The distinction between fact and fiction is often a contested one. Nor does it remain static, especially for novelists like Graham Greene and Michael Ondaatje, who have drawn their inspiration from the fractured politics of our just past century. In The English Patient it was World War II and its runup in Africa. Here it is the troubled history of the author’s long-abandoned homeland, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), during the past two decades of its complex and extraordinarily brutal civil war, recently featured in a front-page appearance in the New York Times (9/16/00).
The Times story, a long piece on a slow news day, recounts the latest pitched battle between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, who have been fighting for the past 17 years for an independent homeland in the north of the country. The often absurd and brutal character of the war moves the reporter toward metaphor:
In recent months, death has plucked people and other creatures from life here on the Jaffna peninsula with the errant whimsy of a child picking flowers in a garden.
A young woman riding a bicycle near her home was struck by shrapnel that severed her femoral artery. A cow, lazily chewing its cud, was taken out by a stray shell. A 5-year-old boy, whose grandmother had sent him to the store to buy fruit juice, was struck in the spine by shrapnel from a shell that had crashed into a drumstick tree. Two people died when incoming fire hit a home for elderly residents.
Conversely, Ondaatje’s novel ends with three pages of acknowledgments to dozens of doctors, lawyers, civil rights workers, Asian scholars and fellow poets, plus a bibliography that would make any researcher proud. A lot of homework and legwork have gone into this novel.
War lurks at the core of Ondaatje’s storynot just the insurrection that still tears Sri Lanka apart after two decades, but all the smaller wars we fight in our daily lives. Anil, the forensic anthropologist and self-exiled native, is still battling family demons while concealing a youthful failed marriage and a more recent disastrous liaison. She returns home on a U.N. passport to aid in tracking victims of the conflict whose skeletons yield surprising information to her science. Her partners in this dangerous are Sarath, a taciturn fellow scientist with close ties to the government, and Sarath’s younger brother, Gamini, whose response to the crisis is manic, round-the-clock surgery on behalf of the victims. Anil, who is attracted to Gamini, must learn to negotiate that fraternal minefield as well.
The fourth member of this quartet is Ananda, once a skilled artist entrusted with the ritual responsibility of painting the all-seeing eye on gigantic statues of the Buddha. The loss of his wife to the violence has turned him into an alcoholic and a lowly mineworker. Anil and Sarath recruit him, nevertheless, to reconstruct the head of a particular skeleton they nickname Sailor, whose telltale signs link it to government rather than rebel assassination squads. If they can identify Sailor (and they do), they may be able to begin apportioning political responsibility for the myriad faceless victims of state and rebel violence.
At this point the intersection of science and politics takes an ominous turn. When Anil attempts to lay out her evidence before a mixed audience of fellow scientists, military officers and political operatives, she is shocked to find Sarath publicly attacking her conclusions. All her earlier suspicions, which she had tried to overcome, seem confirmed, but as with so much else in this novel, appearances belie reality. For it is Sarath, using the commotion he has created, who spirits away Sailor’s corpse to save itand Anil from government retribution. Now she must leave the country in haste, an option not afforded Sarath, whose mangled body turns up later that day among the victims in Gamini’s hospital morgue. The endless war has claimed another victim and ended the passionate estrangement of two brothers, for whom Anil provided a tenuous link.
Ondaatje likens the image of Gamini patching up his brother’s corpse to a pietà, an image that captures the tortured reality of his country. Paradoxically, however, it is in death that these two estranged brothers are reunited:
There had never been a tunnel of light between them. Instead they had searched out and found their own dominions. Sarath in sun-drenched fields looking for astrological stones, Gamini in his medieval world of Emergency Services. Each of them most at ease, most free, when not conscious of the other.... Each refused to show hesitation and fear, it was only strength and anger they revealed when in the other’s company. The woman Anil had said... I can never understand someone by his strengths. Nothing is revealed there. I can only understand people by their weaknesses.
And no one wins a civil war through weakness.
But the last word of this novel belongs to none of these three; that is reserved for Ananda who returns to his ritual work. Thieves have blown up a massive, 120- foot-high statue of the Buddha in a fruitless search for treasure. Ananda gathers the local villagers to restore the statue that is to be matched by a new one constructed a mile away. In recognition, he is again given the honor of completing the new statue by painting on the eyes, without which it is not the Buddha.
Perched on a ladder, aided by a young assistant, Ananda faces away from the statue, chiseling out the eyes and painting them through a mirror, for no mortal can meet the Buddha’s gaze directly. What he sees is what the Buddha will see: all the fibres of natural history around him.... He could feel each current of wind...every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud. There was a girl moving in the forest. The rain miles away blowing like blue dust towards him.
And then there are the birds whose tiniest of hearts...beating exhausted and fast remind him of his murdered wife in the vacuum of her disappearance. A small brave heart. In the heights she loved and in the dark she feared. But Ondaatje does not end with this panoptic vision; instead, he leaves us, as a sign of hope, something far closer and more tactile: He felt the boy’s concerned hand in his. This sweet touch from the world.