The Role of Space and Place in Trauma narratives, looking at Anil’s Ghost and Cereus Blooms at Night
In fiction, trauma narratives encompass a wide-ranging set of genres, styles and contexts and the two texts I am choosing for this post illustrate this point: Anil’s Ghost is rooted in a specific time and location (mid 80’s to early 90s, Sri Lanka), while Cereus is a ‘mythical’ island, a timeless and time-shifting arena that locates itself only allusively to the Caribbean. What unites these texts, however, is their status as a trauma narrative. Within that framework, both texts explore the idea that the experience of trauma destroys language along with – and because of – the separation of the ‘self’. In both texts, there is space in between words and selves – perceived as a gap or silence – that becomes a ‘place’ in-between worlds. A place that is signified, substantiated and made accessible.
In both Anil’s Ghost and Cereus, language is slippery, inconsistent and mutable, and each novel inhabits a space where words fail. In doing so, they indicate that there is something in the experience of trauma that simply cannot be ‘told’. A “hole” to use the phrase of Arthur Frank “in the telling”. Anil’s Ghost explores this by demonstrating the presence of words (several languages are referenced: Sinhalese, Tamil, English, Latin and even a ‘made-up’ language) while Cereus places its attention on their absence, and what appears in their place.
ANIL’S GHOST – MICHAEL ONDAATJE
In Anil’s Ghost, language is used as a thematic device to question the way trauma is interpreted and understood. Anil, the protagonist, is a UN forensic researcher who, returning to her birth country, Sri Lanka for the first time in fifteen years, embarks on a search with local architect Sarath for the identity of a skeleton that she believes will offer evidence of war crimes. Anil’s complex and dissociated relationship with her past is reflected in her use – or disuse – of language. This is shown at the beginning of the narrative by her unwillingness to engage with local people. When her airport driver asks “You still speak Sinhala?” she quickly closes down the conversation.
“A little, look, do you mind if I don’t talk … I’m jet-lagged.…Is Gabriel’s Saloon still there for head massages?”
Anil claims to know “a little” Sinhala, and later on she will appear unable to even say ‘thank you’ in this language. Her specific memory of a saloon seems unusually clear by comparison. Having left Sri Lanka aged eighteen, an entirely “lost language”, as the text refers to it, seems suspect, and suggests – implicitly at this stage – that losing words has been a choice.
CEREUS BLOOMS AT NIGHT – SHANI MOOTOO
Cereus Blooms At Night concerns the history of Mala, narrated by Tyler, the nurse who cares for her in present-time at an almshouse for the mad. The story of Mala’s past relates her as the daughter of Chandin, who imprisons and rapes her after his wife abandons the family. As an adult, Mala is deserted by her lover Ambrose and murders her father after a violent assault. As the house subsequently decays around her, she abandons language in favour of emulating the crickets and birds in her garden. Her narrative is interspersed with the present-time storylines of Tyler and Otoh, the son of Ambrose, who discovers Mala living outside the house while her father’s corpse rots within its walls.
Elaine Scarry, in reference to physical pain – which Larrabee et al extend also to mental – posits that the moment of trauma obliterates language; it returns the sufferer to non-verbal, unlearned “sounds and cries”. This sense of “active destruction” against language, conjures the image of words themselves being broken, scattered, and therefore punctuated by blanks. This notion partially describes Mala’s departure from speech.
“In the phase just before Mala stopped using words, lexically shaped thoughts would sprawl across her mind, fractured here and there. The cracks would be filled with images”
Here, words “sprawl” as they lose their meaning, while the “cracks” between them “fill” and take their place. This transference to image and senses leads Mala to a wordless world that changes her relationship with nature. She realises “that verbalisation…was not the feeling itself but the name given to the feeling”. Words become “an unnecessary translation”.
