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.