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Anil's Ghost
6.10.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion was recently chosen to be the book that “Canada Reads”. Let me explain: The CBC decided it would be fun to try to get the entire nation to read a single book, thus sparking discussion and debate that would bring all Canadians together into a kind of nation-wide book club. A panel of five famous Canadians each picked a book to go on the shortlist and then they were voted off, Survivor-style, until only one remained. In the Skin of a Lion was the choice of Steven Page, lead-singer of the Barenaked Ladies.

While the “Canada Reads” project sounds kind of cool in theory, in practice there’s no way it’s going to work. The portion of the population that is actually going to read the book is very small; there are so many people that the project excludes, due to its very nature: non-English speakers (25%), the illiterate (1%), the blind can read it in braille, but what about people who are blind and deaf and have had all their fingers chopped off (~10%)? And then there’s the apathetic (99%). The French are going to be mad that the book chosen wasn’t French; the natives are going to be mad that no books by natives were even considered. Immigrants are going to be mad that, on the CBC website, it says: “In the Skin of a Lion, the best immigrant novel ever?” That’s kind of like saying “Well, it’s pretty good…for an immigrant.”

If they wanted to overcome the language barrier they could have chosen a picture book, but children’s picture books are not suitable for adults, and adult picture books (porn) are not suitable for children. The most universal work of fiction I can think of is the Bible, and even then there would be a lot of people who would be horribly offended.

The fact is, no book can have universal appeal, and CBC shouldn’t pretend that one can. If they’d called it the “Some of Canada Reads” project I would have had more respect for it.

I haven’t read In the Skin of a Lion, but I did read Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Anil’s Ghost, and it was pretty good…for an immigrant anyway.

Ondaatje now lives in Toronto, but was born in Sri Lanka and this novel is about his homeland. There has been a bloody civil war going on in Sri Lanka since the 80s. Three sides are involved: the government, antigovernment insurgents in the south, and separatist guerillas in the north. There have been a lot of horrible murders committed and our hero, Anil Tissera, is a forensic pathologist who has been sent in by the UN to expose the murderers.

Despite this dramatic setting the book is not exactly an action-packed thrill-ride of excitement and adventure; it is slow-moving and understated. The story deals with how the war has affected the lives of a few, specific individuals—Sarath, an archeologist in the thick of it all; Sarath’s brother Gamini, a workaholic doctor who must deal with the victims of the war daily; Ananda, an artist and sculptor who turned to alcohol after his wife was killed; and Anil, who has returned to her ravaged homeland after years spent abroad.

Ondaatje manages to weave together politics and character-driven storytelling in a way that is neither preachy, nor melodramatic. The horrific scenes of murder and death are neither romanticized nor sensationalized. It is clear, however, that Ondaatje felt uncomfortable writing about the horror and bloodshed of Sri Lanka while living in the safety of Canada. At one point Gamini says to Anil, “American movies, English books—remember how they all end? […] The American or Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. […] He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.” Clearly this was something Ondaatje wished to avoid with this book [note: This technique, of using the text to comment on the creation of the text itself, is called (in pretentious Eng. Lit. talk) “metafiction”]. Although Anil does end up leaving near the end of the novel, the story stays in Sri Lanka, and the last scene hints at the long, painful healing process in store for the country, through the depiction of the laborious reconstruction of a destroyed statue.

In another metafictional scene, Sarath says to the newly-arrived Anil, “I’d believe your discoveries more if you lived here. […] You can’t just slip in, make a discovery and leave. […] Or you’ll be like one of those journalists who file reports about flies and scabs while staying at the Galle Face Hotel. That false empathy and blame.”

Sarath’s words could apply equally to Ondaatje. Can he only evoke false empathy and blame too? Perhaps. But I think Ondaatje was a little too worried about this and as a result he distances the reader. In an effort to avoid false empathy, Ondaatje avoids empathy altogether. Anil, Sarath and Gamini were not characters that drew me in. I didn’t feel like I knew them or could relate to them. It’s as if Ondaatje is saying, “you can never understand what it’s really like there, so we’re not going to pretend.” To which I say, “It’s a work of fiction! It’s about pretending. Who cares if it’s false empathy? Fiction is false by it’s very nature.”

By far the most interesting character is the artist Ananda. In him we see sorrow and loss and hope, and Ondaatje renders him with incredible skill, especially given that he is only a secondary character. But the main characters, even though they too experience love and loss, seem cold and distant throughout the novel.

Anil’s Ghost is beautifully written. Although Ondaatje’s style is quite sparse, the scenes he describes are breathtakingly vivid. They are sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, sometimes both—Anil bathing in a sacred well; Gamini dressing the wounds of a corpse as if it were alive; Ananda reconstructing a human face by plastering mud onto a skull.

The novel left me with a series of these vivid images, rather than with impressions of characters. It was beautiful but distant.

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