem unexpectedly informal in their rhetoric -- by Ondaatje's standards almost crude. In a passage about Anil's former life as a hard-drinking forensic pathologist in the Southwest, he describes her and her colleagues as driving "to the wild suburban bars and clubs on the outskirts of Tulsa or Norman, with Sam Cooke in their hearts ... They snuffed out death with music and craziness." Or, concluding a chapter about the house where Sarath, Anil and Ananda hide out while reconstructing Sailor's face, Ondaatje writes, "It was a grand house built in the era of lamps, built when there seemed to be only the possibility of private woe. But it was here the three of them hunted a public story. 'The drama of our time,' the poet Robert Duncan remarked, 'is the coming of all men into one fate.'" This passage reveals the problem with the audaciously unlocatable voice Ondaatje so often employs: Just who is quoting Duncan? In earlier books, where the "Ondaatje" persona had freer rein, the question wouldn't even come up. Here it does.

Lapses like these create a break in the hypnotic spell that Ondaatje needs to keep you from noticing his tricks. As Anil and Sarath journey around with their skull, seeking out the symbolically overdetermined artisan whose skill is somewhat implausibly supposed to re-create the murdered victim's face, it's hard not to feel at moments like you've been transported into a highly literary remake of the B-movie classic "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."

For the same reasons, Ondaatje's characteristic polyphony, his secondary themes, sometimes feel less part of an organic whole than in earlier works. The late chapter on Sarath's brother is psychologically brilliant, but it doesn't really fit into the story. In earlier books, where everything was held together not by plot but by tone, such narrative pointillism -- the colors of one theme combining with those of another -- didn't have to add up to anything more than a rich hue, a complex harmony. The Gamini chapters do contribute an important dark thematic element, but they feel a little frustrating, like the beginning of another novel.

But it would be wrong, having pointed out the flaws in "Anil's Ghost," not to point out its many virtues. Any book by Ondaatje is an event, and "Anil's Ghost" is an impressive achievement. Like all of his books, it is a work of high moral and aesthetic seriousness, suffused with a deep affection for and understanding of human beings and compassion for their lot.

There is a clear, disillusioned quality to some of Ondaatje's prose here that feels new -- wearier, perhaps, but more honest. (Even his account of Anil's romantic life, an area where Ondaatje has always hit his highest, darkest notes, is resolutely deflating.) Ondaatje's deeper concerns prevent him from lingering on the national wackiness that made his memoir of his Sri Lankan childhood, "Running in the Family," such a delight, but he brings a native stranger's fitful, intense, touching love to the place and its people. His interpolation of documentary evidence, in particular a deadpan list compiled by Amnesty International of where and when victims of the violence were taken away, is chilling.

And there is, of course, exquisite writing. Ondaatje has set himself a daunting problem: to write a narrative about a matter of extreme moral gravity, keep it as clean and unsentimental and straightforward as the subject requires and also make it a poem, get it off the ground. He doesn't always succeed, but when he does, the liftoff is almost palpable. The mystique of archaeology, that lifelong love affair with the past, is beautifully and enigmatically brought to life. His description of the painting of the Buddha's eyes -- which he symbolically equates with the redemptive act of writing, along with the disciplines of both forensics and archaeology -- is a tour de force.

And when Ondaatje is on top of his game, he's untouchable. Take this passage, about the young girl, Lakima, who takes care of the blind old archaeologist, Palipana -- the man who had saved her life, and whose own life had been given to deciphering inscriptions cut into ancient rock -- as he dreams of the past:

The girl would slip into the forest, nocturnal, still as bark, when Palipana died ... She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock, one of the first things he had said to her, which she had held onto like a raft in her years of fear. She had chiselled it where the horizon of water was, so that, depending on tide and pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above their reflection or be revealed in both elements ... He had once shown her such runes, finding them even in his blindness, and their marginalia of ducks, for eternity. So she carved the outline of ducks on either side of his sentence. In the tank at Kaludiya Pokuna the yard-long sentence still appears and disappears. It has already become a legend. But the girl who stood waist-deep and cut it into rock in the last week of Palipana's dying life and carried him into the water beside it and placed his hand against it in the slop of the water was not old. He nodded, remembering the words. And now he would remain by the water and each morning the girl undressed and climbed down against the wall of submerged rock and banged and chiselled, so that in the last days of his life he was accompanied by the great generous noise of her work as if she were speaking out loud. Just the sentence. Not his name or the years of his living, just a gentle sentence once clutched by her, the imprint of it now carried by water around the lake.

Anyone who can write something like this must himself be, to use Ondaatje's unexpectedly lovely word, generous -- generous with compassion, with insight, with anger. "Anil's Ghost" has its missteps, but those missteps are the result of a passionate engagement, an insistence on memory, a demand for justice. Much is forgiven a writer who makes those demands.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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