The unhistorical dead

<i>Anil's Ghost</i> by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury &pound;16.99)
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The Independent Culture

Towards the end of this morbid, dreamy novel, the successor to The English Patient, two Sri Lankan brothers, steeped in the modest passions of those who truly suffer, talk into the humid subcontinental night. The younger brother, a surgeon, says, "American movies, English books - remember how they all end?" He continues, "The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it." The older brother is an archaeologist. A terrible fate, the reader suspects, awaits both men. Unlike characters in English and American stories, they will not get on a plane and leave. They could if they wanted to. But they can't - they are too damn chivalrous.

Towards the end of this morbid, dreamy novel, the successor to The English Patient, two Sri Lankan brothers, steeped in the modest passions of those who truly suffer, talk into the humid subcontinental night. The younger brother, a surgeon, says, "American movies, English books - remember how they all end?" He continues, "The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it." The older brother is an archaeologist. A terrible fate, the reader suspects, awaits both men. Unlike characters in English and American stories, they will not get on a plane and leave. They could if they wanted to. But they can't - they are too damn chivalrous.

We are in the war-torn Sri Lanka of the 1990s. The country is split between three shady, furtive factions: the government, the "antigovernment insurgents", and the "separatist guerillas". People are being kidnapped, killed, buried and reburied. The killers are mysterious. "Truth bounced between gossip and vengeance." A woman walks across a bridge and sees the heads of people she knows stuck on the railings. Terrorists are bombing public places. The bombs contain nuts and bolts, ball bearings. Nobody knows whose side anybody else is on; people whisper, and look around for tape recorders. "The darkest Greek tragedies," the author tells us, "were innocent compared with what was happening here."

It's not like a Western novel at all. Like The English Patient, it's a flyblown epic, set among gimcrack hospitals, amputees, philosophers and inclement weather. Nobody is worried about their mortgages. Cars are things which might save your life, or crash. People don't have crushes on each other - they find themselves crushed by lifelong passions. Into this cauldron steps Anil, a Sri Lankan archaeologist normally resident in America. She finds herself digging up skeletons in an ancient tomb. But one of the skeletons is not so ancient; Anil suspects it's the recent work of government death-squads - "the unhistorical dead". But can she trust her colleague, Sarath? Might he be involved with the killers?

Anil is a strong, passionate woman, attractive but not physically vain, with two bad romances behind her. She is 33. She once stuck a penknife into her married lover's arm. She is full of existential frustration; she listens to music on headphones, performs backflips when she thinks no-one's looking, and pours freezing water from a well over her naked body. "Its glow," writes Ondaatje, "entered her in a rush." She is something of an ascetic. "She understood how wells could become sacred. They combined sparse necessity and luxury." You can't imagine Anil in the West. Among the strange-looking rocks, the ancient relics, the jungle monsoons, the bombs, the bodies, and the modest, unsung heroes of her homeland, she is, you feel, in her element.

It's not an easy book, or even a gripping one. But it's one that will stay with you. It has a dreamy quality, as if these things are not really happening. There's a blind old sage, a man crucified in the middle of a street, a suicide bomber who sidles towards a politician in a crowd and blows himself and his victims to photogenic smithereens. This, you keep thinking as you read, will be a film. You will be seeing the politician's right arm, post-blast, which "rested by itself on the stomach of one of the dead policemen". You'll be seeing the two chivalrous brothers, each in his own private, heroic agony. And the scene in the mortuary, in which they find each other in unimaginably bleak circumstances, will be unforgettable.

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