The Sri Lankan Patients

The Sri Lankan Patients

This time none of that lollygagging elusiveness that began The English Patient.


This time none of that lollygagging elusiveness that began The English Patient. Not that novel’s gauzy “she” but Anil Tissera, 33-year-old forensic anthropologist returning to her native Sri Lanka to investigate possible human rights violations. We know almost immediately that she left the country at 18 to be educated in England and America, and that her Western training has given her both an attitude and an appetite for unearthing truth. Anil meets her co-investigator, Sarath Diyasena, a 49-year-old male archeologist who, like Anil, comes from a well-to-do Colombo family. In the first fifty pages, Anil and Sarath uncover a skeleton that has been reburied in a government archeological preserve.

The detection begins. Who was the skeleton they call Sailor? Who tried to burn his bones? The skeleton is a mystery but not the romantic enigma slowly dying in The English Patient. And the violence has not receded, as it had in World War II Italy. The time is almost now, and all around the detectives are reports of terror–by the southern insurgents, the northern guerrillas, perhaps by government hit squads.

Anil and Sarath drive into the countryside to ask for help from Sarath’s former professor, a now-blind epigraphist living in the “Grove of Ascetics,” a Buddhist forest monastery. We get a few pages of the esoteric history and exotic sensibility Ondaatje loves, but on the way back to Colombo the present asserts itself when the investigators find a man nailed to the highway. They take him to a hospital where Sarath’s brother, Gamini, works as an emergency services doctor. He describes in gruesome detail the victims of terror bombings. The prose is concrete, direct, wearied. You wouldn’t know Ondaatje has published eleven volumes of poetry.

Who is responsible for the terror? Who killed Sailor? Anil and Sarath drive to the south and hire a miner named Ananda to reconstruct the skeleton’s head so the victim can be identified. Here we get some of the researched expertise Ondaatje also loves; Ananda’s reconstruction is like Kip’s deconstruction of bombs in The English Patient. But the face Ananda rebuilds doesn’t aid the investigators, for it’s a ghost’s, not Sailor’s. The expression is serene, the look Ananda hopes is on the face of his disappeared wife.

Halfway through the book, Ondaatje’s purposeful pace slows. Perhaps now we’ll begin to understand why thousands of Sri Lankans are killed or disappeared every year–but no, we get instead a hundred pages of flashbacks about the characters’ tragic loves, “The Sri Lankan Patients.” Anil was unhappily married in England, stabbed her married lover in California and found that her lesbian lover, Leaf, has Alzheimer’s. Perhaps past personal failure, not future public truth, has brought Anil back to Sri Lanka.

Gamini was in love with Sarath’s wife, married someone else, became obsessed with his medical practice, started taking amphetamines and lost his wife. Now he often sleeps in the wards. After Sarath’s wife committed suicide, he immured himself in his archeological studies. Only Ananda has lost a spouse to terror, perhaps the reason he tries to commit suicide after bringing “her” back. Gamini and Sarath are killing themselves more slowly, indirectly.

This middle section of Anil’s Ghost resembles the beginning of The English Patient: rapid switching among characters, times, locales. The novel becomes self-conscious and defensive about abandoning its detective plot. In a flashback, Anil and her lover Leaf watch movies on a VCR: “the films staggered backwards and forwards…until the actions became clear to them.” Leaf says, “I’m just a detail from the subplot, right.” Sarath seems to speak for this long section when he disagrees with Anil’s definition of truth as verifiable and public. For Sarath and Ondaatje, truth is “in character and nuance and mood.” While Ananda continues the reconstruction of the skull, Anil engages in moody meditations, attends to the nuances of plant life and the decaying house where he works.

In the last thirty pages Ondaatje rushes Anil’s Ghost to its conclusion. We do get a public truth–that the government killed Sailor, who was suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents. Or perhaps with the guerrillas. It doesn’t make much difference because Ondaatje never provides any information about the two groups or why they’re killing people. Anil takes her forensic findings to government authorities; Sarath saves her from detention or worse by pretending to undermine her truth; Gamini discovers Sarath’s body several days later; and, finally, Ananda finds new employment reconstructing a tall statue of the Buddha that had been toppled not by terrorists but by impoverished people seeking a treasure within. So, five pages from the end Ondaatje offers this one small gesture of understanding a cause of political terror.

Sarath and Gamini, educated Sinhalese residents of Sri Lanka, must know the causes, the fist of recent history: the economic effects of postcolonialism, the religious conflict between Hindus and Buddhists, the ethnic hatred between several groups of Tamils and the dominant Sinhalese. Anil, who is Sinhalese, also knows. So does Ondaatje. But the reader never learns about this history. What happened in the courts of sixth-century Sri Lanka or fifth-century-BC China, yes. But not in the past thirty years in what used to be Ceylon.

“A good archaeologist can read a bucket of soil as if it were a complex historical novel,” thinks Anil. The formula should be reversible, but Ondaatje shows no interest in the soil and roots of ethnic oppression. Instead he repeats the blind epigrapher’s near-tautology: “The main purpose of war had become war.”

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?

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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