Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje – book review



I’m in Sri Lanka reading Anil’s Ghost where the book is set. I have read this book twice before. Michael Ondaatje will never write enough books for me.

The book is set during the ravages of a bloody civil war, “ the important thing is to be able to live in a place or a situation where you must use your sixth sense all the time”.

Reading the book reminds and alarms on every page about the barbarity of war and what it can leave behind ….. “I wanted to find one law to cover all living. I found fear”.

The two main characters in the book are Anil who comes with Western-bred investigative passion: the certainty that facts are there to be unearthed and that truth is to be constructed out of them. Sarth, a polymorphous spirit and the books most memorable figure, cautions that the real truth of his country is ambiguous and unobtainable “ I want you to understand the archaeological surround of a fact” he tells her. “ 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”

The Sri Lanka we are visiting is indeed a paradise, but one that is now facing another kind of civil war, corruption at the highest levels have allowed the country to be sold to the highest bidder and the wave of uncontrolled development ….. like in most countries around the world, enables the rich to get richer and forces the poor to get poorer.

The walls between fact and fiction get even thinner, when I read about a family estate called The Wallawwa, where Anil and Sarth spend time trying to find the truth of one of the disappeared …. It is now a small hotel where we have started and ended our stay in Sri Lanka.

The Independent wrote of this book :

“This is why I read, this is why literature matters, this, in short, is it. By the closing pages Anil’s Ghost has come as close to a holy book as a novel ever should”

As I read the last pages of the book and we are about to leave ….. it invokes a tide of guilt and grief because as a photojournalist I and my profession have done this many times ….. maybe not the last bit ….

Ondaatje writes :

“Amercian movies, English books – remember how they all end? Gamini asked that night. The American or Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him . He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, some-place now he can look through the clouds. The tired hero a couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the west. Its probably the history of the last two hundred years of western political writing. Go Home. Write the book. Hit the Circuit”


Anil’s Ghost published in 2000 by McClelland and Stewart







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Comments 2

  1. Thanks for this Lorrie. I’ll try to read Anil’s Ghost but it sounds like a tough read. I’ve only read Running in the Family (biographical? and really charming) and one about the trade unionists on the waterfront in Toronto – can’t remember the title. He’s a lovely writer and probably a decent person.

    1. Post

      I think you’d -enjoy- is the wrong word but get a great deal out of this book Fran, and he is such a wonderful writer, there is also Cat’s Table which is much lighter.

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