South Asia: fifth month, fifth travel
I was talking with a friend about writing and writers the discussion carried us to Michael Ondaatje and his memory: "Running in the family". A book I had recalled with almost hedonistic pleasure as I had imagine how it felt to be a traveler in my way to Ceylon and be covered by the smell of cinnamon even before the ship had reached the sore. Or to soap myself under the monsoon, drunk with the deliciously heavy smells of the jungle and tea fields.
I was still under the impression of these imaginary memories when I started reading "Anil's Ghost".
Ondaatje 's stylistic approach to "Anil's Ghost" is no different than his approach to "Running in family" . An uniquely rich language. The cinematic quality of his storytelling. The human complexity of his characters which always end by surprising the reader - even the secondary, supporting ones. The way he captures the smell and feel of things and situations. He attempts and succeeds one more time to draw us in an almost mythical Sri-Lanka which is larger than life itself. But as we step in a decade later, in the middle of a civil war, smells and images are no longer festive. The Tamil wife reeks cinnamon no longer but iodine.
Former swimming champion Anil Tissera returns to native Sri Lanka after a fifteen years long absence. Her story may seem quite trivial to this point, not that Anil is an ordinary woman but because she is yet another South Asian immigrant who came the US on a scholarship, built a professional reputation and is now returning to her homeland.
But she is not returning in order to visit family and friends, in fact she does not have any family in Sri Lanka, nor any close friends other than her elderly nanny. She is representing the UN in a feeble attempt of human rights activists to make light in the cases of thousands and thousands of missing civilians as result of the Sri Lankan civil conflict. And as soon as she arrives she will feel unwelcomed. Though, in the beginning, there is no aggressive gesture to make her feel undesired, there is a passive way of expressing it. The government had to accept an UN investigation in order to prevent its already tarnished image from being permanently destroyed in the western world. Nobody with an official position wants her there. Then, there is the coldness of her teammate Sarath. The suspicious silence surrounding her.
But, as said, Anil is no ordinary woman. Anil favors desert being born in on an island of luxurious greens and monsoon rains. And if there is one character trait that remained unchanged during her life transformations and transgressions that is determination. Determination when she bargained for her brother’s middle name (and her gender transgression). Determination when she won the swimming race. Determination when she moved to UK and to US afterwards without regrets, without looking back (cultural transgression). Determination to find the identity of a twentieth century skeleton buried among hundred years old ones on a restricted access archeological site. A skeleton she calls Sailor.
Pursuing the search Sailor’s identity, Anil is pursuing a ghost. The ghost of civilians went missing in the previous decade. Because his skeleton was found in a restricted access area, to discover Sailor’s identity was meant to prove the government involvement in the abduction and torture of civilians. And more, to name Sailor is to name of the faceless victims of the war. War ghosts.
In her pursue, Anil navigates an estranged yet familiar world. She became a foreigner –she forgot to speak the language, she does not understand the mentality, the customs any longer and she does not trust the people. She does not trust her teammate Sarath either, and for that she almost pays with her own life. But the reason why she cannot comprehend the people among which she grew up, the culture that shaped her childhood and teen years runs deeper. In war ridden Sri Lanka normality* had became a ghost of itself.
A blindfolded man forced to ride on his captor’s bicycle has to hold on the executioner’s neck in order to keep his balance. Sarath recalls: "It was this necessary intimacy that was disturbing"[p.154] Sarath’s dead wife, Ananda's missing wife and Gamini’s death marriage. A doctor sleeping in blood stained clothes in the ER waiting room. Crucified truck drivers, beheaded school children. The skeleton of a summer house. A young girl who is more afraid of her peers than she is afraid of the jungle. War ghosts…
On a personal note:
The book layered symbolism reaches beyond the local tragedy of civil war and the war effects on the local culture to issues such as the meaninglessness of wars, transnational identity and global citizenship, human weakness. And thus it is significant for any reader, even for the ones who do not care much for South Asian history or lifestyle.
The epilogue builds a parallel of the final scenes in Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev”. And as Rublev it offers an alternative to what is reasonable-normality* and the irrational, ghastly war. Anil " used to believe that meaning allowed a person a door to escape grief and fear. But she saw that those who were slammed and stained by violence lost the power of language and logic" [p. 55]. However, like Rublev, Ananda finds it in the artistic expression of religion.
*as in our trivial, common language understanding of life