There is no question this was a snail's pace book for me and for the benefit of John Self sitting over in his Asylum who I know finds this mildly eccentric (if not completely batty) , I can tell you with confidence that the last time I picked up and read a book by Michael Ondaatje was 1997 and, along with the rest of the nation, it was of course The English Patient.
In that year I also read amongst others, The Magus by John Fowles, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, Victorian Ways of Death by Pat Jarrard, The Crow Road by Iain Banks, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and quite a few Robert Goddard's. How I arrived at those choices I have no idea but I suspect reading was media-led or study-induced and I know I was forced to read The Magus for a book group.
I do remember that as I read The English Patient one thought turned itself over and over in my head, thank goodness I've seen the film or I might not have a clue what's going on here. As it was the book and the film were slightly at odds, but I gathered the gist and the book made a huge impact, consolidated as it was by the helpful vision of all that sand and Ralph Fiennes as Count Laszlo clutching his battered little copy of Herodotus, but everafter I have to confess to studiously avoiding all things Ondaatje pending a film of the book to watch first.
But I have Divisadero sitting here waiting and the online list has chosen Anil's Ghost as the next read, so feeling thirteen years on that perhaps I was a bit more grown-up, I'd risk another bash at Ondaatje and without the scaffolding of a film to bolster my confidence.
Anil's Ghost gets rave reviews in the blurb
'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.'
waxes anon in The Independent. For some reason I still wasn't hopeful but it took a mere ten pages to convince me that here was indeed 'a truly wondrous book' unfolding.
Anil Tissera returns to her native Sri Lanka, to assist in her role as a forensic anthropologist in investigating the organized murder campaigns that are sweeping the island. As if seeing her country anew 'with a long-distance gaze' Anil is paired up with the enigmatic archaeologist Sarath Diyasena, selected by the government for the investigation.
'The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilocus - In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.'
and all this by page three.
It was another ninety pages and several hours later before I surfaced thinking to myself how relieved I was that I hadn't got any filmic visions in my mind because for this book they were completely unnecessary.
In a book where 'the past was always useful' and 'secrets turn powerless in the open air' the bones gradually yield their secrets of life and death and I frantically had to e mail news of Anil's Ghost to my quilting friend Dr Ann. Dr Ann is an osteoarchaeologist who will be reading this with a very tutored and book-loving literary eye combined. I can't wait to talk to her about this book the next time we thread our needles.
There is tragedy and heartbreak in Anil's Ghost all handled in a very undramatic way, so undramatic that you often have to read twice maybe three times to take in the implications of what has happened. A hundred blog posts could not elucidate the nuances of this book effectively, but one repeated image stuck in my mind.
As Anil discovers so much more about her country and herself she frequently walks to a nearby well and sluices herself over and again with cold clear water from deep below ground, it's almost a ritual cleansing which seemed to me of huge significance, a washing away of the old into a pure new thinking, a baptism into a new understanding.
In many ways this epitomises Michael Ondaatje's writing because I feel likewise that I have emerged blinking into a whole new genre of spectacular and matchless writing, an understanding of what it is to read a novel that
'satisfies one of the most exalted purposes of fiction: to illuminate the human condition through pity and terror...no less than a geography of the soul...faith in a humanity that flourishes...ultimately a hopeful fable of our times.'
All this and much more that I suspect subsequent readings will reveal for a long time to come, Michael Ondaatje's moment has finally arrived here.