Michael Ondaatje, an expatriate Sri Lankan, who is now a Canadian resident, has written about Sri Lanka in his fictional memoir, Running in the Family (1982), which is based on two of his return journeys to Sri Lanka. Handwriting: Poems, his tenth book of poetry, is his first book of poetry to focus exclusively on his native country. The book is rooted in Sri Lankan place-names, including ancient cities and rivers, in Sri Lankan customs and traditions, in Buddhism, and in the contemporary civil war there between the majority Singhalese and minority Tamils. Because Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was formerly known, was at different times a colony of the Portuguese, Dutch, and English, the conflicts he describes are not always readily identifiable, perhaps because Ondaatje wants to suggest how recurrent violence has plagued Sri Lanka and endangered its traditional “language,” the language of tradition, sentiment, and the inner life.
In Handwriting, Michael Ondaatje uses handwriting as a controlling metaphor to examine Sri Lankan history. His book, which is divided into three parts, begins with “A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade.” In this poem Ondaatje begins with the past, represented by the Book of Victories with its emblematic drawings (enemy as lion, parasol identified with king) and its myths; but the actual events and new professions he mentions are ominous signs of the present. Sri Lankan drama develops, and “wild cursive scripts” produce great literature; artifacts like “cattle bells” become the object of the “archaeolog[ists].” There is a belief in the “intimate life, an inner self,” but there is also a “moment of death” at the end of the poem, which is tied to the civil war and the Tamil insurgents. The tightrope walker mentioned early in the poem is now, because insurgents have shut down generators, “swaying in the darkness above us.” Ondaatje, whose writing has become increasingly political, suggests Sri Lanka itself is in a precarious position, and the “us” locates writer and readers as spectators, rather than participants in this drama.
“The Distance of a Shout” continues the themes of communcation and violence, ending with a reference to “a gradual acceptance of this new language,” a handwriting that “occurred on waves,/ on leaves, the scripts of smoke.” The “gradual acceptance” implies that the language of violence has become part of the culture. In “Buried” and “Buried II,” Ondaatje compares past with present and examines what has been lost in Sri Lanka. In the early struggles between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Singhalese, the monks carried the Buddha statues deep into the forest, where they were buried to prevent their desecration. When thieves steal the Buddha at Veheragala, one of them removes the chipped gems from the Buddha’s eyes, an action that signals the transition from tradition to the new language of violence and materialism (“The Brother Thief”). Fifteen generations later, in the current civil war, the Tamils themselves are digging pits to escape government helicopters. The burying is contrasted:
Men carrying recumbent Buddhas
or men carrying mortars
burning the enemy, disappearing
into pits . . .
The atrocities of the present are contrasted with the traditions of the past as girls “with poison necklaces/ to save themselves from torture” if they are captured are juxtaposed with women wearing amulets with their fortunes written on ola leaves.
In “Buried II,” Ondaatje recounts how the Buddha’s tooth came to Sri Lanka (it is in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy) and the Singhalese kingdom prospered. At that time the poets “wrote their stories on rock and leaf,” but when there was “war to celebrate,” “they were hunted/ for composing the arts of love and science.” Because their deaths, however, made them more famous, Ondaatje suggests the enduring power of poetry. On the other hand, much was lost, and the last two...
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