Michael Ondaatje is a prize-winning author of fiction and poetry, and in my opinion, a terrific writer. His novel The English Patient is one of my all-time top 10 books. Born in Sri Lanka, he migrated to Canada in 1962. His main character, Anil, also spends time in the West, returning to Sri Lanka during the politically unstable period around 1990. Shes a forensic expert working for a human rights organisation. Accompanied by an archaeologist, she discovers a fresh corpse interred in an ancient grave site. This is not remarkable; fresh corpses are turning up all over the island. Government agents and two different insurgent groups are waging a hideous civil war; assassination, kidnapping and torture are rife.
Ondaatje has always been interested in peoples jobs, especially those whose work is difficult or traumatic. Anil and the exhausted medics she meets throw themselves into their labour, trying to cope with the unending stream of victims.
In the middle of all the carnage, Ondaatje also writes about love. All his characters carry emotional wounds, as spiritually damaged as the amputees they minister to. He is particularly perceptive when describing womens responses. I never wanted to marry a Biggles, says Anil. I always wanted to marry a tinker. I love that word...
Sri Lanka is evoked as a mysterious, Eden-like place, utterly devastated by violence and chaos. Ondaatje has intense compassion for all of the lives ruined by the fighting. Politics barely come into it; this is about small human tragedies, the individuals behind the massacre statistics. As a forensic scientist, Anil is adept at conjuring the details of life from the mundane scraps we leave at death.
Ondaatje looks at the particular horrors of the Sri Lankan crisis and relates them to universal issues: How do the witnesses of atrocities keep their sanity? How do we keep experiencing love in all its tiny details when surrounded by death and evil? And most of all, why does it keep happening? Who sent a 13-year-old to fight, and for what furious cause? For an old leader? For some pale flag?
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.
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