This is something echoed elsewhere in the text, where it is the most crucial words that escape. As a teenager, Chandin, (later Mala’s father) aims to declare his love to step-sister Lavinia, but she, “understanding his intent all too clearly”, stops him before he can speak. Many years later, Mala intuits the sexual relationship between Lavinia and her mother, Sarah, in which “she understood something . . . but . . . had no words to describe what”. Finally, when Sarah and Lavinia abandon the family, leaving Mala under the tyranny of her abusive father, the local community unite in their judgement through omission of the words themselves.
“you hear about – ?The sentence would remain unfinished, a slight flick of the head…being enough”
In constructing this pattern around a particular, chronological thread of events, the text makes explicit how, in hesitations, images and gestures, meaning is found in the gap before words.
Cathy Caruth explores this notion of temporality in respect to the traumatic experience, stating that the moment of trauma happens a ‘moment too soon’ – before the mind and body can process the event. This has the result of dissociation – a temporal displacement that, in happening before the mind ‘knows’, also exists in the space ‘before’ words can take shape. Consequently, the gaps, silences and spaces in trauma literature can be seen, at once, as between the trauma and the telling of it, between the words themselves, and between the ‘self’ – the body and mind.
The process of dissociation – a “breach in the mind” (Caruth) is not just a departure from language, but a survival strategy in which the self ‘escapes’ unharmed. In postcolonial trauma narratives – of which Anil’s Ghost and Cereus are both a part – this is often identified through the use of doubling, dualities and names. While this theory centres on the division of the self, van der Kolk and van del Hart’s observations that traumatised people exist in “two different worlds: the realm of trauma and the realm of their current ordinary life” also highlights how, by being divided, the self is paradoxically doubled – but it is not identical.
The formation of a second self is most explicitly presented in Cereus through Mala, whose childhood nickname of ‘Pohpoh’ develops into an alter-ego in her adulthood, after she has murdered her father. As Mala uses nature to recollect and rewrite her memories, Pohpoh (also Poh-poh) re-emerges as Mala’s imaginative other – the version of herself that she can protect. Through Mala’s “wove[n] memories”, a second (and former) self is also woven into form. So much so, that as the town closes in on Mala after Otoh’s discovery of her father’s body, Mala transfers her “wish that she and that Poh-poh could have been two separate people”, into a reality, indicated by the narrative shifting to Pohpoh’s perspective. In language that mirrors that of the dissociation process, a ‘self’ is shown to escape.
“Pohpoh bent her body forward, and, as though doing a breaststroke, began to part the air with her arms. Each stroke took her higher until she…soared…basking in the cloudless sky”
The allusion to a bird shows how the ‘other’ self takes flight from a situation of threat. Her ascent into air, as if swimming, adds a texture to the space she ‘flies’ in. She becomes part of the atmosphere.
Mala is not the only person in Cereus with another name. As the characters that form her story develop, the interplay of past and present selves becomes more distinct. ‘Poh-poh’s’ friend ‘Boyie’ is ‘Mala’s’ lover ‘Ambrose’, and Ambrose’s son, Otoh began life as a daughter, Ambrosia. The mutability of identity becomes a central theme in the text.
The depiction of a second self, characterised by a second name, is a device also used in Anil’s Ghost. Anil has, in the space of a physical departure from her home country, matched this with an emotional one through the development of a western identity. Renaming herself with the middle-name of her brother, Anil’s appropriation of a new identity begins while still in Sri Lanka, before she reinvented herself as Western. However, this marks the start of this journey, whilst outlining her character. Sandheep Sanghera quotes Oondatje to show how Anil is “governed by verticals”, refusing even an ‘e’ at the end of her new name as it would – in Anil’s words – make it less “taut”. Flashbacks to Anil’s crossover to Westernisation makes it clear that she shapes her life around binaries. During forensic training she “made it a point to distinguish female and male traits as clearly as possible”. When she converts to “the language of science” she commits completely to her Western lifestyle, and no “longer [speaks] “Sinhala to anyone”.
