[(essay date 2003) In the essay below, Burton examines the relationship in Anil's Ghost between history and material evidence--specifically bone fragments--noting how the novel explores the rupture between Western, "rational" approaches to epistemology and alternative ways of "knowing," particularly those ways prevalent in a country brutalized by government-sponsored acts of murder.]
A good archaeologist can read a bucket of soil as if it were a complex historical novel.(Michael Ondaatje, Anil's Ghost)
In an era when the echo-chambers of cyberspace have given a whole new dimension to the concept of the archive, the extent to which the evidence of bones has become grounds for thinking through the violence of history is quite remarkable. To some degree, recourse to the materiality of human history is a fairly predictable response to the unprecedented havoc and destruction wreaked by twentieth-century wars, whether in the form of local hostilities or the global conflicts entailed by them. What is left in the wake of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Srebrenica, Ayodhya, Colombo, Basra, 9/11, and Tora Bora is, effectively, the detritus of history: fragments and shards, ashes and dust, rag and bone. From these unspeakable remnants forensic scientists have laboured to extract the kinds of testimony that living witnesses often cannot, despite and of course because of the pathos of their memories, provide: objective and verifiable evidence of criminal intent which becomes, in turn, the basis for the pursuit of justice in local, national and international tribunals. The recent spate of histories of forensic science is one indication of the grasp that the archive of bones has had on the imagination of the late twentieth century. As Roy Porter, the late historian of science and medicine, observed, "living as we do in a world of doubt and disinformation, the technical wizardry of forensic science offers a rare promise of certainty".1
Debates about the relative merits of a positivist approach to history are a staple of postcolonial studies and criticism, often with very real political consequences, as recent work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa testifies.2 There, the Commission "deliberately chose to wrestle with ... notions of truth in relation to factual or forensic truth" and produced a nation-wide public debate about the nature of citizenship after apartheid in the process.3 Such a project is tied to "making public memory, publicly" and as such it often pits conventional forms of knowledge about the past (History) against the claims of groups typically disenfranchized by dominant regimes of truth who are also seeking political rights.4 It is this contest between the alleged certainties of social and physical science and the claims of "other knowledges" that Michael Ondaatje engages in his novel, Anil's Ghost (2000)--offering us not just a narrative about the dangers of excessive faith in empiricism ("hard" evidence), but a reflection on the continued possibility of History itself as an exclusively western epistemological form. The story takes place in contemporary Sri Lanka: up until now, a site Ondaatje has used in his...