Beauty in the shape of tears

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury, £16.99, 311pp)
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Writing coolly about this book will be a lot easier if I get something off my chest right away and sing out, loudly and unequivocally, "This is why I read, this is why literature matters, this is what I believe in; this, in short, is IT!"

Considering the expectations raised by Michael Ondaatje's previous work, this is not surprising. Extrapolating from what has gone before, Anil's Ghost is a predictable, in some ways inevitable consummation. It is also a homecoming. In Running in the Family, an earlier, lighter return to Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as it was when he was born there in 1943), Ondaatje wrote that "No story is ever told just once".

There are striking similarities between Anil's story and that of The English Patient. In both books, a small group of people find themselves in an abandoned estate or villa on the edge of a war, trying to piece together the truth about what happened to a dying or (in the new novel) dead man. The charred English Patient came tumbling out of the sky, a pilot. The skeleton here - his "ribs like struts on a boat" - is given the nickname Sailor by Anil, the forensic anthropologist trying to establish his fate.

Could there be a more appropriate occupation for an Ondaatje protagonist? His interest in character has always been forensic rather than psychological. In the slow strobe of his prose, action is examined by gestural increments. Any motion leaves a blur of intention in its wake.

Anil was born in Sri Lanka and returns, after 15 years in America, to a country engulfed by civil war. She has been commissioned by a human rights group to investigate government involvement in the massacres ravaging an island whose outline on a map - as Ondaatje prophetically put it in Running in the Family - is "the shape of a tear". Obsessed with finding the truth, she is culpably ignorant of what will happen if that flame of truth is brought "against a sleeping lake of petrol". She is assisted - or should that be monitored, she wonders, or even hindered? - by Sarath, who, in response to her moral outrage at his caution, accuses her of talking "like a visiting journalist".

At this early point, you suspect Ondaatje of operating like a visiting famous novelist. He catalogues the horrors of injury and mutilation, pastes in Amnesty statistics on the disappeared, glues everything together with his own deliriously heightened images.

In the midst of "the exaggeration of war" you wonder about the - slightly precious? - signature exaggeration of his prose. Then you get used to it. You start to trust, to believe in the fragmented cadences.

Besides, it turns out that those earlier doubts have been anticipated by the author himself. Like Anil, like an American in a film who "gets on a plane and leaves" the war-torn troublespot behind, Ondaatje does not exempt himself from the biting words of Sarath's brother, the doctor Gamini. "Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit."

This is one of many ways in which the novel provides a legend of its own workings. Ondaatje's books always do this. In The English Patient, it was Kip, the sapper, who unwired the novel's delicate circuitry. Here, the work of archaeological investigation is always uncovering the novelist's buried design.

For Sarath, archaeology is like "entering a dream. Someone nudges a stone away and there's a story". His visionary teacher, Palipana, was academically discredited because his capacity for imaginative empathy with the past - "he began to see as truth things that could only be guessed at" - meant that his work was "a fiction". Ondaatje may re-arrange the facts of the war to suit his artistic needs but, as he explained in Running in the Family, "in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts".

He is, in other words, a consummate "artificer". That is the occupation of another important character, Ananda, whose task is to paint the eyes on statues of the Buddha (only then does the statue become a god). Ananda's damaged grace and skill lead Anil and Sarath to ask him to reconstruct a likeness of Sailor's face from the skull so that he can be identified. It's not enough to unearth the shards of the past. They have to be rebuilt, recombined. When that is done, the story of one victim can stand for many others.

In the event, Ananda both accomplishes the task and deviates from it, thereby raising it to another, almost religious level. This becomes explicit later, when he has to reassemble a statue of the Buddha destroyed by a bomb.

By this time it is clear, too, that every "trace element" of the exploded narrative - every dispersed memory and every linguistic ricochet - has its rightful place in an artistic vision that is at once epic, intricate and spare.

The evocation of landscape and people moving through it, the sense of light and place, the jagged lyricism of the prose - we expect these things from Ondaatje and, yes, they are necessary parts of the complex attainment of Anil's Ghost. Ultimately, though, its greatness lies in the way that this technical virtuosity is controlled by a dramatised wisdom and compassion. The effect is a kind of aesthetic calm, of art that gives form to - that enables faithless readers to glimpse - the possibility of enlightenment.

By the closing pages Anil's Ghost has come as close to a holy book as a novel ever should. And it is precisely in this falling short, this hesitation on the brink of the consoling certainties of the devout, that Ondaatje's faith in the vocation of fiction achieves serene expression. I would convert to it immediately, as Camus says somewhere, were it not already my religion.

Geoff Dyer's volume of essays, 'Anglo-English Attitudes', is published by Abacus