True Detective: Season Two or “Truth and Love…” in Anil’s Ghost
Near the end of Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost, Anil recalls a character by the name of Gamini musing about the nature of the endings of American and English stories. She recalls him saying:
“The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombassa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home” (Ondaatje, 285-286).
Though it is not directly stated, it is implied that the hero of these “western stories” returns home with a sense of truth and understanding of these areas. In this story however, the “western” hero, the titular Anil, is shunted out of the narrative entirely without even being shown returning home. Given this, one is led to ask, just how important is the truth to the narrative of Anil’s Ghost? In the perspective of this paper, the truth is a very powerful and dangerous concept, but by the end of the novel, it becomes clear that the focus is more on the people the truth affects.
Before we begin to analyze the novel itself, let’s explore what exactly “truth” is as a concept. As a word, truth refers to things that are accurate to facts and reality. However, I think there’s a better usage of the word within the narrative. Consider a moment within the narrative focusing on a minor character with a major impact on the narrative: the disappearance of Sirissa, Ananda’s wife and one of the ghosts who haunt the narrative. Once upon a time, she worked at a school as a janitor and had, from her perspective at least, a relatively good life. And then everything changed. She was going to the school when she saw something up above the hill: two severed heads of students on spikes. The event horrifies her, and yet she keeps moving forward into the horror, as she feels the presence of those responsible for this act behind her. But there are only more of the severed heads. She is never heard from again (Ondaatje, 174-175). Now, while it is possible that she is still alive (after all, she only feels their presence and the text does say that her “Mind capable of nothing” (Ondaatje, 175), so it is plausible that she merely joined the ever growing ranks of the homeless), the far more likely turn of events is that those who killed all these students silenced her. But what was behind her as she fled for her life? Simply the war torn land Sirissa has lived in. No doubt in this war, as in many wars of power, one of the sides wished to make this horror that Sirissa witnessed the aftermath of look like it was done by the other side. And as the horror of that morning seeped into Sirissa’s mind, they silenced her. Another body without a name on an ever-growing large pile of nameless corpses. And thus, we come to the meaning of truth: it is a hidden thing that those in power wish to remain hidden.
To help me analyze this concept of truth within Anil’s Ghost, I shall be using three articles. The first is Antoinette Burton’s “Archive of Bones: Anil's Ghost and the Ends of History”. In this article, Burton argues that Ondaatje’s novel is an exploration of history, “…not just in terms of history defined as the time of the past. Like the dead – those bodies which bring Anil to Sri Lanka and obsess the other major characters in the novel–history is a ‘half-revealed form’ whose truths are as elusive as they are politically necessary” (Burton, 40). The quote refers to a more political understanding of the history and one that is not fully formed because of its political nature. Both of these aspects will be instrumental in my analysis of the novel.
The second article used for this analysis is “‘Perceiving [...] in One's Own Body’ the Violence of History, Politics and Writing: Anil's Ghost and Witness Writing” by Milena Marinkova. In this article, Marinkova views Anil’s Ghost as an example of witness writing, a form of writing wherein the novel rejects the simplistic narrative of history in favor of a more holistic view of the situation “whereby unwitnessed stories and unacknowledged witnesses are recognized and validated” (Marinkova, 107). Through the usage of “unwitnessed” narratives, I shall be able to analyze the truth being hidden. In addition to that, there is an entire section devoted to exploring the concept of truth within the article, which shall be instrumental.
Finally, there is the article by Teresa Derrickson called “Will The ‘Un-Truth’ Set You Free? A Critical Look At Global Human Rights Discourse In Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost”. In this article, Derrickson argues that, contrary to the apolitical critiques the novel has received (Derrickson, 131), it is in reality a politicization of the seemingly apolitical nature of human rights organizations such as the UN. Contrary to their clean image, these international humanitarian organizations are forced to make uneasy and unsavory compromises to help those they can. The article highlights how commonplace the atrocities performed by those in power are to the point where the Sri Lankan people have become used to the horrors around them (Derrickson, 138-140). The Derrickson article will further help in my exploration of the truth. In addition to that, it also highlighted an aspect of the original text that I had not considered in my initial read through of the novel.
