Michael Ondaatje

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Michael Ondaatje Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2739

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has labeled Michael Ondaatje “vital and imaginative,” and American writer Annie Dillard has described Ondaatje’s language as “clean and energetic, with the pop of bullets.” His early works have been aligned with those of modernist poet Wallace Stevens, due to their sharp imagery and lyric voice. The later longer works place Ondaatje, according to critic Douglas Barbour, firmly within the tradition of poet Ezra Pound, with a jostled imagery that some critics have labeled incoherent. Others categorize such “incoherency” as a legitimate postmodern approach to writing, most specifically displayed in Ondaatje’s extension and mixing of genres. This “collage” approach allows him to combine fragmented documentary information with narrative and lyric, as in The Man with Seven Toes and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, permitting a separation from lyric subjectivity through the blending of several points of view. Ondaatje investigates the modernist romantic figure of the artist as self-destructive without becoming self-destructive himself.

Barbour has also mentioned the poet’s move toward postcolonialism with works such as In the Skin of a Lion, even though Ondaatje has declared himself uninterested in public politics. The publication of The English Patient and later of Anil’s Ghost, with its themes of nationalism and political violence, has intensified discussion of postcolonialism in Ondaatje’s work.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje synthesizes fact with legend in a fictional “journey into the mind” of the notorious historical figure William Bonney, known as Billy the Kid. The work’s style may confuse readers accustomed to the traditional linear storytelling approach. A familiarity with the common postmodern use of collage, or a mixing of times and narratives, will aid readers in adjusting to the nontraditional writing. Ondaatje moves in and out of time, leaving gaps in his narrative, revising the traditional Western while rewriting the Old West and Billy’s character. Eventually the work makes obvious the crucial nature of these narrative gaps. William Bonney’s biography is so well known that Ondaatje remains confident of his readers’ capability to fill in any breaks in his particular retelling of the historical “facts.” Whatever readers make of the book, it remains one of the most frequently interpreted Canadian works.

Most critics take a thematic approach to the work, focusing on the opposition between Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett. Seen as dichotomous figures, they may represent life versus death, chaos versus order, creation versus destruction. However, these figures should not be reduced to a simple binary opposition of good and evil, although their contradictory relationship may be seen as the cause of Billy’s self-destructive behavior. Also, the work remains too complicated to be classified in mythic terms of the hero’s—or, in this case, the antihero’s—quest for identity through pursuit of a father figure. While the traditional hero often metaphorically “kills” his father in order to be “born” his own person, in Ondaatje’s (and history’s) ironic twist on that myth, the father figure (Pat Garrett) kills the son, literally shooting Billy dead. Some might see that act as the only manner by which the dichotomy represented by Billy’s life can be resolved. The almost immediate surfacing of a theme of detachment offers readers a focal point for Billy and his bizarre conceptions of violence and the grotesque. To the gunslinger, killing remains a profession; he detaches himself by viewing violence in a poetic manner. According to some, Billy represents the dual aspects of outlaw and artist inherent in Ondaatje himself.

Using a 1926 account by Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid, on which to base the documentary aspects of his book, Ondaatje also adopts Burns’s approach toward Billy as more hero than outlaw. Ondaatje begins with his hero’s death as preliminary to the creating of his life, suggesting an existence resembling a phoenix rising from the ashes for a man whose legend began with the bullet that ended his life. Billy’s narrative voice hints at the difficult task that awaits the reader when he refers early on to his story as a “maze.” The widely varying classifications of the work’s form as poem, docudrama, fiction, and prose poem demonstrate the reader’s implication in the text. Each individual brings an interpretation to a story already well known, an interpretation that revolves more on the manner of the story’s telling than on the matter of the story itself. Thus, Ondaatje involves his audience in the creation of the work.

Readers must pay equal attention to the two storytellers present here—Billy and Ondaatje. Though Billy tells of a relationship with Miss Angela Dickinson of Tucson, no such person exists in historical accounts. However, one of Ondaatje’s favorite actors bears that name. The act of acting may be emphasized simply to keep readers focused on the dramatic license all writers assume. Angela represents the sexual “bad girl” versus the work’s other female figure, Sallie Chisum, a true historical figure, the “good girl” of Ondaatje’s version. In this manner the author supplies the balance to his story that readers desire while he subverts the truth readers may demand from his saga.

