Michael Ondaatje Essay - Critical Essays

Michael Ondaatje American Literature Analysis

Although he initially gained recognition for his poetry, Ondaatje came to be known for his novels, which are always based on historical events, whether the building of Toronto in the 1920’s, the dropping of atomic bombs at the end of World War II, or the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s. Ondaatje describes these events from a postcolonial perspective, meaning that he is interested in revealing resistance to colonial oppression. Redefining the status of historical truth in what has been called in Canada the New History, Ondaatje also challenges the traditional equation and confusion of past historical events with the events themselves. He implies that history has been rewritten in every generation according to the angle of vision of the historian. He suggests that this vision is determined by whether the historian belongs to the victorious or the vanquished. Because the political point of view of the observer must be taken into account, Ondaatje always addresses history from a fictional perspective. As a writer, he sees himself as performing an essential task: reevaluating official history that has been dominated by the perspective of the colonizers through providing a voice for the colonized, who have usually been left out of history books.

Specifically, Ondaatje studies the ideological forces that move the colonized to adopt the culture of the colonialist, a merger which also empowers the colonized to resist. Examining the double-consciousness of the colonized in their awareness of the conflict between indigenous and colonial culture, Ondaatje returns again and again to his central theme of the search for identity.

In the novel In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje describes this search as fraught with adventure and danger. Patrick Lewis, born in the backwoods, feels isolated from the dominant Canadian culture. He moves to Toronto, finds a job tunneling beneath Lake Ontario, and, searching for someone to blame for his own otherness, joins a revolutionary movement. Although he finds solace in his relationships with two female actors, these love affairs do not last, ended on one hand by death and on the other by his lover’s return to her fiancé. After setting fire to a hotel and blowing up a dock, Patrick is imprisoned. Finally, his lover finds her way back to him, fulfilling his need for identity and community.

The English Patient also treats this same theme. Set in the ruins of an Italian villa at the end of World War II, the novel initially points to the tenuousness of both memory and nationality as clues to identity. The English patient has amnesia and lies upstairs in the villa with burns over his entire body, cared for by a Canadian nurse, Hana. He cannot remember whether he is British or Hungarian or even what his name is. Kirpal Singh arrives at the villa, attracted by the sound of Hana playing the piano; as a sapper (bomb detonator), he knows of the German habit of setting mines inside pianos. Kirpal is an Indian who has accepted the culture of the colonialist and enlisted in the British war effort. While at the villa, he falls in love with Hana. A few months later, when atomic bombs are dropped on Japan in 1945, he recognizes his true identity in allegiance to Asia. He tears off his insignia, leaves Hana, and returns to his roots in India. Like Patrick’s love relationships in the novel In the Skin of a Lion, Kirpal’s relationship with Hana is provisional; based on self-interest, it ends once that interest is served.

Although Anil’s Ghost shares many qualities with Ondaatje’s previous works, it redefines issues of identity and nationality. In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient describe a struggle taking place between the culture of the oppressors and that of the indigenous people. This time, however, the oppressor is embodied in someone who was once one of the oppressed.

Reinforcing Ondaatje’s sense of the provisionality of all relationships, the heroine, Anil Tissera, has married—and divorced—a traditional Sri Lankan while they were both in London. Now that she is returning to her native country as part of a U.N. commission investigating possible civil war atrocities, in an effort to evaluate her allegiance to Sri Lanka, she is trying to forget her marriage ever existed.

Two brothers helping her in her work, Sarath and Gamini Diyasena, offer a stark contrast to Tissera. Whereas Tissera has forgotten how to speak Sinhala in the fifteen years since she left, the two brothers never left Sri Lanka. Fondly believing she is objective and impartial, Tissera suspects Sarath of disloyalty to the work of the commission. Ultimately, however, he will give his life to save hers. Blurring the difference between barbarian and civilized, Tissera, the Western “civilized” one, becomes the barbarian. Naïvely expecting that her discovery of government corruption will be rewarded, instead she is forced to flee Sri Lanka, leaving Sarath to be murdered in her stead. In contrast to Tissera’s broken personal relationships and her conflicted desire for the freedom of exile and nostalgia for the Sri Lanka of her childhood, Gamini’s love for his brother persists even after death. Cradling Sarath’s dead body in his arms as he tapes up a chest wound, he is thankful that at least Sarath’s face has not been disfigured.

In this novel, although the language is less singular than in previous works, Ondaatje’s poetic prose gives the clue to meaning: It is filled with sensory imagery ranging from the startling to the mundane. Its flexibility, along with Ondaatje’s growing skill at connecting with the reader, despite temporal shifts and multiple story lines, communicates a new, unconventional understanding of historical events. Identity and nationality become fluid and provisional, whereas community and human relationships are stable. Survival depends not on official leaders but on a few traditionally marginal, unknown individuals whose single-minded dedication and persistence works against brutality, dehumanization, and oppression.

Ondaatje’s reputation continues to grow, resting on the constant refinement of his understanding of nationality and identity as cultural constructs. His highly individualized use of recent events to develop understanding of world history through the use of characters who are not typically part of traditional historical accounts enables him to span many fields and makes him unique among writers today.

In the Skin of a Lion

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

Three interconnected stories tell of early twentieth century Toronto...

(The entire section is 2727 words.)