Given these articles, let us look at Anil’s Ghost itself. The central truth of the novel is the identity of the four corpses: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Sailor (“…an evocation the famous 1975 John Le Carre ́ thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy” and, in turn, the detective genre (Burton, 44) which is typically about detectives searching for hard truths and either having to live with the consequences or dying at the end because of them while still getting the truth out into the world), with a particular focus on the identity of Sailor. As Anil puts it “To him a name would name the rest” (Ondaatje, 56) and in turn uncover the truth behind their death. To help in her investigation, among countless other people, is a former teacher of Sarath (Anil’s partner) named Palipana. Together, Anil and Palipana work to examine the corpse of Sailor. During their examination, Anil and Palipana share a small disagreement over the nature of the truth, with Palipana arguing for the fluidity of truth, citing that those in power caused trouble even in the times of kings of old and “Even then there was nothing to believe in with certainty”, to which Anil counters with her view of “ ‘The truth shall set you free.’ I believe that” which Palipana responds with “Most of the time in our world, truth is just opinion” (Ondaatje, 102). On the one hand, Anil argues that the act of telling truths is important because she believes they can free those who are oppressed. On the other, Palipana argues that it’s pointless to tell truths because those in power control what truths are heard and seen by the public.
The Burton article claims that, as the novel goes on, Palipana’s views of the truth end up being validated as the hard evidence found by Anil and Sarath ends up disappearing due to those in power not liking where said evidence was going (Burton, 46-48). The Marinkova article seemingly agrees with the Burton one, as she highlights a section of Anil’s Ghost wherein Sarath and his brother Gamini argue about the futility of going up against the government with Sarath arguing that there must be justice for the innocents and Gamini arguing that they’re doomed because the truth is out there, and yet no one has done anything about it except sit on their high horse and talk about things like “freedom” and “the right to live” to the point where they no longer have any meaning (Ondaatje, 133; Marinkova, 118).
And yet, despite this, the characters still press on. Even the Marinkova article points out that Gamini and Sarath still try to help Anil in her quest for the Truth (Marinkova, 118) (plus, it should be noted that Palipana is blind, which is sometimes used in fiction to be a metaphor for a character that is unable to see the truth before them). But at the same time, at least one of the characters is keenly aware of the implications of the truth: Sarath. Derrickson highlights this when she analyzes a segment from the novel. In this segment, Sarath is thinking about the futility of Anil’s quest for the truth. He compares the truth to “…a flame against a sleeping lake of petrol. Sarath had seen truth broken into suitable pieces and used by the foreign press alongside irrelevant photographs”, which would lead “…to new vengeance and slaughter… As an archeologist Sarath believed in truth as a principle. That is, he would have given his life for the truth if the truth were of any use” (Ondaatje, 156-157). In short, Sarath believes that the truth will lead to more harm than good and is thus useless.
On first glance (and outside of the context of what is to come in the novel), this seems to agree with the worldview presented by his teacher. Even the Derrickson article claims it to be:
“…a careless gesture, a gesture possibly as negligent as the over-sensationalized stories produced by ‘‘flippant’’ journalists on the other side of the world. Her crusade, like theirs, appears to involve little thought as to the costs involved, and therefore runs the risk of being seen as disingenuous in its nod toward justice.” (Derrickson, 145)
Thus Sarath is forced to cover up the truth. When Anil and Sarath discover the identity of Sailor (Ruwan Kumara (Ondaatje, 269)) and his status as a government undesirable, Anil naturally wants to make a report. She wants to reveal the truth to the world. Sarath, knowing the dangers of the truth, takes the body of Sailor away from her. He then proceeds to make comments during Anil’s hearing that muddy her claims of government responsibility from pointing out that the body she does have could have been from hundreds of years ago to Sarath patronizing Anil about the fact that she “lost” the body she had a better case with, thereby humiliating Anil to highlight how she isn’t a threat (Ondaatje, 271-276).
