Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

The Anil of Anil’s Ghost is a forensic anthropologist; she was born in Sri Lanka but having left to study and work, she is now returning after 15 years away to investigate allegations of political murders. Ondaatje was eleven when he left Sri Lanka, so Anil’s insider/outsider status is presumably a reflection of his own experience. His decision to write this book is perhaps his equivalent of Anil’s need to return to Sri Lanka.

Ondaatje is really a very good writer. His books seem to have a dream-like quality, not so much because of what happens but the way that it is presented to us. Part of it is the way that the focus shifts around, not just between the main characters but an assortment of others who are only loosely connected to the central plot; and shifting backwards and forwards in time as well.

Also, if you were someone who just read books for the plot you might feel that it had its priorities oddly skewed: an ‘important’ event will go past rather rapidly, and then the book will dwell lovingly on a scene which has no particular narrative importance, but is atmospheric or striking or thematically apt.* It’s a kind of structuring which would seem very natural in a long poem but is a bit less common in novels.

As much as I liked the book, it was somewhat depressing. Perhaps a novel about ethnic conflict and political atrocities should be depressing, but still. Obviously I knew there was a long-running conflict in Sri Lanka, and of course it has been in the news recently as the war (or that phase of the war) drew to a bloody end; but I was blissfully ignorant of any of the details, and for me, Sri Lanka was largely associated with cricket. And it’s much more pleasant to associate a country with flamboyant opening batsmen than with heads on spikes. The book doesn’t actually wallow in the atrocities as much as it could do — they are evoked sparingly rather than described at length — but they are quite disturbing enough without that kind of pornographic attention to detail.

I had already counted a different book by Ondaatje — In the Skin of a Lion — as my book from Sri Lanka for the Read The World challenge, but that book is all set in Canada, so it seemed appropriate to read a book with a bit more Sri Lanka in it.

* I would hate to have to justify that sentence with close reference to the text, but thankfully I’m a blogger not a scholar.

» The picture, ‘Old Buddha, Sri Lanka‘ is © Rahul Barraez D’Lucca and used under a CC attribution licence.

Not exactly a thrashing

It seems only fair to point out that when I said, about the cricket match between England and Sri Lanka, that Sri Lanka were “almost certainly going to get thrashed” – I was wrong. After following on, they made one of the great comebacks in the history of Test cricket to be 537-9 at the end of the game.

And, again in translation for my American readers, we played one game for 5 days and it was a draw. That’s cricket.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The NY Times ‘sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”‘. You can see the list of works that got more than one vote here. I’ve read embarrassingly few of them; one that I have read is the most recent, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I read in Spain.

Considering the glowing reviews I read, I thought it was completely ordinary. The historical aspect of it – the speculation of how the US could have wandered into fascism under a Lindbergh presidency – was quite interesting and convincingly done. But as a literary work it did nothing for me. It felt like it could have been written by a journalist or a historian to make a historical point. I was reading it directly after some Pynchon, which probably made the style seem a bit flat in comparison, but still, the characterisation and dialogue seemed unremarkable to me. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood for it, and I’m pretty sure that if it had been set in, say, Surrey instead of Newark it would have been more immediate for me, but I still wonder how it would have been received if it didn’t have Roth’s name attached to it.

The Pynchon, on the other hand (Gravity’s Rainbow), clearly was a remarkable bit of writing, but I’m not sure it was more than the sum of its parts. I think that’s generally a problem, though, with these sprawling, disjointed modernist novels going right back to Joyce and indeed Sterne – can the diversions and oddities justify themselves.

Anyway, I’m now rambling. I think it’s probably a mistake trying to talk coherently about literature and listen to the cricket at the same time. Jayawardene and Maharoof are doing a good job at the moment settling down the Sri Lankans but

And at that moment Hoggard took Maharoof’s wicket, caught and bowled. Leaving Sri Lanka on 129/7 in reply to 551/6 declared, which, in translation for my American readers, means they’re almost certainly going to get thrashed.

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