Country Focus: Sri Lanka (Shri Lamka in transliterated Sinhala); formerly Ceylon (1948-1972)
Originally published: Knopf, 2000.
My edition: First Vintage International Edition, 2001.
Acclaim: National Bestseller; A New York Times Notable Book; Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize Winner
The Plot: Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist working for the Center for Human Rights, returns to her native Sri Lanka in the early 1990s charged with the fool’s errand of finding out who is responsible for the numerous disappearances and murders taking place on the island. She is paired with Sarath Diyasena, a government archaeologist who Anil fears she cannot trust. In his diggings, Sarath has unearthed a lead – a recently buried skeleton hidden among others that are centuries old. Anil and Sarath work diligently to discover the identity of the deceased and his killer, but revealing the truth of the victim’s death may lead them closer to their own.
My opinion: Michael Ondaatje is best known for his novel The English Patient, which was made into an Academy Award-winning movie that completely underwhelmed me. But Ondaatje is one of those literature heavyweights who I felt (in a resigned, “eat your vegetables” sort of way) I should read; when I found out that he was born and raised in Sri Lanka, I knew I finally needed to dig in.
The CSI: Sri Lanka plot that I described makes it sound like Anil’s Ghost is a fast-moving thriller. Don’t be fooled. Ondaatje could care less about excitement; Anil’s Ghost is primarily an exploration of identity, and Ondaatje effectively and movingly illuminates the transitory and illusory nature of self. As Anil and Sarath seek to name and place their murder victim, their own identities and existences are revealed as nebulous. Ondaatje’s prose mirrors this elusive quality; I felt as if I was viewing the characters behind a veil of mosquito netting. Although I admire Ondaatje’s writing and deep thoughts, the book never really grabbed me. Anil and Sarath are such emotionally estranged characters that I had a hard time caring about them or the danger they faced.
The armchair travel experience: Not being familiar with Sri Lanka’s civil war, I found the book to be vague as to who was fighting who and for what reasons – the t0o-brief “Author’s Note” in the beginning of the book does little more than let the reader know that the country is in conflict. Anil’s Ghost portrays a country full of pervasive fear – the entire island a war zone where anybody at any time might be kidnapped or killed.
Fear and fighting aside, the reader comes away with the awareness that Sri Lanka is rich in archaeological treasures of both Buddhist and Hindu heritage. Cultural highlights include a lengthy and fascinating descriptions of a forest monastery and the tradition of Netra Mangala (painting the eyes of a Buddha).
In my book (or, what Sri Lanka means to me and maybe you, too)
The Tamil Tigers are not a high school football team
Headlines about the Tamil Tigers had attracted my attention for years; I cluelessly thought the article would be about high school mascots or Tony the Tiger (Tony/Tamil – what can I say? They both start with “T” and I read the paper early in the morning). When I found out that the story didn’t involve either football hi-jinks or breakfast cereal, I stopped reading. It wasn’t until recently that I found out that the Tamil Tigers (formal name: “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” or LTTE, for short) were a separatist group in Sri Lanka.
Time out for a Tamil Tiger History Haiku:
For 26 years,
the Hindu Tamils battled
Their goal: to carve out
an independent homeland
called Tamil Eelam.
they used suicide bombers
to deadly effect.
the long civil war ended.
No lion – my Ceylon tea is from Russia!
Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea and is reputed to grow some of highest quality tea in the world. I drink a lot of hot tea, but I’m no tea conn0isseur. Usually I pour boiled tap water over a tea bag and leave the bag in my cup until I’m finished drinking the tea; I have no regard for steeping time. The only exception to this apathetic process is when I brew the only loose leaf tea that I own – Greenfield Golden Ceylon Black Tea – in an actual little red teapot with a built-in strainer (still using tap water, though – don’t need to get too fancy). I bought a box of this tea for $1.00 at a going-out-of-business sale and had no idea that Ceylon was the former name of Sri Lanka until I started reading up for this post. As it turns out, this tea is my only Sri Lanka connection.
Or maybe not. I found out that tea produced in Sri Lanka has a “Lion Logo” printed on its packaging to verify that the tea was produced in Sri Lanka.
The box my tea came in does not bear this logo. One side of the box is written in Cyrillic lettering and the other in English; my “Golden Ceylon” tea seems to have come from Russia.