The book opens with an empty space that is labeled a photo, suggesting that Billy the Kid cannot be fixed in space and time. That Billy gives an account of himself following his announced death, when he no longer exists as a corporeal reality, suggests the difficulty readers encounter in trying to affix to him a certain identity. As Barbour points out, the character questions the accounts of his life and death, particularly pertaining to the violence in which he engages. When Billy asks the question of his readers, “Was there a source for all this?” his language insists that readers view at least two meanings for the term “source.” First, “source” refers to that within Billy that supports his actions; second, it refers to that account on which the reader depends for the judgments that he or she, and history, will pass on Billy. Billy’s question promotes the postmodern interrogation of history as truth versus storytelling that remains contingent on circumstance and subjectivity. The book’s final scene remains true to the entire account, offering gruesome and gripping imagery of life and death (Billy’s) but no explanation of either. The only thing of which readers remain confident is Billy’s departure from a body that defies identification.

The English Patient

The English Patient offers readers a collection of fragmented tales interwoven to form a narrative at once richly artistic and representational. Reflecting Ondaatje’s lifelong fascination with history, the novel focuses on the end of World War II, a conflict solved by a hydrogen bomb, called by Ondaatje a deus ex machina for his generation and a major turning point for humanity. Two of the novel’s four main characters—Hana, the nurse, and Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy—are Canadians whom Ondaatje carries over from his previous novel In the Skin of a Lion. The other two characters are Hana’s badly burned patient, a pilot named Almasy, who Caravaggio feels might be responsible for the loss of parts of both of Caravaggio’s hands in a war mission, and a young Sikh soldier in the British army, Kirpal Singh (known as Kip). The four come together in a deserted Italian villa that serves as an army hospital.

Despite the time and geographic complexity of its setting—from 1930’s desert exploration to 1940’s wartime, and from India to Arabia, England, Italy, and Canada—this novel remains highly accessible. Ondaatje creates characters who are familiar yet defy rational explanation. As Barbour notes, they hold on to their secretive natures, with only the resultant emotional outbursts as evidence of their existence before the villa and the war. Their intertwining relationships offer readers studies in irony and frustration, foreshadowing the lack of a comfortable plot resolution. All four characters remained obsessed—Hana with keeping her obviously terminal patient alive, the patient with relating a story of which he himself remains unsure, Kip with defusing the terror represented by hidden bombs, and Caravaggio with discovering the patient’s identity. Caravaggio’s obsession becomes the reader’s, as the patient’s story is revealed only in fragments of his own narration.

The truth in this novel becomes a confused and, at times, moot issue, its elusive quality symbolized by the illusion of heroism and justice on which war’s betrayal is based. Ondaatje focuses on betrayal in general as a theme, using his familiar topic of the adulterous, destructive love affair to frame the patient’s frustrated relationship with the unattainable wife of a young pilot. Ondaatje’s other characters also suffer betrayal from a war ideology that destroys elements of each of their lives. Hana’s love for Kip, however strong, cannot survive beyond the war that nurtures it; Kip, having risked his life multiple times to defuse explosives, becomes enraged when the Allies drop the ultimate explosives on Hiroshima; Caravaggio is betrayed by his desire to seek revenge on the patient for his torture, only to discover he feels a kinship with his perceived enemy in the end.

The English Patient is filled with the kinds of strong images for which its author is famous: Kip lifting a friend into the air on a rope rig so that he might inspect the fabulous mosaics of a church ceiling, the black-charred body of the once-handsome Almasy, Hana’s playing of a piano that might at any moment detonate hidden explosives, Caravaggio’s sneaking naked into a room where two lovers lie. However, the images project a momentary existence that quickly fades. Ondaatje’s fragmented glimpses into his characters’ lives are of the most intimate, and the most fragile, nature. While Hana achieves some redemption, the novel’s ending will leave some readers agreeing with one critic’s description of the work as a “journey without maps,” a road leading nowhere.

Anil’s Ghost

Anil’s Ghost is Ondaatje’s first use of fiction to revisit Sri Lanka, the country of his birth. The novel’s central conflict arises when Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, is invited by a human rights organization to return to her native Sri Lanka to investigate evidence connected with some victims of terrorist murders. Anil is a strong-willed woman, confident, intelligent, secure in her sexual relationships, and devoted to her work. Born into an upper-class family and educated in the West, she has not returned to Sri Lanka since she was a child. Now, she must deal with her personal heritage as well as with the public effects of political terrorism.

