Nailed Palms and The Eyes of Gods

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While he was researching and writing his third novel, The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje was pretty much free of all expectations for the book except his own. Born in 1943 in Ceylon (which changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972) and a longtime Canadian resident and citizen, Ondaatje enjoyed a modest following as a poet, filmmaker and educator. But when his novel appeared in 1992, all that comfortable obscurity came to an abrupt halt. The English Patient went on to win Britain's prestigious and commercially influential Booker Prize and was then turned into a 1996 Academy Award-winning film. A lot of people--those who loved the novel and/or film and those who professed bafflement at all the fuss--began waiting for Ondaatje's next novel.

And here, eight years after its author became world famous, is Anil's Ghost (Knopf; 307 pages; $25). The new novel seems, at first, very much of a piece with its acclaimed predecessor. Once again, the story unfolds episodically, with frequent time shifts, as if a dark mural were being illuminated by flashbulbs. Once again, a small group of characters--several men and a woman who forms the emotional link between them--struggle to maintain their hold on reality, whatever that has come to mean, amid the pervasive violence of war.

But the people in Anil's Ghost do not have the sanctuary of the Italian villa that harbored the damaged characters of The English Patient in the backwash of World War II. The war in Ondaatje's new novel has no clear demarcations between opposing forces, allies and enemies. The terror has become ubiquitous--that is to say, contemporary.

In a brief Author's Note, Ondaatje explains the historical background for his fictional events: "From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Sri Lanka was in a crisis that involved three essential groups: the government, the antigovernment insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north. Both the insurgents and the separatists had declared war on the government. Eventually, in response, legal and illegal government squads were known to have been sent out to hunt down the separatists and the insurgents."

The careful neutrality of Ondaatje's language sets the tone for what follows: not a political tract or an exercise in finger pointing but an exquisitely imagined journey through the hellish consequences of impassioned intentions.

Anil Tissera, 33, a forensic anthropologist, returns to the Sri Lanka she left at age 18 as one member of a U.N. team allowed into the country by the government to investigate alleged human rights violations, i.e., death-squad murders. Her assigned partner in this seven-week enterprise is a Sri Lankan archaeologist named Sarath Diyasena, 49, who is, by virtue of his position, a government employee. Anil immediately wonders whether her co-worker will be helping her or reporting on her to his employees. "Can I trust you?" she asks him. His reply: "You have to trust me."

Before long, they turn up a suspiciously fresh skeleton in a government-protected archaeological site. Anil determines that these bones are indeed of recent vintage and that the body was originally buried elsewhere and then dug up and deposited on government land. She thinks she has found the evidence that will prove official murder. She tells her partner, "Some people let their ghosts die, some don't. Sarath, we can do something."

Anil's stubborn pursuit of this goal evolves as a sort of forensic thriller, with subsequent tests coming ever closer to giving the skeleton an identity and, just possibly, posthumous justice. But this mission must compete with the appalling violence that keeps erupting on all sides. Driving one night, Anil and Sarath notice a figure apparently sleeping on the road in front of a parked truck, its headlights on. Sarath tells Anil that this is a common practice in the Sri Lankan countryside, but then something makes him turn around and drive back to the scene. They find that the prone figure is awake and that he has been nailed to the tarmac through his palms.

They take the wounded man to Sarath's younger brother Gamini, a doctor at a hospital in the capital city of Colombo, who notes, "We get a lot like this one," and adds, "Nowadays we get everything. It's almost a relief to find a common builder's nail as a weapon. Screws, bolts--they pack their bombs with everything to make sure you get gangrene from explosions." When he learns why Anil is in Sri Lanka, Gamini says, "Anyway, these guys who are setting off the bombs are who the Western press calls freedom fighters...and you want to investigate the government?"

The uncanny power of Anil's Ghost stems largely from Ondaatje's refusal to frame his tale as a struggle of good and evil. Condemnation seems too simple a response to the complex horrors he portrays. The author notes at one point the ancient rite of painting the eyes of new statues of the Buddha. Special artisans performed this task with their backs turned to the face, looking into a mirror held by an assistant. Anil's Ghost reflects not a god's eyes but something equally unknowable.