This departure is not presented as being the result of a traumatic experience, but upon her return to Sri Lanka, it is the traumatic space of others – of a nation – which she must navigate. Sri Lanka offers Anil an uncanny return to a past that she cannot access, a blank space in between her former selves, punctuated by language. The intertwining of the splitting of the self (Caruth) with a splintering in language (Scarry) draws further attention to the blanks and gaps that sit between these various fragments. There seems to be not only a gap in between words, but a space in between ‘selves’.
Quoting the holocaust writer L. Langer, van der Kolk et al opine that, rather than a “split or a doubling”, these selves exist in a “parallel existence” that results in “a permanent duality” because of the inability to “bridge” these worlds. What if, however, it is these very gaps, or blanks that are the bridge, the vessels that carry meaning before words?
THE INVISIBLE WORLD
In Anil’s Ghost, Lakma, the orphaned niece of Palipana (a now blind epigraphist who Anil and Sarath visit as part of their quest) is one of the characters who makes this concept explicit. As with Mala, language is presented as a type of violation.
“The shock of the murder of the girl’s parents… had touched everything within her, driving both her verbal and her motor ability into infancy…She wanted nothing more to invade her”
This muteness gains value in that she becomes the ‘eyes’ of her Uncle. Loss of voice and vision bind them together in an almost psychic communication, in which “what she did in proximity to him was now a part of the invisible world”.
Mala and Lakma’s non-verbal natures share common ground here in that they become a landscape of alterity. This gap, or blank of speech contains a ‘world’. This “invisible world” has a host of meanings across both novels. In Anil’s Ghost, there are many ways in which invisibility and disappearance interconnect, beginning at the point of the text itself. In the use of blank spaces, silence and fragmented narrative, the text occupies itself structurally and physically with ghosts. Marriages “evaporate”, Palipana’s name is erased from the encyclopedia, people, memories and place-names are subject to dissolving. Even Anil herself vanishes: absent from the final chapters of the book, she literally fades from the story.
Meanwhile, the text draws attention to the unheard and the disappeared through splintered vignettes that feature the tales of those who are captured, tortured, or murdered in a cloak of darkness and silence. In a Human Rights inquiry such as the one Anil is undertaking, the text makes clear that “there is always someone paying attention”. The space of silence or speechlessness is ‘invisible’, but not empty. It turns the nothing of a blank space into something that moves, thinks and shifts.
Returning to Lakma, her place and part in the ‘invisible world’ is emphasised in a moment where she looks ahead to Palipana’s death and considers how he will be remembered.
“She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock…She had chiselled it where the horizon of water was, so that, depending on tide and pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above the reflection or be revealed in both elements”
It is here that the sense of the mythical and the ancient – the old and hidden – is conjured, bringing to mind the “buried senses” of Anil’s childhood, the subterranean ‘other’ of stories, emotions and sounds that lurk beneath, and, at the same time, linger above; “submerge or hang”. Carving inscriptions on to stone, Lakma engages with this world, one that can only be known by the movements of moonlight and sea.
LIGHT, SHIMMER AND SHADE
The presence of this space in Cereus is similarly signalled by light and shade. Mala’s first creation of an alternative imaginary is through the formation of “soft edged shadows” making animal figures to entertain her sister Asha. Later, waking in a room full of “shafts of dusty light…glittery dust particles that rose and fell like waves” the sisters prepare for a day of “momentary escape”. Asha watches Mala move.
“[Mala’s] skin… changed from silhouette dark to brass to gold as she glided in and out of the shaft of dancing light…“You look like Mama” she whispered reverently”
In this magical setting, Mala is a ghostly figure, a reincarnation, repetition and recalling of their ‘lost’ mother. Light therefore draws attention to a film-like layer in the atmosphere, something ethereal and transitory. The text invokes a sense of hush, heightening this notion of the unearthly and fragile. Many years later, it is in a similar shaft of light, set off by the ruined state of the house, that Mala repeatedly re-witnesses the scene of Sarah and Lavinia’s desertion.
