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The Darker Proof

ANIL'S GHOST, A Novel By Michael Ondaatje; Alfred A. Knopf: 300 pp., $25

May 21, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

At the heart of Michael Ondaatje's latest novel, "Anil's Ghost," stands a blind epigraphist. Once the leading decoder of the ancient texts of Sri Lanka--writings that he discovered carved on stones so old they had grown back into the wilderness--Palipana has lived to see his own reputation disintegrate along with law and order in his country. The 1980s brought an indecipherable unrest to Sri Lanka, with separatists fighting the government in the north, insurgents fighting the government in the south and ordinary people disappearing and dying everywhere. "It was a Hundred Years' War with modern weaponry, and backers on the sidelines in safe countries, a war sponsored by gun- and drug-runners. It became evident that political enemies were secretly joined in financial arms deals. 'The reason for war was war."'

The older and blinder he gets, the more Palipana finds new subliminal meanings carved into the grooves of the ancient words. "The dialogue between old and hidden lines, the back-and-forth between what was official and unofficial during solitary field trips, when he spoke to no one for weeks, so that these became his only conversations--an epigraphist studying the specific style of a chisel-cut from the fourth century, then coming across an illegal story, one banned by kings and state and priests, in the interlinear texts. These verses contained the darker proof."

It is in search of the darker proof that might shed light on the ruin of her country that a young scientist named Anil returns to Sri Lanka after an absence of 15 years. Having fled to London on a fellowship, Anil has wandered the West in search of a life for herself, away from her family and country. Curiously, she has tunneled her way into dead-end-relationships with married men and ailing women--and achieved a certain renown as a forensic pathologist, examining dead bodies from the deserts of the American Southwest to the massacres of Guatemala for clues about life. Now 33, Anil has flown into the capital city of Colombo with a U.N. passport and a mission to unearth some skeletons and separate the murderer from the murderee. "The darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here," Anil soon learns. "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."

Joining forces with a detached archeologist named Sarath, Anil soon finds her skeleton. At a government archeological preserve, a 6th century Buddhist burial ground, Sarath has uncovered four sets of bones. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Sailor are the fond nicknames he and Anil give these ancient monks. But Sailor, unlike his brothers who have been dead for a millennium and a half, appears to Anil's trained eye to have died only a few months ago. More important, the evidence seems to show that he was killed elsewhere, buried, then dug up and reburied in a spot accessible only to government soldiers. Is this a chance to pin some measure of blame for the carnage? Will Anil be the one to make the first case against the Sri Lankan government?

*

Anil is a woman with a will, determined to solve this mystery. At the age of 12, with a seriousness unusual for an adolescent, she bought her brother's name from him for "one hundred saved rupees, a pen set he had been eyeing for some time, a tin of fifty Gold Leaf cigarettes she had found, and a sexual favour he had demanded in the last hours of the impasse." The successive years have only focused that will into her work. She has become so caught up in the pathology of death that she even writes movie director John Boorman to ask him through what part of Lee Marvin's body a bullet passed in the opening sequence of the movie "Point Blank."

Sarath can only guide Anil, not deflect her trajectory. In search of the secret of Sailor's identity, he introduces her to his doctor brother, a burned-out case named Gamini; to Palipana in the jungle; and finally to Ananda, a miner and a drunk but a former virtuoso at the delicate art of painting eyes on Buddhas and reconstructing models of faces from skulls. Together, they retreat to an old mansion to puzzle out the secret of Sailor's death, his occupation, his origin, his identity--any proof that might finally point a finger to government-sponsored murder. "One village can speak for many villages," a teacher of Anil's once told her in Oklahoma. "One victim can speak for many victims."

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