ANIL'S GHOST By Michael Ondaatje Alfred A. Knopf 311 pp., $25
Writing a classic war novel is never easy, of course, but consider the audience that awaited Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" in 1895. Every reader in America was still living in the shadow of the Civil War.
Similarly, when Erich Maria Remarque released "All Quiet on the Western Front" in 1929, there was a whole planet waiting to make sense of World War I.
Unfortunately, the West is not waiting for a novel about the civil war in Sri Lanka. But Michael Ondaatje is about to put this tragedy on the map of Western consciousness with "Anil's Ghost."
His last book, "The English Patient," won England's Booker Prize in 1992, and the interminable movie version won an Academy Award for best picture in 1997. On the strength of that success, millions of readers will pick up "Anil's Ghost" no matter what it's about.
They won't be disappointed.
The situation in Sri Lanka is a novelist's jungle. The conflict has been raging for 16 years, has claimed 60,000 lives, and has already decimated large parts of the island nation off the coast of India. Clashing politicians, rebel groups, and religious traditions could easily tangle this book in a thicket of details that only those well-versed in Sri Lankan politics could follow. But Ondaatje has not set out to record his homeland's modern history.
Instead, "Anil's Ghost" focuses on the emotional complexities of living in a country beset by political terror. The effect is at once gorgeous and ghastly.
Through the center of the book runs the gripping story of Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist who returns to Sri Lanka under the auspices of an international human rights group. When she left 15 years before, she was a bashful hero, lionized for her remarkable strength as a swimmer. On her return, she needs all that strength and more to traverse the waves of fear that have been crashing over her homeland.
As the invited guest of a regime widely suspected of carrying out mass murders and torture, Anil works in a precarious situation. Her government-appointed partner, a local archaeologist named Sarath Diyasena, gives her little reason to relax. The two of them retreat with the first selection of bodies to a makeshift laboratory in the dark cargo hold of an abandoned luxury liner. You'll have to remind yourself to keep breathing as you read this book.
There are any number of fresh subjects being unearthed daily, but they choose to concentrate on a skeleton that appears to have been reburied in a government-controlled area.
It's gruesome work - quixotic and suicidal - but both Anil and Sarath are determined to pursue the truth of this single, representative atrocity. Ondaatje's voice, alternately calm and impressionistic, is perfect for conveying such horrors in a relentless series of short chapters: "On this island, she realized she was moving with only one arm of language among uncertain laws and a fear that was everywhere. There was less to hold on to with that one arm. Truth bounced between gossip and vengeance. Rumour slipped into every car and barbershop."
Breaking through the culture of fear-enforced silence proves as difficult as determining a victim's identify from his burned remains. They seek assistance from an old man drunk on grief and alcohol who is one of the few artists entrusted to paint the eyes on statues of Buddha. This mystical act of bringing a god's eyes to life becomes a haunting symbol in a novel about hidden crimes.
Laced through this central detective story are anecdotes from the characters' pasts, scenes from elsewhere on the island, and random acts of violence. All these characters are quiet, desperate people, addicted to their work or their grief. Ondaatje is a master at portraying unconsummated desire - for love, truth, or peace.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society