Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2727
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 set against a backdrop of immigrant workers and union politics.
In the Skin of a Lion opens on a young Patrick growing up in the wilds of the Canadian wilderness. Patrick lives outside a logging camp with his father, Hazen, a logger and self-taught explosives expert. Hazen, described as “taciturn,” is withdrawn from both Canadian society and his son, instilling in Patrick the sense of being “other” within one’s own culture. One winter night, Patrick is called to the frozen river by a vision of sparkling lights he takes to be fireflies. He finds the immigrant loggers ice skating while holding fistfuls of burning rushes. This is Patrick’s first glimpse of community, and he watches with longing and fascination yet is unable to overcome his own isolation to join them. The men remain remote and anonymous figures representing an ideal of which Patrick is barely cognizant. Only later does Patrick discover that the skaters were Finns. In this way Ondaatje weaves the past, the present, and the future into a temporal labyrinth that connects characters to themselves and to one another.
Chapter 2, “The Bridge,” focuses on Nicholas Temelcoff. Nicholas, a Macedonian immigrant, works the most dangerous job on the construction of the Prince Edward Bridge over the Don River. Suspended in mid-air, he is separated from his fellow workers by twin barriers of language and empty space. Nicholas’s isolation is broken one night when he catches a nun who has been swept off the unfinished bridge by wind. The emotional intimacy engendered by the rescue causes Nicholas to perceive Toronto differently, as if the city has been imbued with the nun’s spirit and beauty. One year later, Nicholas leaves the bridge and opens a bakery, the decisive move that makes him a part of his community.
As book 1 continues, Ondaatje returns to Patrick, now twenty-one and newly arrived in Toronto. In a city filled with life, Patrick finds himself isolated. He takes a job searching for a reclusive millionaire who has disappeared. While searching, he meets Clara and begins a short but passionate affair. When Clara breaks off the affair to return to her millionaire boyfriend, Patrick is again alone and returns to Toronto to seek solace in isolation and physical labor. In book 2, Patrick moves into an immigrant neighborhood and joins a work crew digging and blasting a waterworks tunnel beneath Lake Ontario. One night Patrick attends an illegal meeting of activists in the tunnel and is reintroduced to Clara’s friend, Alice.
Alice is the catalyst that brings Patrick out of his isolation. He becomes a part of the immigrant community in which they live, forms a close bond with Alice’s daughter, Hana, and even participates in a leftist political movement. When Alice is killed in an accident, Patrick, again lost to alienation, blames wealthy WASP society. He seeks revenge by blowing up a dock at a regatta and is sent to prison, where he meets another immigrant from his neighborhood, Caravaggio the thief.
Patrick reconnects to humanity through his contact with Caravaggio. He warns Caravaggio before he is attacked in his cell one night, and after Caravaggio’s escape and Patrick’s release, the two men meet again in their immigrant neighborhood. Upon his release, Patrick first goes to Nicholas Temelcoff’s bakery, where Hana waits for him. Then, still bent on avenging the death of Alice, he enlists Caravaggio’s help in a plan to blow up the waterworks facility. The plan goes well, but at the last moment, Patrick turns away from his rage. Hana becomes Patrick’s anchor to community and connectedness—the final catalyst in his journey from isolation and otherness. The closing pages of the book find Patrick embarking on another journey. A call from Clara sparks a trip with Hana, whom Patrick now acknowledges as his daughter, to rescue Clara from the same isolation from which Patrick suffered. As the journey begins, Patrick begins telling Hana his own story, the event that brings the reader full circle and back to the preface of the novel.
The English Patient
First published: 1992
Type of work: Novel
Four survivors of World War II attempt to come to terms with war-shattered identities within the ruins of an Italian villa.
Revisiting characters from In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient opens with Hana, a Canadian nurse, newly arrived with her English patient at the ruined Villa San Girolamo. The patient, Almasy, once a desert explorer, has been burned over his entire body. Soon the two are joined by Caravaggio, a Canadian thief conscripted as a spy, and Kirpal “Kip” Singh, an Indian bomb-detonator.
