Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to
enhance your group's reading and discussion of Michael Ondaatje's Anil's
Ghost, his first novel since the internationally acclaimed and Booker Prize
winner The English Patient. A literary spellbinder which unfolds against
the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka's landscape and ancient
civilization, Anil's Ghost is a story about love, family, identity, the
unknown enemy, and the quest to unlock the hidden past--a powerful story
propelled by a riveting mystery.
Anil Tissera is a
forensic anthropologist who returns to Sri Lanka, the island of her birth, after
fifteen years in the West. As a member of an international human rights
organization, her task is to investigate possible "extrajudicial
executions" by the government. When she and Sarath Diyasena, an
archaeologist assigned by the government to work with her, discover a recently
buried skeleton among several ancient ones in a site accessible only by the
army, they realize that the mystery surrounding this body--whom they call
Sailor--might shed light on the disappearances of countless people. As the
search for Sailor's identity and his killers becomes a passionate obsession,
Anil is forced to risk her own life to uncover secrets that the government will
do almost anything to protect.
While Anil and Sarath pursue the mystery of Sailor, other extraordinary
characters come into play. Sarath's brother Gamini, an amphetamine-addicted
surgeon, spends his days and nights in the emergency room of Colombo's central
hospital attending to the victims of bombings and other atrocities. Ananda, who
is called out of the gem mines to reconstruct a face for Sailor, does brilliant
work as an artist in the mornings and drinks himself into a stupor in the
afternoons, crushed with grief by the disappearance of his beloved wife. The
blind archaeologist Palipana, Sarath's mentor and former teacher, ekes out a
living in the ruins of a Buddhist monastery in the forest and shares with Anil
and Sarath his unworldly perspective on Sri Lanka's ancient history and its
With Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje has created a hauntingly beautiful
and unforgettable novel of an island people trapped in a deadly civil war.
Juxtapositions and fragments are central to the style and structure
of Anil's Ghost. The novel opens with a scene in italics, in which we are
introduced to Anil as part of a team of scientists unearthing the bodies of
missing people in Guatemala. Then there is a brief scene in which Anil arrives
in Sri Lanka to begin her investigation for the human rights group. This is
followed by another scene in italics, describing "the place of a complete
crime"--a place where Buddhist cave sculptures were "cut out of the
walls with axes and saws" [p. 12]. How do these sections--upon which the
author does not comment--work together, and what is the cumulative effect of
such brief scenes?
Why is the story of how Anil got her name [pp. 67-8] important to the
construction of her character? Does it imply that she has created an identity
for herself, based on fierce internal promptings, that is at odds with her
parents' wishes for her? Is Anil's personality well-suited to the conditions in
which she finds herself in Sri Lanka?
Forensic expertise such as Anil's often occupies a central place in
the mystery genre--as in the popular Kay Scarpetta mysteries by Patricia
Cornwell or in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In what
ways does Anil's Ghost fit into the genre of mystery fiction, and how
does it transcend such a classification?
How does the section called "The Grove of Ascetics" extend
the novel's exploration of the meaning of history? What is the relevance, if
any, of Palipana's knowledge? How does the ancient culture of the island relate
to its present situation? Does the past have permanence?
If you have read The English Patient, how does Anil's Ghost
compare with that novel? Is it similar, with its focus on war, on history, on
how people behave in dangerous political situations--or is it quite different?
What does Anil's affair with Cullis, as well as what we learn about
her marriage, tell us about her passion and her sensuality? Given her past, is
it surprising that there is no romantic involvement for her in this story?
Michael Ondaatje has published many books of poetry; how do the style
and structure of this novel exhibit the poetic sensibility of its author?
Is there a single or multiple meaning behind the "ghost" of
the book's title? Who or what is Anil's Ghost?
Why are Anil, Sarath, and Gamini so consumed by their work? What
parts of their lives are they necessarily displacing or postponing for the sake
of their work? Is the choice of professional over personal life the correct one,
ethically speaking, within the terms of this novel?
Does the story of Gamini's childhood provide an adequate explanation
for the rivalry between him and Sarath? Or is the rivalry caused solely by the
fact that as adults they both loved the same woman? Does Sarath's wife love
Gamini rather than her husband? Which of the two brothers is the more admirable
As Anil thinks about the mystery of Sailor's death, the narrator
tells us, "She used to believe that meaning allowed a person a door to
escape grief and fear. But she saw that those who were slammed and stained by
violence lost the power of language and logic" [p. 55]. How does this
insight about the loss of language and logic explain Ananda's behavior? Is
Anil's search for "meaning" ultimately to be seen as naive within a
context which, as the narrator tells us, "The reason for war was war"
The acknowledgments at the end of the book tell us that the names of
people who disappeared (mentioned on p. 41) are taken from an actual list in
Amnesty International reports (see p. 310). Similarly, the description of the
assassination of the president [pp. 291-95] is based on true events, though the
president's name has been changed. Why does Ondaatje insert the names of real
people, and the real situations in which they died or disappeared, in a work of
Certain tersely narrated episodes convey the terrifying strangeness
of Sri Lanka's murderous atmosphere. About the bicycle incident he witnessed, in
which the person being kidnapped was forced to embrace his captor as he was
taken away, Sarath says, "It was this necessary intimacy that was
disturbing" [p. 154]. Another scene describes Anil and Sarath's rescue of
the crucified Gunesena; another the disappearance of Ananda's wife. How does
Ondaatje's handling of these three separate examples of violence and its victims
make the reader understand the horror of living with politically-motivated
murder as an everyday reality?
What are the elements that give such emotional power to the scene in
which Gamini examines and tends to the body of his murdered brother?
Given the crisis that occurs when Anil testifies about Sailor at the
hospital, has she brought about more harm than good? If so, is she ultimately to
be seen as an outsider who has intruded in a situation she doesn't fully
understand? Is Sarath the true hero of the novel, and does he sacrifice his life
The novel ends with a chapter called "Distance," in which
a vandalized statue of Buddha is reconstructed and Ananda, the artisan, is given
the task of sculpting the god's eyes. Does this religious ceremony cast the
novel's ending in a positive or hopeful light? How important is the theme of
Buddhism, and the presence of the Buddha's gaze, throughout this story?
How does Ondaatje manage to convey a powerful sense of place in this
novel? What are the details that communicate Sri Lanka's unique geographical and
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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