[(essay date January-April 2004) In the following essay, Ratti explores Ondaatje's utilization of the language of universal human rights as both a structuring and an artistic force in Anil's Ghost, concentrating particularly on how the novelist demonstrates the difficulties inherent in speaking of human rights in terms of ethical, political, global, or personal matters when faced with the specific circumstances of a nation state populated by hybrid ethnicities and beset by ongoing violence.]
Violence draws on people's capacity to serve a cause greater than themselves, so sacrifice for the common good, to put their individual welfare at the service of the nation and the people. And these are the noblest parts of the human soul. When exploited by these terrible people, when exploited by demagogues, they turn into a nightmare that can destroy society. But unless you understand that the appeal of violence is to that something deep and noble in the human heart that desires something bigger than yourself, you cannot understand violence at all.Michael Ignatieff "Nationalism and Self-Determination"
How can we not want human rights?1 The question may seem ethically intuitive, perhaps even prima facie naїve in a world where injustices and violations continue to expand with sobering, alarming inexorability. But the challenge to my opening question is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the implementation of human rights legislation is no simple affair. The seeming universality of their ethical intuitiveness--the rights fought for through civil liberties movements and encoded in such treaties as the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions--strikes crudely against their judicial enforcement to particular, differing cultural and state contexts. Who makes decisions about intervention? How is intervention received? Words such as the Sri Lankan "ethnic war" or "interethnic conflict" have tremendous emotive resonances, urging ethically-motivated responses from those within and without Sri Lanka. For a novelist like Michael Ondaatje, who left Sri Lanka at age 19 and has been living in Canada now for four decades, the island nation-state demands a special attention and responsibility. Ondaatje has written "to" Sri Lanka through his 1982 memoir, Running in the Family, his 1998 collection of poems, Handwriting, and most recently in 2000, through his latest novel, Anil's Ghost, the first novel-length treatment through which Ondaatje, in realist mode, represents Sri Lanka. The protagonist, Anil, is a forensic anthropologist, a diasporic Sri Lankan based in the U.S. and educated in the U.K. who returns to Sri Lanka as part of a United Nations-sponsored human rights intervention to investigate the role of the government in the continuing violence and terror that has now devastated Sri Lanka for more than two decades.
Anil's "in-between" location facilitates the ethical problematic reflecting Ondaatje's diasporic nationalist concerns: what is Sri Lanka, how can it be represented? It is precisely in that process of representation where there can be a rich convergence between human rights as a politico-legal discourse, the aesthetic space of the novel form, and the historical condition of postcolonial Sri Lanka. What, indeed, is the violence and terror...