Ondaatje immediately reveals the intensity of recent suffering in the group’s sharpened perceptions. Indeed, the entire book is expressed in the striking imagery characteristic of poetry. Hana drops a peeled plum into the mouth of Almasy, whom she calls her “despairing saint” with the “hipbones of Christ.” Emphasizing the crucial role of imagination in shaping identity, the Christ-like patient becomes the blank tablet on which the villa inhabitants begin to carve their new selves. Kip and Almasy develop a bond based on their mutual knowledge of explosives and weapons. For Hana, mourning her father, baby, and lover, Almasy represents someone to nurture. Caravaggio, in contrast, blames Almasy for the mutilation of his thumbs on grounds that Almasy was once a German spy; he increases his morphine to make him talk.
The novel relies heavily on punning—Kip is a pun on Kim, the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s story and a mutilation of his actual name, Kirpal. In fact, mutilation becomes a key theme as the characters’ mutilated identities are healed through allegiance to nationality. Leading the way, the English patient at first rejects nationality altogether. Still, his fate has already demonstrated the folly of renouncing official allegiances. In love with Katherine, his friend’s wife, Almasy becomes a victim of her husband’s attempt to kill all three of them in a suicide-murder. When Almasy tries to get help for the wounded Katherine from British officials in Cairo, they label him German and imprison him. Later, he enlists Nazi aid and flies off in a “rotted plane” which immediately ignites and crashes. Almasy, himself afire, descends like a comet.
As he begins to piece together his own story, Almasy reveals that his desire to be rid of national allegiances stems from his admiration for the nomadic Bedouins who tend him after the crash, also suggesting that although some might consider them uncivilized, the Bedouins are well versed in medicinal remedies. Later, though, Almasy acknowledges that barbarism occurs in all groups and that his own self-interest may have caused him to behave savagely. He comes to accept, for example, that his willful independence has brought about the death of others, particularly Katherine. In a similar move toward reconciliation, Hana reaches out in a letter to her father’s companion, Clara, saying her father “died in a comforting place.” Moreover, linking mind with body, Caravaggio finally identifies his own story in the mutilated flesh and fractured memory of the English patient.
The greatest awakening, however, occurs within Kirpal Singh, a former colonial subject whose struggles official history has ignored. Even though Almasy may not be English, and the 1945 atomic bombs are dropped by Americans on the Japanese, Kirpal identifies the behavior as English. He rages to Almasy, “When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman.” Declaring that the Allies, not the Germans or Japanese, are the real barbarians, he returns to India, where he becomes a doctor. Hana returns to Canada.
Questions remain. Does the author finally endorse hybridism or reject it? That is, do Kirpal’s and Hana’s returns to their native countries in fact affirm their freedom or merely represent new imprisonment? What is to be made of the quasi-mystical connection that still exists between Hana and Kirpal, despite their separation? Ondaatje is content to leave such questions to the reader.
First published: 2000
Type of work: Novel
A forensic pathologist returns abruptly to the United States after investigating possible war crimes in her native Sri Lanka.
Anil’s Ghost takes place during a gruesome civil war during the 1980’s in Sri Lanka. It explores the legacy left by colonialism, represented through the actions of Anil Tissera, a forensic pathologist revisiting the country after a fifteen-year absence as part of a U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses. Alienated from Sri Lankan culture, Tissera blinds herself to the mortal danger in which her investigations place her fellow archaeologist, Sarath Diyasena, affiliated with the government.
Although the delicacy of language describing mental and physical wounds becomes “balm” to war’s brutality, in Anil’s Ghost Ondaatje most often reflects brutality directly, replacing the lushness of his earlier work with spare, straight narrative. Indeed, as seventy thousand citizens are quietly spirited away and murdered, silence replaces words as a reaction to repression. Characters find release in extreme acts: For example, Sarath’s brother, Dr. Gamini Diyasena, lives like a beggar, snatching sleep at the hospital and taking drugs to continue performing round-the-clock surgery on civil war victims. When Anil discovers scientific evidence implicating the government in war crimes, Sarath tells her to abandon her notes and equipment and to leave the country. Her departure means that she is also abandoning those she has tried to help. Indeed, Ondaatje shows that Tissera, with her Western need to uncover “Truth,” causes the suppression of the very truth she seeks.
Soon, Gamini discovers Sarath’s dead body on a gurney. The novel concludes with Gamini pondering his surrender of his emotional and material existence to others. For both Anil and Sarath, science and politics intersect disastrously; for Gamini, deeply attuned to his community, they work together to offer a protective camouflage enabling him to live to feel the “sweet touch of the world.”