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.


The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner was really the obvious choice from Afghanistan for the Read The World challenge, since my mother had a copy already. I have to admit I was sceptical about it; the very fact it became so popular at a time when Afghanistan was in the news made me wonder whether its success was based more on topicality than merit. Also the UK edition has a very wishy-washy cover with a sepia-tinged photograph of a small boy on it, and while covers are often misleading, they do at least tell you something about what the publishers think is the market for the book.

And so I rather expected The Kite Runner to be a bit like the book I read for Iran, also written by a refugee who has lived for many years away their home country: nostalgic and rather insubstantial. In fact, it is much darker than I was expecting.

It tells the story of the narrator Amir’s childhood in Kabul, particularly focussing on his relationship with his father and his friendship with the servant boy Hassan; then his life with his father as a refugee in California in the 80s after the Soviet invasion, and a trip back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to do a favour for someone. Some of the darkness comes from the brutality of the past 30 years of Afghan history, but Amir’s personal story is one of betrayal and guilt even in his childhood in the relatively peaceful pre-Soviet days.

Generally I thought it was successful: the childhood stuff is gripping and moving; the portrayal of the refugee experience, and the contrast with their life in Afghanistan, is very effective; and the vision of an absolutely shattered Afghanistan under the Taliban is also pretty good. I found the book to be a genuine page-turner; I was reading until 2am a couple of times. Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s a literary masterpiece. But it is a well-written novel that tells a good story.

Hosseini isn’t afraid to pile on the emotive material, and most of the time he manages that without tipping over into corny or melodramatic, but towards the end of the book he did trigger my own personal cynic a couple of times. There’s a confrontation with a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan where the coincidences got a bit too Hollywood for me, and I never quite got pulled back into the book again in the same way after that. I also think he fluffed the last few pages.

So having been thoroughly gripped by the book initially, I was a bit disappointed at the end; even so I would recommend it.

» the photo of boys flying a kite in Kabul is AFG_20071109_169.jpg, posted to Flickr by AndyHiggins.

Culture Other

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I bought The Satanic Verses in irritation at all the fuckwits who were complaining about Rushdie getting a knighthood. Not surprisingly perhaps, having bought it as a gesture rather than because of an urgent desire to read it, it ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile. It didn’t help that it has a bit of a reputation as being unreadable.

section of ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ by William Blake

You know what, though? It’s actually a really good novel.

It’s full of inventive ideas and images, playful use of language, barbed social comment and, you know, good novelly things generally. It’s magical realism – two men mysteriously survive falling from an exploding plane, only to find themselves transforming, one into the image of the archangel Gabriel and the other into Satan – but the realism part of the equation is strong enough to keep the book grounded in the real world of London and Bombay.

I can understand why quite a few people found it hard to finish, though. It has that rambling quality that quite a lot of Serious Literary Novels have had ever since modernism: lots of characters, lots of narrative threads which are only loosely connected, long digressions which seem a bit irrelevant. I have to admit it’s not a quality I find particularly attractive. It seems like an excellent recipe for a book which is less than the sum of its parts. And a great way of reducing the book’s forward momentum; I don’t demand that everything I read is an un-put-downable page-turner, but I do like to feel it’s going somewhere. There were times, reading The Satanic Verses, when it felt a bit becalmed.

On balance, though, I enjoyed it.

detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel from the dome of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

I suppose I can hardly review the most controversial novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover without some comment on the controversy. Mohammed is a character in the book – or at least the Gabriel character has dream visions in which Mohammed appears – and he is presented as self-serving, opportunistic and not a real prophet. Which I can understand might irritate Muslims. But actually it wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as I thought it might be. Compared, for example, to the portrayal of Moses in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage, it’s really very gentle. It just portrays Mohammed as human.

picture credits: the first is a detail from William Blake’s ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ from Tate Britain; the second is a detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the dome of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.