“She opened her eyes …to see the jagged piece of galvanized iron ignite like a brilliant sparkler… Mammy, Asha, Poh Poh, Lavinia. The rumbling of a buggy…A shaft of harsh light poured through the gash in the roof”
This flashback, described as a moment in which “time would collapse”, is conveyed again as something spectral, arriving and departing with “no trace” when the light changes. This particular stream of light seems to shine on the memory as if, trapped in a different dimension, the moment continues to play out.
The earlier description of “dust particles” in the air shows that it is this suspension, or ‘hanging’ in the air that the light reveals. Light becomes the signifier of a liminal space, the literal illumination of the invisible in-between, and the lens to show what this space contains – its substance. The motif suggests that there is somewhere, some type of ‘place’, where the traumatised consciousness – what Elaine Scarry calls the “etching into the brain” – can find form.
NATURE, AIR, BREATH
Memory – or in Caruth’s terms, history – is signified in other forms of nature. Both Anil’s Ghost and Cereus bring out the status of the natural world as a moving, living thing. Air as a carrier of something that exists invisibly between states can be read into the breeze that travels through the window of Ambrose/Boyie’s bedroom. It is the same air through which the scent of the cereus plant “flow[s] across town” and from the stench of decay in Mala’s garden it transports “the aroma of life refusing to end”. According to Donna McCormack, scent is “the body’s way of remembering”, but here, in its function as something carried by the wind, it is also a sensory, recognisable touch or signal from the invisible in-between, where this memory resides. In Anil’s Ghost it is the rumble of “thunder far away” and the “black shift of the sea”. Palipana, who is described as having “history…ever-present around him” is portrayed as tilting his head “as if trying to catch whatever was passing in the air”. In the story, Palipana fittingly appears as the gatekeeper to this space. Described as having worked “to eliminate the borders and categories, to find everything in one landscape”, his career dissolved when…
“he thought he finally saw the half-perceived interlineal texts. As letters and words began to disappear under his fingers and from his eyesight, he felt something else, the way those who are colour-blind are used to see through camouflage…to see the existing structure of the figure”
These “interlineal” texts, untraceable to his community, are deemed “a trick on the world” and he is branded a fraud. Palipana’s ambiguous character, in this reading, asserts itself as an interpreter and inhabitant of the invisible in-between – “a step to another reality”. As such, he initiates Anil’s journey into an admittance of – and to – the non-binaries that govern the space. He also introduces her to Ananda, an artist who can help identify the skeleton by recreating its face. Going with Ananda and Sarath to an old tea plantation building, Anil encounters a place where the ruins of ancient history are layered over each other, moving, shifting and hinting of the invisible in-between through hidden “creatures that scurr[y]” or a “twist of something silver”.
It is here that Anil begins a transformation that allows her to engage with this space. Built around the aesthetic of light and shade, the text symbolically situates her under a “tree bent like an Aeolion harp” in a half-light that scatters “a hundred variations of shadow textures onto the sandy earth”. These “variations” of light and touch (“texture”) again raise this idea of a parallel dimension in constant motion, illuminated by a shift in the atmosphere. Furthermore, it moves the trauma-dissociation model from dualisms to plurality: Anil is learning that there are multiple facets of seeing, being and knowing. Meanwhile, the allusion to the Aoelian harp (an instrument that is played by the wind) attributes a musicality to the natural world, one that is orchestrated by the air.
In Cereus, Mala’s affiliation with nature is also described in musical terms. She senses “the tenor of the vibration” of insects and witnesses “the slow dance of huge, white cereus buds”. Her attunement to this is indicative of her heightened sensitivity to the invisible in-between, and how she too, is becoming part of it – suspended in a space with its own rhythm and time, her “figure all but lost” in nature. Nature as a form of music therefore summons the sense of the polyvocal, showing the air to be where things (sounds, voices, histories) mingle and collide.
