Vintage, 2001 (2000)
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Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai
ichael Ondaatje's fourth novel,
, is a powerfully dark piece, a work of fiction that unhappily mirrors the reality of the once idyllic island nation of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The primary character, Anil Tissera, has returned '
' after seventeen years of living, working and studying abroad. Her return is not primarily for sentimental reasons; she has buried that part of her deep within her subconscious. Anil is a UN Human Rights Expert in forensic pathology hoping to prove the rumors of government-sanctioned disappearances, torture and murder.
nil is assigned to an archaeologist, who will work with her, someone who lacks the necessary expertise to uncover the supposed wrongdoing. Sarath Diyasena is certainly not the person Anil would have chosen as a partner. He seems to be a government man, someone who will toe the party line, be unhelpful, even obstructive. Their working laboratory is deep within the bowels of the rusting hulk of a cargo ship moored in Colombo's harbour, with little light or fresh air, but many scurrying rodents. The government is certainly not going to make Anil's task easy.
he determination Anil has shown throughout her life is strongly evident. She wins Sarath's trust and meets his brother Gamini, a doctor who works furiously, even demonically, to repair and heal the wounded of '
this mad logic
' of civil war. As Gamini says, '
you've got to have some sense of humour about all this - otherwise it makes no sense
.' During their first expedition to recover bodies, Sarath takes them to a restricted, Government-protected archaeological preserve in the Bandarawela region. Here they recover four skeletons but realize quickly that one is not an ancient artifact. In fact it has obviously been reburied on this site. This skeleton, named Sailor by Anil, prompts the two of them to embark on a secret mission to find out who Sailor was and perhaps prove government culpability.
e are taken along on this journey of discovery, our senses assailed by beauty and savagery, poetry and discord, as we learn that the problem '
is not the Tamil problem, it's the human problem
.' Anil begins to identify again with her homeland as she uncovers more and more that will ultimately make her an outcaste, an undesirable, in her own country. In the end, Anil realizes she won't be staying in Sri Lanka: '
There was blood everywhere, a casual sense of massacre
his is a highly provocative novel, imparting to the reader an awareness of the lunacy of civil war and its implications for those who remain struggling through it. Ondaatje's writing is passionate, his research obviously extensive, but the character development lacks a certain depth. Anil, even at the end, remains a rather two-dimensional person while, in many ways, the supporting cast - Sarath and Gamini, Ananda and Palipana - are more complete. However,
is still a haunting tale, intricately crafted with superb prose. This is not a book to read in a single sitting; it requires careful reading, perhaps more than once, to get a real appreciation for the art within it.
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