Justice and the Pathos of Understanding in Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost

By Kertzer, Jon | English Studies in Canada, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Justice and the Pathos of Understanding in Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost


Kertzer, Jon, English Studies in Canada


ONE OF THE MOST HORRIFIC IMAGES IN MICHAEL ONDAATJE'S NOVEL Anil's Ghost, presents a truck driver, Gunesena, crucified to the tarmac on a country road in Sri Lanka (111). The scene summons one of European culture's most revered symbols, but leaves the reader baffled as to its significance in a land where Christianity is superseded by older myths written in an alphabet in which the words "beautiful" and "dangerous" differ only by a single syllable (192). (1) Although it is easy to see that the crucifixion is ironic, it is difficult to trace the convolutions of that irony. As an emblem of redemption through suffering, Christ's ecstatic agony on the cross is itself dangerously beautiful, whereas Gunesena is tortured according to the "mad logic" (186) of a political terror without clear cause, purpose or value. There is no sense to it, yet its very senselessness finds expression in a symbol whose meaning is sanctioned by centuries of devotion. "[E]ven crucifixion isn't a major assault nowadays" (130), remarks Gamini, the doctor who extracts the nails many hours later, as if Christ's fate hardly deserves notice in an undeclared civil war that over the last seventeen years has cost more than 60,000 lives in seventeen years (Globe and Mail, May 23, 2000, A14). (2) What does it mean to use a symbol by casting it adrift from its conventional moorings?

My purpose here is to examine how Ondaatje moors and unmoors meaning in Anil's Ghost in a manner that I will call pathetic. The pathos arises not just from his skill in eliciting sympathy for a tormented nation, but from his evocation of a vexed understanding within a literary ethic that both encourages and baffles the pursuit of justice. He writes one kind of novel in the guise of another, so that what seems to be a familiar murder mystery, in which truth is discoverable and justice prevails, turns into something far more troubling. Similarly, he does not offer a political novel of the sort that maps out a political milieu, debates social ideas, or even bothers to distinguish between the warring factions, apart from mentioning a brutal government fighting guerrillas in the north and insurgents in the south (42). (3) One reviewer was so irritated by the lack of "hard information about Sri Lanka" that she condemned the characters as utterly self-absorbed and the style as "empty claptrap" (Allen 63). While knowledgeable readers can probably supply names and dates, (4) Ondaatje exhibits no such interest, just as the exhausted doctors in his tale do not pause to identify the mutilated bodies that they tend day after day (243). They are only concerned with healing, as in a sense is he, although he never prescribes any social remedy that might heal Sri Lanka's wounds. Instead, as he has remarked in several interviews, he prefers to make a "reconnaissance" of fragmentary experiences and images that gradually gain mythic significance (Bush 242, also Wachtel 256, Smith 69). In the case of Gunesena's pierced palms, however, the myth is obvious but its significance is not. Accordingly, I begin with the near at hand.

Touch

To readers familiar with Ondaatje's writing, Gunesena's misfortune may recall the torture of Caravaggio, whose thumbs are cut off in The English Patient; or the obsession with fingers expressed by the young gunfighter-poet in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid; or the "[s]uicide of the hands" suffered by jazz cornetist, Buddy Bolden, in Coming Through Slaughter (49). Although vision is the most common metaphor for understanding ("I see what you mean," "clarity of thought," etc.) (5), Ondaatje often prefers the sense of touch, using hands to express all that is tactile and textured in human perception. Hands evoke our grasp of the heft of being: how we fumble with the cumbersome foreignness of things even as we caress them into human shape through work and art. (6) The sheer physicality of the world is at once within our reach and beyond our grasp; it is an impenetrable body that is also the source of sustenance. …

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