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Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje, is a work that shows the author’s insightful portrayal of the Sri Lankan crisis. It is rich with tones and themes that are integrated beautifully throughout the story. The important aspects of the novel, which are continually developed as the novel progresses, are first introduced in the prefaces. By comparing this to the preface of a different book by Ondaatje, Running in the Family, one can see the techniques the author utilises to affect the reader. His ability to leave impressions is best exemplified by the comparison of the two pieces. The introduction of significant ideas in the prefaces of Anil’s Ghost leads to a stronger representation of the themes throughout the novel.
The author’s note functions as the first introduction to the novel. It briefly explains the time period of Sri Lanka in which the novel takes place. By choosing to communicate the situation in a very unbiased and fact like manner, Ondaatje is able to present necessary information without bias. This is a considerably different style from the preface to Running in the Family, which features rich imagery such as “the garden will lie in a blaze of heat, frantic with noise and butterflies”(italicised preface). By using such strong description, the reader is immediately drawn into the vivid picture of Sri Lanka that he paints. The large contrast between setting description illustrates that Ondaatje’s impartial telling of historical events in Anil’s Ghost is wholly intentional. Ondaatje simply chooses to give the characters’ stories higher importance, instead of using them as a vehicle to make a statement on Sri Lankan politics. For example, the injustice of Sailor’s death and the characters’ many sacrifices to bring this to the light seem to accuse the Government of being in the wrong. But the emotional scene of Sarath’s death is immediately countered by the insurgents’ murder of president Katugala. In this way, the reader is discouraged from choosing a side. Instead, one is presented with the characters’ personal struggles rather than a political one. The Sri Lankan crisis is more of a setting to illuminate Ondaatje’s themes rather than the main focus of the novel.
Continuing on, Ondaatje uses the Miner’s Folk Song to introduce the reader emotionally to the crisis in Sri Lanka . This serves the same purpose as the italicised introduction to Running in the Family. Although not contributing to the plotline, Ondaatje, in both works, using these sections to introduce the Sri Lankan setting. Specifically in Anil’s Ghost, it is used to depict a cultural aspect. In the song, the worker is blessing the mechanisms that ensure his or her life’s safety instead of the expected religious figure. Because of the desperation of his or her situation, he or she puts more faith in tangible objects. This idea is integrated throughout the novel in scenes such as the Buddha statue being destroyed by men looking for treasure. Ondaatje gives emphasis to the theme in text by writing that “these were fields where Buddhism and its values met the harsh political events of the twentieth century” (Anil’s Ghost, 300). Few people have the luxury to believe in a religion promoting peace when they are experiencing the consequences a violent crisis every day. Because this idea exists from the beginning, Ondaatje is able to create a greater emotional impact throughout the novel and, furthermore, leave a lasting impression on the reader with the final scene. This scene, in which Ananda recreates the destroyed Buddha statue, comes to represent not only the character’s growth but also the development of the novel. A loss of faith in Buddha, represented by the miner, is symbolically restored in the rebuilding of this statue. By comparing the Miner’s Folk song to this last section, a thought provoking message of peace is evident.
The following italicised introduction is written in a poetic fashion, in the same style that Ondaatje uses in the introduction to Running in the Family. Ondaatje is clearly skilled in depicting a vivid picture, which is evident in both works. The reader is immediately drawn in and enthralled by such writing. However, In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje chooses not to use this to develop the plot. In fact, the two pages takes place in Guatemala, an entirely different setting from Sri Lanka. This is to emphasise that the important factor is not where this introduction takes place, but rather the emotional impact of it. The woman’s grief for the two corpses is very human. Anil herself feels that “the grief of love in that shoulder she will not forget”( Anil’s Ghost, italicised preface). Even without including the facts of the Guatemalan crisis, it is easy to grasp the awfulness of the situation. This theme is continued throughout the novel. Very rarely does he focus on numbers or data. The statistics and facts are clearly less significant than the toll the crisis takes on the general population. When the situation affects characters that the reader knows and can identify with, the atmosphere becomes much more intimate. By introducing this theme early on, Ondaatje creates a profound effect that holds for the rest of the novel.
Ondaatje, as an author, can affectively use writing devices to have an influence on the reader. For instance, in both the italicised introduction in Running in the Family and in Anil’s Ghost, there is a kind of disconnection from the character being described – like an outsider looking in. It is an effective technique that subtly influences the reader to experience a slight separation from the events taking place. In Running in the Family, this is done by the author describing himself in the third person. However, in Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje attains the same effect by describing the grieving woman from Anil’s perspective. This role as an observer of others’ suffering is continued on throughout the novel. Despite the fact that she is originally from Sri Lanka, she is also a part of Western culture and is, in some ways, an outsider looking in. It is not until the end of the novel where, as Sarath notes, that it has been “fifteen years away and she is finally us.” (Anil’s Ghost, 272). It takes nearly the whole novel for Anil to go from the witness of others’ grief, as she is in the introduction, to considering herself a part of the Sri Lankan crisis. By creating the atmosphere of an outsider from the start, Anil’s journey becomes much clearer. The reader can better understand her development as a character and the impact of her words and actions towards the end of the novel.
The prefaces of Anil’s Ghost reveal important aspects that establish the mood for the whole of the novel. As the story progresses, these themes are masterfully developed. Introducing these elements early on produces a more effective presentation of Ondaatje’s ideas throughout the novel. By using Running in the Family as a comparison, one can not only see Ondaatje’s talent as an author to influence the reader, but also the techniques he employs to do so. The results of his efforts create a conclusive ending that clearly portrays Ondaatje’s message in a poignant and thoughtful way.
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