Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Anil's Ghost: Allegory Of Enlightenment

"The reason for war was war"
Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost can be read as an attempt to address the jagged dichotomy that separates the universal from the particular, or in the lexicon of the novel, the international from the local. Anil Tissera is a forensic anthropologist from Sri Lanka who was educated abroad in the US and Britain and has returned home to begin working on a UN funded investigation into human rights abuses. She arrives in Sri Lanka at dawn, literally the lightening of the world, or the enlightenment. She is 33-years-old, the same age Jesus was at his crucifixion. She is about to embark on a journey that will leave her frequently disorientated as she tries to adjust to her place of (re)birth.

(c/o The Guardian)
Anil represents Kant’s notion of the sensus communis in her capacity as a United Nations envoy tasked with investigating war crimes using the instruments of universal justice. Her challenger is Sri Lanka, the obstacle embodying Jacques Rancière's concept of the "distribution of the sensible." Local customs, beliefs and relationships fragment the assumption of a sensus communis by sinking Kant’s transcendental method into immanent context. At the heart of this event is Anil. She is local and international, subjective and objective, immanent and transcendent.

(Squares with Concentric Circles, Wassily Kandinsky)
Rancière’s "radical egalitarianism" is also at play in the novel's attempt to have local issues addressed by native Sri Lankans. This is why Anil was chosen for the job, we are told, because she was born in Sri Lanka. The hierarchy of the UN is supplanted as a local sense of order is imposed from the bottom up, not the top down. However, on closer inspection this is merely a hollow gesture as Anil is actually hired by bureaucrats in Geneva.

Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic is also relevant. Sri Lanka can be read as an untamed wilderness that the UN, with instrumental logic and reason, is attempting to subdue through its notions of universal justice. Rather than allow Sri Lanka to mend itself and discover an alternative justice (and thus undermine UN authority) it must be brought into the fold, or the jurisdiction of the international system of human rights law.

(Guantanamo, Amas, Amat, Rita Duffy)
Onaadtje has avoided any easy conclusions. Anil’s relationship is not only with Sri Lanka; it is also with Sarath, a forty-nine-year-old widowed archeologist from Colombo who is assigned to work with her. Is this a strategy on the part of Ondaatje to suggest that others often introduce variables (love?) into our lives that can upset the most controlled of experiments?

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