[(essay date January 2006) In the essay below, Kanaganayakam argues that Anil's Ghost presents a careful balance between artistic detachment and political engagement, and contends that differing perceptions of the author's treatment of these elements have led to widely divergent responses between Western and Sri Lankan critics, with the former expressing mostly favorable reactions and the latter bestowing primarily negative ones.]
The echoes of Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley that my title invokes are, in some senses, deliberate, since there are striking similarities between the situations in which The Defence of Poesie (1595) and A Defence of Poetry (1821, published 1840) were written and the complex political and literary backdrop that frames Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000). Sidney's argument offers a taxonomy of the arts and sciences in order to establish the supremacy of poetry. The abstraction of poetry is turned into a sign of strength as Sidney discusses the limitations of disciplines that merely document and quantify. Shelley's essay, written more than two centuries later, traverses similar ground by exalting the imaginative strength of poetry without jettisoning its social and moral function. Both were written during times of heightened political activity when there were several attempts to reiterate the significance of the arts. Sidney and Shelley assert that poets may well rely on vision and emotion, but they remain, to use Shelley's famous phrasing, "unacknowledged legislators of the world." In a general sense, the opposition between a socially conscious literature and a form of art that is aesthetically complete but distanced from social or political realities has been the subject of recurrent debates, including the well-known exchange between Salvador Lopez and Gabriel Garcia Villa concerning the role and significance of literature in the Philippines.1
Anil's Ghost compels a reopening of the debate over literature's relation to politics through its overt preoccupation with a complex political backdrop, as well as a carefully articulated ambivalence about its project. Ondaatje's decision to write a so-called political novel is obviously a deliberate one, and the critical responses to it have been unexpectedly diverse. The multiple analyses advanced by critics have specific implications for the evaluation of Sri Lankan fiction in particular and for postcolonial literatures in general. Over the last decade, Sri Lankan writing has been, for the most part, driven by politics, and Ondaatje's intervention needs to be seen as a significant attempt to champion a particular stance. This [essay] argues that, far from being biased, orientalist or otherwise irresponsible, Ondaatje's novel charts new territory by establishing a careful balance between political engagement and aesthetic distance.
That said, it can be argued that there is no real urgency to defend Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. Despite its political content and its provocative subject matter, it did not invite the kind of censorship and public outcry occasioned by the works of Salman Rushdie. It did not even arouse the kind of controversy that Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy did.2 In fact, the opposite is true. For almost a whole year the novel was on...