McCormack’s reference to James Baldwin’s association between temporality and music, which she uses in relation to Cereus, is relevant for both texts here. Baldwin says:
Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognises, changes and conquers time. Then history becomes a garment we can wear and share… and time becomes a friend
In this quote, Baldwin is referring to the transportive act of listening to or participating in music. This transformation from one state to another resonates with a scene in Anil’s Ghost, which documents Anil “dancing to a furious love song that can drum out [the] loss” of a former lover. Beginning with “Anil moves in silence”, and making it clear that the music is “brutal and loud in her head” (through earphones) the text suggests she moves soundlessly, but also in something. In this space, Anil seeks to “eject herself out of her body like an arrow”, entering a “state” of being in which, tellingly, she is “invisible to herself”.
In Cereus, Otoh also – unwittingly – uses music to enter this space when he visits Mala in her garden, dressed in his father’s clothes. Playing songs (on his father’s gramophone) to which she and Ambrose used to dance, “Otoh and Mala [become] locked into each other’s gaze”. Through music, Otoh has summoned a world, a memory that he becomes “locked into”, and it is within this suspended dimension, with Mala mistaking Otoh for Ambrose, that they dance. Mala moves to this memory, “humming and dipping and sliding to the fast-paced melody” while Otoh, “outside of himself” can only be moved by her, as she spins “them both around and around”. Through music, Otoh becomes “witness to her past” by creating a channel to the ever-present space this past inhabits. This is why, when the music stops, Mala “continues to hum and sing”.
By contrast, in Anil’s Ghost, it is Anil who stops, and thus exits the space, while the “music continues…like blood moving for a few more minutes in a dead man”, an allusion that underlines the fusing of her body with the sound. Here, “every muscle in herself” is called upon to release its grief. Exiting this space, she “witnesses her brain coming back, lighting its candle in the dark”. She “breathes in and breathes out”, thus contributing her past to the air, the polyvocal invisible in-between.
ART, IMAGE, REPLICATION
Music is just one form of art that preoccupies both novels. In Cereus, Mala’s garden is a type of artistic, creative canvas. In Anil’s Ghost, it is the body, the face, conveyed as art through the inclusion of sculpture. Anil and Sarath employ the sculptor Ananda to replicate the face of the skeleton whose identity they are seeking, but in an almost literal act of prosopopoeia, Ananda’s recreation of the skeleton’s ‘face’ reveals something ‘other’ and conveys somewhere else. Light and shadow is again thematically incorporated – the face comes alive under the flickering firelight, and Anil realises she is looking at the face of Ananda’s dead wife – a victim of war. In seeking to recreate a truth and a history, Ananda’s art taps into what John Thieme calls the “archive of violence”, creating a memorial to the unspeakable, the invisible, and the ‘lost’. Commenting on its tranquil expression, Sarath explains to Anil, “it’s what he wants of the dead”. This moment – only visible through the half-light of candles – unlocks Anil’s dissociation, and she weeps. In the midst of this, Ananda, who had “gone”, seems to materialise out of the air.
Her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she could see…Ananda standing still, looking through the blackness at her
In Ananda’s conversion from invisible to visible, the act of Anil’s eyes adjusting to the darkness could be read as a sign that she is also adjusting and “becoming accustomed to” the interlineal layers that exist in between the binaries, suspended in the air and the light. The next morning, awake before dawn, she registers how the courtyard is “a layer lighter”.
LIMINAL, NON-BINARY LANDSCAPES AND PEOPLE
In Cereus, Tyler is shown as able to enter a similar space – and perhaps be representative of it – due to his status as “neither properly man nor woman” but “some in-between, unnamed thing”. He is also adept at understanding the unsaid. He knows “there to be malice …[behind] the flattery” of his fellow nurses for example, for “the edge of mockery was plain to anyone who must…learn to detect it”. His dismissal of words even extends to the reader, who he instructs to “imagine [his] giddiness”, inviting them to fill the gaps where “even superlatives would be useless”. Otoh, meanwhile, is the child of parents who have binary existences. While Ambrose takes “month-long slumbers”, his wife, isolated by his emotional attachment to Mala “refuse[s] to sleep or even to blink her eyes”. Existing between them, and transforming from their daughter ‘Ambrosia’ to a boy, Otoh’s adopted second-self name means “on the one hand…but on the other”.
