catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 4 :: 2004.02.13 — 2004.02.26


Responding to violence

How does one respond to the overwhelming hopelessness of places in the world that have been ruled for too long by fear and suffering? Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost explores and embodies one answer to that question.

Author of The English Patient and several other novels, Oondaatje grew up in Sri Lanka and knows first hand how conflict between the government and two factions has resulted in unspeakable violence toward the population of that country. Anil’s Ghost is his vehicle for responding to that violence, and in a larger sense, to similar situations all over the world.

In the novel, Anil is a forensic anthropologist on a UN mission to investigate the ongoing murders and political killings in Sri Lanka. Anil is also Sri Lankan herself, and though she desperately wants to make a difference in that country, she is apprehensive about her return. Almost immediately, she uncovers evidence of a brutal killing perpetrated and covered up by the government. She must then determine how to bring this murder to light in such a way that will bring about justice, and not merely her (and the UN’s) expulsion from the country.

Like Ondaatje’s other writings, it is not the plot but the imagery and description that make the story so alive. I found myself stunned by the way that violent episodes formed a constant background to everything that was going on. Ondaatje describes how a doctor abducted from his home by terrorists and then forced to treat their dying comrades responds to the need so completely: he works for them for years without even realizing that he hasn’t seen his family during that time. At another point, as Anil and Sarath, a Sri Lankan colleague and the only man she believes she can trust, are speeding to another town to gather more evidence, they come upon a man who has been nailed to the road. We see a gifted artist so hurt by the abduction and death of his wife that he slashes his own throat. The violence is as horrific as it is senseless, and as senseless as it is endless.

Throughout the book, I found myself wanting the plot to be unraveled, order to be restored, justice done, the truth found out, and peace established. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that although in some ways Anil is successful, she does not change the world. The hopelessness remains, in the end, hopeless.

As a Christian reader, I am of two minds. On the one hand, it seems to me that when God’s grace is present, things are never completely hopeless. A thin sliver of hope is enough to sustain me with most books, but I feel that it must be there. Otherwise, what is the point? If life is hopeless, why read novels? Why write them? Why do anything?

Yet, at the same time, the situation in Sri Lanka (and Palestine, Ireland, etc.) is desperate and horrible. As Christians, we know that the Fall brought such brokenness into the world that, for humans without God, the situation is hopeless. The closest moment to hope I could find in the book was this: At one point, guerrilla fighters from one of the two factions (or the government—one is never sure) blow up a beautiful statue of Buddha, looking for treasure inside. They find nothing. A couple of scenes later, we see the completion of a new Buddha statue, and the ceremony in which an artist paints its eyes. Life goes on. The Buddha is restored. We are led to believe, however, that though this god has no treasure within it either, it too will likely be blown up in time.

Ondaatje’s novel is an utterly truthful description of the difficulty of the problem of sin on this planet. It doesn’t have much to say, however, in answer to that problem.

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