Ondaatje never makes explicit the nature of the violence that has left burned corpses for the work of people like Anil, but Sri Lanka’s recent history of violence, especially among separatist groups such as the Tamil Tigers, is unmistakable in this novel. Anil’s ghosts are partly her memories of her country and her awareness of what it has become as well as the uncertainties she faces in a country where she cannot be sure of anyone’s loyalties. She cannot determine whether the government is involved in the death of the skeleton she has named Sailor, nor can she be sure that Dr. Sarath, the local archaeologist who is assisting her, is not really working to protect Sailor’s killers.

Anil’s past asserts itself in her visit. A few people in Colombo recall her childhood triumphs as a swimmer; she remembers local foods and customs and how to speak Sinhala, the native language; and in her lonely role as investigator she is haunted by friends and lovers from her adult past. Sarath, too, has past connections, particularly Gamini, his physician brother (from whom he is estranged), who is obsessive in treating terrorism’s many victims at his hospital.

In an effort to reconstruct Sailor’s physical features and in the hope that someone will be able to recognize him, Anil and Sarath employ an artist, Ananda, whose late wife was herself a victim of terrorists. Ananda’s success results in Sailor’s identification; villagers remember how he had been abducted. With the identification, Anil is even more vulnerable to pressure from those responsible. In the end, she is forced to leave the country without having accomplished her purpose. Sarath himself is killed. Near the end of the novel, Gamini points out to Anil that in European literature, the American or Englishman simply leaves the exotic country that (like Sri Lanka) has both seduced and thwarted him. The ending of The English Patient can be understood in this way, and that is what happens at the end of this work. Anil leaves and terror continues.

Anil’s Ghost includes many themes common to Ondaatje’s work, especially the interplay of past and present and the complexities and ambiguities of human relationships. The novel also displays the sensual, poetic imagery that is Ondaatje’s hallmark. Particularly compelling is the image of a huge statue of the Buddha, destroyed by terrorist bombs and reconstructed at the novel’s end, its eye newly painted by Ananda.


From the start of his career in fiction, Ondaatje has been understood as a postmodern writer, particularly for his use of mixed genres, combining nonlinear narrative with poetry and history. Divisadero involves his most extreme use to date of nonlinear elements to create fiction, and the critical response to the work has been mixed because of it. The novel embodies two family stories. The contemporary one involves the complicated relationships in a Northern California ranch family. Originally, the farmer and his wife took in Cooper, a little boy whose parents had been murdered, and began raising him as a ranch hand. Later, the farmer’s wife dies giving birth to Anna while at the same time another woman in the same hospital dies giving birth to Claire. The farmer raises the two as sisters. At first Coop is like an older brother to both girls, but eventually he and Anna become lovers. When the father discovers them together, he brutally attacks and nearly kills Coop, and the family is broken up.

At this point, the California narrative breaks to the later lives of the three. Coop has become a professional gambler. Near the end of this section, he has been seduced by Bridget, an intensely erotic drug addict, whose underworld connections intend to use her as a lure to involve Coop in a scam of their own. When Bridget’s thugs beat Coop nearly to death, Claire rescues him, nurses him back to health, and finally begins to take him to her father. Evidently, she is the only one of the three to maintain contact with the old man. Anna, the reader learns, has left the United States to pursue a literary career, researching the life of a late nineteenth century French novelist, Lucien Segura. In France, Anna is living in Segura’s house, sometimes haunted by her memories of Claire and Coop and her escape from her father, which took her to a new identity. Here she has begun a love affair with Rafael, a young Romany (Gypsy) man whom she met in the meadows nearby. These threads of the novel are interwoven and presented from several points of view without regard to chronology.

As the novel points out, the word divisadero comes from Spanish, meaning “to divide,” and ultimately from a root meaning “to gaze at something from a distance.” Both meanings are relevant to this work, which divides its stories, leaving them unresolved, a point of difficulty for some reviewers. Roughly the last third of the novel is Segura’s story, his loveless marriage and the memories of his childhood love, Marie-Neige, the Romany who camp in a meadow near his house (the young son becomes the adult Rafael), his daughter’s determination to marry a poet, Marie-Neige’s death during World War I, and at last Segura’s use of her image as substance for his romantic novels and his fostering of Rafael. As the novel’s last pages suggest, the two stories are the same in their concern with fathers and children, the nature of love, and the past’s insistent hand in the present, one generation giving birth to the next and thus defining its loves and wars.

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