As interstitial figures, these characters act as mediators for those who cannot or will not ‘see’. This includes Ambrose, whose love of “words and phrases” ironically means that, when he and Mala were lovers, he could not “understand the things she couldn’t say”. Like his past-self, Boyie, he seems only able to “[scratch] the soil with the tip of his shoe”.
Mala’s aborted shared world with Ambrose is later entered into by Tyler. Like the almshouse gardener, who “digs at the soft earth”, Tyler is able to go beyond the surface by reading through and between. When the bedroom “door close[s] between [him and Mala]” as he leaves her for the evening, the text implies a parallel, metaphorical doorway, which will admit him into Mala’s invisible world. That this is a ‘place’ is anchored in the text; Tyler likens himself to “an explorer charting her life in murky, unmapped waters”. His attunement to Mala’s world of “bird and cricket and frog imitations” affiliates him to the sounds of the natural world. Accordingly, she calls “only loud enough for [him] to hear”, the implicit suggestion being that others do not know how to listen. As such, Mala’s growls, cries, gestures and mutterings result in a “secret camaraderie” that keeps them “fortified against the world”.
In both Anil’s Ghost and Cereus, access to this space is initiated by touch. Tyler uses his hands to convey a gesture of safety to Mala whilst also using touch to gather information. He “[wraps his] hand around the ball of her arm”, holds her, “smooths her hair” and as Vivian May puts it, “senses her humanity”.
In Anil’s Ghost, there is a silent touch between Anil and Ananda when, as Anil weeps after witnessing the prosopopoeiac ‘head’ of the skeleton, Ananda “crease[s] away the pain around her eye…His left hand lay on her shoulder as tenderly and formally as [a] nurse”. Whilst this explicitly casts touch as a method of healing, the text also raises it as a type of conversation. Although Anil feels “as if hers too was a face being sculpted” she can “tell” without words “that wasn’t in his thoughts”. Through this touch, she feels “she could speak in any language, he would understand the purpose of any gesture”.
Ananda’s touch is later to be returned. When Anil interrupts his suicide attempt, she “press[es] the wound with her fingers” to save him. Later, acknowledging relief that he survives, she “press[es] Sarath’s hand to the side of her face”. Through this episode, this passage of intense and sustained touch, Anil is “citizened by their friendship”. The word ‘citizen’ here, suggests that Anil has finally connected to her Sri Lankan identity, but it also situates them as a collective in – and of – a shared space. Touch makes an invisible space into a home that feels ‘real’.
Viewing touch as a type of conversation highlights its role as a system of exchange. For an invisible world to become a shared place, not only does the listener need to tune in to the rhythms, cadences and layers, but they must also participate. This is the success, in Cereus, of Tyler and Mala’s ‘language’. While Tyler interprets and nurtures Mala, she, in turn learns to “know [his] nature”. She communicates this by stealing a dress for him, and, in constructing a barricade in her room, supplies him with the tools and space to “metamorphos[e]”.
This idea of exchange suggests that the invisible world can be what Larrabee et al call a “dialogic interaction”; the process of meaning and memory being constantly co-created. Such a notion is re-emphasised in Anil’s Ghost. When Sarath dies as a result of his and Anil’s inquiry, his brother, a doctor tries to “heal” the wounds on his corpse. As he does so, he ruminates on the concept of a pieta as a spiritual tableau.
But this was a pieta between brothers…this would be the end or it could be the beginning of a permanent conversation with Sarath. If he did not talk to him in this moment, admit himself, his brother would disappear from his life. So he was too, in this moment, within the contract of a pieta
In trauma discourse then, the liminal space – the invisible in-between – is an active and evolving dialogic ‘place’, where listeners and tellers reside on collaborative terms. These take shape before and beyond words. Just as to feel it is to talk by touch, to ‘see’ it, might simply require an adjustment of the ‘eyes’.