Anil's Ghost

Structure and strategies

Personal anecdotes

Anil’s Ghost follows a unique structure in which the novel is divided into eight sections: "Sarath", "Grove of Ascetics", "A Brother", "Ananda", "The Mouse", "Between Heartbeats", "The Life Wheel", and "Distance". Each section corresponds to a narrative that deals primarily with a specific subject or character as denoted by the section’s title. For example, the section titled "The Mouse" focuses on Gamini. Additionally, most of the sections are introduced by an italicized personal anecdote about one of the characters related or unrelated to the section. Characters or events are introduced although the actual novel’s narrative will not discuss them until later sections. Events from the past are usually unaddressed by the novel and are described within these anecdotes. Most of the anecdotes are told by a third person narrator from the perspective of one of the characters. This creates a sense of urgency for the individual experiences depicted in the anecdotes that lies in contrast to the rest of the novel. The sense of urgency expressed in the anecdotes mirrors the urgency of individuals involved in the war who remain voiceless victims of war crimes. They all have individual stories of their own related to the war that remain untold.

Absence of numbers

In the Sri Lankan civil war not only victims remained unidentified, therefore the time and date are unknown, but the enemy or assailant also remained unknown, similar to the lack of numerical information that is presented in the book. By omitting factual information (in this case, numbers) this novel may also reach a wider audience, making it more relatable without specifics and conveying the message that this type of war can occur anywhere so long as the details and individuals are neglected.

An exception to this practice is the inclusion of a list of the disappeared victims as an italicized introduction to a section. The list contains names, times, dates, and place of disappearance for numerous victims. That technique serves as foreshadowing for the future identification of Sailor and is also parallel to the awareness about the Sri Lankan civil war being raised by the text.


One of the important symbols in the novel is the skeleton that Anil and Sarath try to identify, Sailor. Sailor’s skeleton is the only real evidence that Anil has that would implicate the government in the murder. Sailor serves as a symbol for all of the nameless victims of the civil war. Like the countless victims, Sailor has been burned beyond recognition and his identity has been lost. His remains serve as the only clue that Anil and Sarath have to bring justice to the victims. Anil and Sarath’s fight to identify Sailor is a fight to bring a voice to stop war.

Another symbol is Ananda’s reconstructed head of Sailor. Ananda sculpts Sailor’s head into a peaceful expression, symbolic of the peace that Ananda wishes for his wife and for the rest of his country. The juxtaposition between the tranquil looking head and its decapitated state is also symbolic of the chaos and death that surrounds Sri Lanka. At once Ananda wishes for peace, and yet no matter how much he tries, that peace is artificial. The reconstructed head at the same time can be seen as the naming of victims: "There was a serenity in the face she did not see too often these days. There was no tension. A face comfortable with itself." [1]

Finally, Anil and Sarath are able, with Ananda's help, to bring a voice to the victim: "[T]his head was not just how someone possibly looked, it was a specific person. It revealed a distinct personality, as real as the head of Sarath."[1]

Other things are repeatedly mentioned, but it is unclear what they symbolise. Birds are referred to at every possible opportunity. Prawns are also frequently referenced when describing bodies of water, the occupations of people and when characters order meals in restaurants.

Religious symbols

Religious statues in Anil’s Ghost are representative of the Sri Lankan people’s struggle during the war.

Buddha's eyes and "sight" were important. Similarly, so long as Sri Lankans and westerners alike do not open their eyes and acknowledge the war and take a stand against the violations of human rights there will be no progress. There will be nothing. No name for victims, no identification of the enemy. The destruction will continue and human existence will be hindered.

Furthermore, there are continual allusions in the text to Michelangelo's Pietà, most notably in the woman at the beginning of the novel, who bends over the grave of her husband and her brother and Anil has the grief of her "shoulder" burned into her mind. This image is reflected later in the novel, when Gamini dresses his Sarath's wounds, even though he is already dead. This recurring Christian imagery contrasts strongly with the traditions inherent in crime writing of this nature, in which a sole detective is given the property of a divine sense of justice. Rather, in this text, the divinity is spread among all the victims of the civil war in Sri Lanka, such that, rather than focusing on the process of solving the crime, Ondaatje focuses on the suffering and grief of the victims of an almost universal criminality.

There are also allusions to Adam & Eve through her contact with her brother. Early in her life Anil traded her name for her brother's middle name in exchange for sexual favours.

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