Of Skeletons and Statues: The Body as Trace and Site of Inscription in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost

Auteur / Author: 
Patricia SIMONSON (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Colombie)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 8:30


Ondaatje’s novel is a dense web of traces and imprints which are meant to be read, like the clues in a detective story, as the metonymic fragments of an absent whole which the protagonists, at the peril of their lives, must recreate. The author interweaves the public and the private, the present and the past, the “real” and the imaginary, in his pairing of archaeology and forensic anthropology: the dead bodies and skeletons resulting from the Sri Lankan civil war are traces of a concealed whole, as well as sites of fragmentary inscription (old or recent wounds, the imprints of past experience left on the bones, are clues to the victim’s fate and identity: the bodies become texts requiring interpretation). At the same time, the ancient bone fragments, the rock paintings and cuneiform inscriptions, the ruins used by archaeologists to conjure up lost civilizations, constantly merge with the human death and mutilation taking place in present-day Sri Lanka. These two levels are interwoven with the stories of the main characters, stories of personal loss and desire left unsatisfied by the disappearance of its object. The result is a reflection on the human being’s response to violence and loss, and on the ability of art to negotiate between the need to forget and the need to remember. Like the Amnesty International lists of times and places of disappearances — like the garment recalled by a relative as what the victim wore on that day — the book itself is a trace of these missing people; it is also the imprint of a sensorial reality which it can only attempt to conjure up. The body is the other of the text; the text is the ghost of immediate experience, a remnant and a talisman, exorcism and invocation. Like the mirror required by Ondaatje’s artist to paint on the eyes of the Buddha — the last touch which makes the plaster image sacred, and which therefore must not be seen directly by human eyes — it points to something that can only be guessed at in fragmentary form or in fleeting visions of wholeness. In this sense, the fragments and traces which are the book’s most pervading motifs are keys to the writer’s own poetics.