Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.
Still the book is not a straightforward one; it moves forward more by impressions and feelings than by the logic of a tight plot. I see that as a characteristic of the novel, though, not a flaw. The story briefly is this. Anil Tissera, a forensic specialist working for an international human rights organization, is accepted for a mission in Sri Lanka, the country of her birth, which has been rocked by Civil War and insurgency for many years. Sri Lanka, where ghastly killing has been taking place by leftist rebels, separatist insurgents—and by the government, it is suspected. She is assigned to work with Sarath, an archeologist who works mainly on ancient ruins and whom she doesn’t quite trust because he works for the government. Other characters that matter are (1) Sarath’s brother Gamini, a doctor who never leaves the Emergency Department of Colombo’s main hospital, who works constantly treating victims of bombings and other violence, snatching an hour of sleep here and there in a ward or waiting room, himself living on drugs, (2) Palipano an old archeologist turned monk, almost blind and near death to who advises them and (3) Ananda, an eye-painter whose job is to paint the face—and ultimately the eyes—on all Buddha statues and who helps with the reconstruction of a skeleton Anil and Sarath think may prove the government’s participation in the terror.
It’s at an archeological site, one with old corpses, that they discover the relatively new skeletons, and because the area’s been exclusively guarded by government troops, Anil thinks if they can actually identify one of them, they may be able to bring a case for government atrocities. There are four skeletons which they dub Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Sailor. It is Sailor that they elect to work on. There’s a mystery plot in how that effort turns out. Ananda is found to “reconstruct” the skull. Anil’s forensic training eventually locates the man as a worker in a nearby gem mine.
There are other threads to the story. Sarath and Anil form a good working partnership, though we see it primarily from her side, realize she is attracted to him and suspicious of him at the same time. He doesn’t let her close, acknowledges he’s married but doesn’t say his wife is dead. A visit to the brother turns up the story of how Gamini had loved Sarath’s wife even before she married him, how he tended to her in hospital when she tried suicide. Gamini tired but couldn't save her. There’s also the story of the man Anil and Sarath find crucified to the tarmac on the road, who is rescued and becomes Sarath’s driver. And that of the neurologist in private practice who is kidnapped by rebels and made to work in their jungle hospital—and who is curious to discover that he enjoys the life. There are horrors piled on horrors which describe the atrocities, both those occurring in the present as well as those discovered in the recent and not so recent past.
Then too come the recurring bits of Anil’s past life in the West (she’d left Sri Lanka at 18 or so and once her parents were dead had not returned). She had a husband briefly in London, a married lover in the US and a female lover. These parts are much easier to follow than what goes on in Sri Lanka, but possibly not all that relevant. Who Anil is and what she does (acting the Westerner to those she deals with in Sri Lanka) is important to the novel, but I’m not so sure about her past, except as it assures us she is thoroughly Westernized in her thinking. In my first attempts to read the novel, though, I focused on that Western past as at least not so hard to follow.
But Sarath is probably the most interesting character in the book, a morally interesting character, far more complex than Anil. Palipano, the monk and advisor, says, "Sareth is not a random man. He does what he does for a reason." Anil doesn't really understand that, if she does at all, until the story is over and she is, persumably, safely out of Sri Lanka, but away from Sarath.
I saw a film once called The Terrorist which was about a Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. It focused on the group’s attempts to kill a leader by suicide bomber (possibly the same leader who died in a suicide bombing in the novel which may—I regret my ignorance of Sri Lankan history—be modeled on an actual occurrence). In the film they try to recruit a young girl whose brother was martyred, and she struggles to do what she’s told is patriotic but at the last minute changes her mind and simply gives the leader the flowers without detonating the bomb. The atmosphere of that film and this novel are similar: an ancient land, a tropical climate, poor people with causes as well as poor people just trying to survive, drugs to make suicide bombing—and life amid the violence—easier, death all around, for the whole lives of the characters.