And yet, he does not attempt to silence Anil for her words, far from it. For Sarath realizes that it’s pointless to make the case to the government who committed the act, he also knows that the truth is more likely to get out in an environment that isn’t Sri Lanka. And so Sarath provides Anil with the body of Sailor as well as the tape recorder with most of the information that would help recreate the report Sarath destroyed to save her life (Ondaatje, 283-284). Thus, though it is not seen within the novel, Anil escapes Sri Lanka but not without cost. For it is true what Sarath said before: he would die for a truth he believed would be of any use. For at the end of the novel, his corpse was found with six other bodies (Ondaatje, 287-290).
And yet, the novel doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with Anil revealing the truth to the world. Nor does the novel end with the discovery of Sarath’s corpse by his brother, Gamini. It doesn’t even end with the death of President Katugala (a truth that slipped across the city within an hour (Ondaatje, 295)) who no doubt was responsible for the death of Sailor as well as countless others. To understand why the novel ends where it does, we must go back to a previous part of the novel; specifically, the aforementioned scene highlighted by the Derrickson article (on pages 138 to 140, though the analysis she gives is not relevant to this article), which follows thusly:
Shortly after Anil and Sarath meet Ananda, Sarath makes an offhand comment about Ananda, which peaks Anil’s interest. Part of Sarath’s explanation is thus:
“We have seen so many heads stuck on poles here, these last few years. It was at its worst a couple years ago. You’d see them in the early mornings, somebody’s night work, before the families heard about them and came and removed them and took them home. Wrapping them in their shirts or just cradling them. Someone’s son. These were blows to the heart. There was only one thing worse. That was when a family member simply disappeared and there was no sighting or evidence of his existence or his death” (Ondaatje, 184)
Note in particular what Sarath highlights here. He doesn’t highlight the political nature of the killings, nor of the brutality of the killings save within a curt mention of what happened. Rather, he focuses upon the fact that they were members of a community. That the dead was someone’s son and the horrible ache of said people being erased by the powers that be from all records that could be erased. The pain of not knowing who died. In short, Sarath focuses not on how they died or why they died but on who died.
This focus on the closeness of the people in the story is found throughout the narrative. From Anil being citizened by the friendship of Ananda and Sarath within their small group (Ondaatje, 200) to Sarath thinking to himself that Anil referred to herself as being part of those afflicted by the government’s mass killings (Ondaatje, 272) to Gamini describing Sarath after his death not in terms of his fine detective work but rather as:
“…someone who in his sarong would stroll into the garden or onto the verandah with his tea and newspaper. Sarath had always sidestepped violence because of his character, as if there had never been a war within him” (Ondaatje, 288-289).
Which, of course, explains why the novel ends with Ananda and his village rebuilding the Buddha after it had been destroyed by the cruel reality we find ourselves within. Because the story is not about finding out the truth and stopping the cruelty of the world. The world’s too complex to do that. Instead, it’s about the people who have to live with the truth; those who uncover it, those who ignore it, those who try to live with it, and those who die because of it. And more than just being about people, it’s about being with people who care about each other. Because Sarath died, not because he believed in the truth: he died because he believed Anil could make a difference within the situation of Sri Lanka.
In conclusion, the concept of truth within the context of Anil’s Ghost is, while a powerful and dangerous concept, not the focus of the narrative, but rather the characters within the narrative. Which is not the case made by the articles used in this paper. While their arguments were instrumental in uncovering what the truth is as a concept as well as helped shape a few sections, the articles viewed truth as the be all and end all of the novel. But given a closer look, one uncovers the truth of the matter is that the personal is just as important as the political.
“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”
Burton, Antoinette. "Archive of Bones: Anil's Ghost and the Ends of History." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 38.1 (2003): 39-56. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Derrickson, Teresa. "Will The ‘Un-Truth’ Set You Free? A Critical Look At Global Human Rights Discourse In Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 15.2 (2004): 131-52. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Marinkova, Milena. ""Perceiving [...] in One's Own Body" the Violence of History, Politics and Writing: Anil's Ghost and Witness Writing." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 44.3 (2009): 107-25. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil's Ghost. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Print.
Vale, Paul. "Vaclav Havel Dead: Quotes From The Man Who 'Lived In Truth'" The Huffington Post UK. AOL (UK) Limited, 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.