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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931

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.

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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 pages of the poem contain a catalog of traditions and culture gone forever in exchange for “power and wealth/ from the eight compass points of vengeance/ from the two levels of envy.” In addition to the “rule of courtesy,” the arts of eye-painting, and insights into the relationship between behavior and the universe, the losses involve communication: the “handwriting” that expresses the “interior love poem,” the gestures to “signal key emotions,” and the lyrics “that rose from love.” In a word, everything (at least, everything of consequence) is lost. The poem then shifts to the violence of the early 1990’s, when the “envy” accounted for hundreds of deaths, while the “President built nothing but clock-towers.” In the power vacuum people were subjected to “extra-judicial execution,’” likely by government supporters, and “exemplary killings,’” likely by the insurgents. At the end of the poem, archaeologists dig up not Buddhas, but the “disappeared/ bodies of schoolchildren.”

The second part of Handwriting is entitled “The Nine Sentiments (Historical Illustrations on Rock and Book and Leaf),” which are poems about love and desire. The poems themselves can be seen as handwriting or inscriptions about a series of vignettes, which are “historical” only in the broadest sense of the word, as they deal with modern trysts as well as ones in the days of the “king’s elephants.” The first five poems depict images (“the curve of the bridge/ against her foot,” “a shoe left/ on the cadju tree terrace”) that induce sexual desire in a landscape at once contemporary (“Sidelong coquetry/ at the Colombo Apothecary”) and really “historical” (the king’s guards and elephants). This time compression is most obvious when aliganaya is defined as “the embrace/ during an intoxicated walk’” and, amusingly, as the more current and banal “sudden arousal/ while driving over speed bumps.’” These light touches are reinforced in the sixth poem, which consists of one line describing the first five poems in a comically inadequate way: “Five poems without mentioning the river prawn.”

In the seventh poem, Ondaatje does mention a river prawn in the course of describing a peaceful and timeless Sri Lankan scene, women bathing in the river. While the next short poem depicts an herb-enhanced night of love, the last three poems of this section mourn the loss of love. The speaker may have a book, map, and chronicle from the past, but he holds only his lover’s “shadow/ since those days I drove/ your nature away.” Using an astronomical metaphor, he presents himself as an astronomer who can only “calculat[e] the movement/ of the great stars,” an image associated with her. The distance between them, perhaps caused by his intellectualizing the relationship, is immense. In the next poem when she arrives at a tryst, “Love arrives and dies in all disguises,” and they part with “skating hearts,” fleeing each other. Because of the ill-fated love described in the preceding poems, the speaker in the last poem angrily implies, through a series of rhetorical questions, that life without desire or conscience is impossible. Just as there is no forest which is “not cut down/ for profit or literature,” there is finally no room “without the damn god of love.” This condemnation of Cupid or Eros is squarely within the tradition of romantic love, but is here presented in a distinctively Sri Lankan context. Ondaatje, in a postscript, explains that “The Nine Sentiments” contain some of the traditions of classical Sanskrit poetry and Tamil love poetry and that the nine sentiments are “romantic/erotic, humorous, pathetic, angry, heroic, fearful, disgustful, amazed, and peaceful.” Each of the sentiments has a corresponding aesthetic emotional experience called rasas or flavors. In the second part of his book, Ondaatje covers them all, but he stresses the romantic/erotic and the angry.

The third part of Handwriting contains a wide variety of literary forms, including one poetic prose piece (“Death at Kataragama”), a narrative poem entitled “The Story,” and a succession of images, similar to Ezra Pound’s work, related to a circus (“Driving with Dominic into the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus”). The section begins appropriately with “Flight,” a poem about arriving by plane in Sri Lanka and seeing a woman who reminds him of his mother. In “Wells,” a three-part poem, the speaker uses water imagery (tears) to mourn Rosalin Perera (to whomHandwriting is dedicated), whom he last saw at age eleven. The last water metaphor relates to nine soldiers digging a well “to give thanks/ for surviving this war” and “pulling what was lost/ out of the depth.” For the soldiers, water is restorative, but “what was lost” in the war may not be easily regained.

“The Story,” ostensibly about a seven-person expedition to kill enemy warriors, actually concerns memory, maps (including directions), and the nature of narrative. The poem begins with the assertion that in “his first forty days a child/ is given dreams of previous lives,” but at the end of the “forty-day daydream” the memories, which are called “maps,” are buried. In the second part of the poem a king tells his pregnant wife about his plans to assassinate another king, but because she falls asleep, he does not describe how he and his six conspirators plan to escape from the rival king’s castle. The narrator abruptly switches gears in the third part, which occurs in the present, and which is addressed to “you” (perhaps, if the poem is autobiographical, Ondaatje’s second wife). In fact, the poem may be considered “a story about maps, for you,” a story about directions and courses that their relationship may take. In the conclusion of the poem the son of the king in part 1 actually fulfills the plot his father had described earlier, but because the father did not finish the story (it is “unremembered”), the seven must devise their own escape, which can only be speculated about. They may perish “without/ the dream of exit” or they may (in an action repeated from part 1) braid a rope that will enable them to escape from the high windows: “We do not know what happened.” The story, like the relationship in part 3, has an indeterminate ending: “And we do not know how we end/ nor where.” Maps and memories can only take one so far; the conclusion of stories must be read or made by the readers and the characters.

“Last Ink,” appropriately the last poem in Handwriting, sums up many of the themes in the book. It bridges centuries (“the 13th century/ of our love” to the present), refers to calligraphy, scrolls, and seals, and asserts the timeless nature of poetry, which, according to the “Masters,” “must contain bowing and leaping,/ and that which hides in waters.’” Ondaatje’s book does contain leaping and bowing, love and grief, humor and solemnity; and there is much that is hidden in the images of his “liquid,” flowing poems. Ondaatje is a poetic trickster, who uses paradox, irony, multiple voices, and indeterminate endings to challenge his readers not only to read critically but also to “complete” his poems by sharing in the “creative process.” The poems in this volume seem quite political and autobiographical, and it is difficult not to regard Ondaatje as the speaker in the poems. Ondaatje enthusiasts will enjoy Handwriting, but the thoroughly Sri Lankan setting (with the Sanskrit, Tamil, and Buddhist traditions) will pose some problems for readers unfamiliar with the culture and country. Even without some previous exposure to Sri Lanka, readers will enjoy Ondaatje’s images, sense of humor, and complex and contradictory responses to his homeland.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (March 1, 1999): 1145.

Library Journal 124 (April 15, 1999): 100.

New Statesman 129 (March 19, 1999): 48.

Publishers Weekly 246 (February 22, 1999): 88.

The Times Literary Supplement, February 5, 1999, p. 33.

The Wall Street Journal 103 (April 2, 1999): W6.

World Literature Today 73 (Spring, 1999): 333.

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