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The Sri Lankan Patients

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Ondaatje does indict the Sinhalese government in the deaths of Sailor and Sarath, but the human rights activist Anil gets Sarath killed in the process of exposing her truth; she and her finding disappear from the novel. But just after Gamini discovers his brother's body, Ondaatje describes in horrific detail a terrorist blowing up himself, the president of the country and a bunch of other people. The novelist tips the quantitative scale as well as his hand, identifying the terrorist only as D----. No ethnic identity, no political affiliation, no history. It's D----'s tragedy that I want to know. For what public love or political hate did he kill himself?

About the Author

Tom LeClair
Tom LeClair is the author of a novel about Kurdish asylum-seekers, Well-Founded Fear (Olin Frederick).

Also by the Author

After the success of Infinite Jest in 1996, David Foster Wallace took a vacation from fiction and, perhaps, from fans' expectations with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

But Ondaatje doesn't look there. He takes the long view. The reconstructed Buddha of the Sinhalese gazes across killing fields, sees what Ondaatje implies is the human condition anytime, anywhere: senseless violence, pockets of love. Ondaatje and the Buddha could be right, but the author's apolitical gaze seems irresponsible when there's so much politics to see in Sri Lanka. Sarath and Gamini criticize Western journalists for swooping into Sri Lanka, tossing off some reductive political analysis and leaving. I don't see the difference between that and Ondaatje revisiting his native land, observing victims, avoiding political analysis and then retreating to Canada.

While standing on a platform, preparing to paint in the Buddha's eyes, Ananda feels that as an artificer "he did not celebrate the greatness of a faith. But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons, spectres of retaliation." This is high-minded consciousness for a man whose former work had him on hands and knees in muck hundreds of feet below the earth's surface. Ananda sounds like the author's apologist. I'm not asking the artificer who invented Ananda to be a demon, but Ondaatje must know that his highly selective contrivance will retaliate somewhere, that its silence on class and religion and ethnic prejudice can comfort those with historic or recent privilege.

Despite its evasions, Anil's Ghost could still be a courageous book. I doubt that Ondaatje will suffer Salman Rushdie's fate, but given the ongoing disappearances in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje may well not wish to return there soon. He went back in 1978 and 1980, then wrote a poetic and nostalgic memoir, Running in the Family, about his once-wealthy family of eccentrics. In that book, too, he turns away from politics to personal lives. At the age of 11, Michael was ripped from wealth and homeland by his parents' divorce. One understands why The English Patient and Anil's Ghost foreground tempestuous, failed loves. Still, to use terror as a background for class nostalgia and romance seems overkill.

In a recent interview on Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje said, "Certain words, certain phrases are said so often that they come to have no reverberation. 'Human rights,' the phrase is indivisible, but the words mean nothing to me. When I hear the word 'politics' I roll my eyes, or if I hear a political speech I can't listen to it. And so in a way I burrow underneath these words, and I try not to refer to them. The words are like old coins. They just don't feel real."

For Ondaatje, "real" words are those the poet can sneak into the minds and mouths of highly educated and exquisitely sensitive characters. Anil distrusts Sarath for his retreat into the "aesthetic." Ondaatje should distrust himself. Now I don't trust his collage method. It's a way to avoid banal, "old coin" cause and effect, the logic by which human rights are denied or defended.

In Don DeLillo's Mao II, a wordsmith novelist like Ondaatje complains that terrorists have usurped the role of novelists in contemporary culture. One way for the novelist to regain power is to occupy the mind of the terrorist, as DeLillo does in that novel. Another way is to explore the terrible conditions from which terror arises, as A. Sivanandan does in his 1998 novel about Tamils in Sri Lanka, When Memory Dies.

In Anil's Ghost Ondaatje chooses to write his "real" words and beautiful sentences for the walking ghosts of Sri Lanka, the traumatized apolitical survivors. But what about the dead? The tens of thousands of dead--the women and men, Tamils and Sinhalese, poor and rich, the loved and unloved, who died or murdered for political causes, however misguided, necessary or crazy--deserve more understanding and respect than Ondaatje gives them.

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