Michael Ondaatje World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3637

Some reviewers have noted that Michael Ondaatje’s work is thoroughly original. Few writers draw less on conventional ideas about matters such as form, point of view, chronology, or the relationship between historical truth and fiction. Indeed, one writer has pointed out that Ondaatje has found Canada’s lack of a ponderous...

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Some reviewers have noted that Michael Ondaatje’s work is thoroughly original. Few writers draw less on conventional ideas about matters such as form, point of view, chronology, or the relationship between historical truth and fiction. Indeed, one writer has pointed out that Ondaatje has found Canada’s lack of a ponderous literary tradition to be a liberating force for his work. Certainly he has felt free to combine elements of lyric poetry and the visual arts along with historical fact and the traditional approaches to narrative in order to create a new sort of fiction.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter offer examples of his technique. Both works involve the lives of real people, and Ondaatje conducted extensive research to uncover biographical details about his protagonists. For the latter work he traveled to Louisiana, interviewed elderly jazz musicians, and read accounts of jazz history and of Storyville, the New Orleans district where jazz was first popularized. He even read the records of the East Louisiana State Hospital, where Buddy Bolden spent his last years. He made similar efforts to unearth information about the life of Billy the Kid.

Details from this research permeate these books, but Ondaatje’s interest is never the simple re-creation of a distant historical setting. In fact, as his notes at the end of Coming Through Slaughter make clear, he often changes dates and alters details to suit his needs. That he is not interested in historical realism might best be demonstrated by examining the voice he creates for Bolden, an African American musician born about 1876 in the Storyville district. Ondaatje portrays an artist whose tragic career blossomed briefly in the midst of poverty and violence in the late nineteenth century. Much of the story is told by Bolden himself; many other parts are told by his friends and lovers. For their voices, however, Ondaatje never uses African American dialect. Instead, he gives his characters a simple, direct, and often poetic speech which conveys the intensity and violence with which they lived. He uses similar techniques to create a voice for Billy the Kid. Both works contain transcriptions from historical documents, such as news reports and interviews. Ondaatje uses the same technique, though less extensively, in The English Patient.

Ondaatje’s willingness to interrupt his narrative with other materials (frequently poems) is an indicator that he is not primarily interested in narrative in any conventional, linear sense. He does not describe chains of events that lead inevitably to a climax. Instead, he looks at his characters and events through multiple lenses, presenting them to the reader from different points of view. The story may be told by several of its main characters as well by a narrator. The result is that the reader may be left uncertain about the truth of some events.

Ondaatje is concerned with how artists deal with truth. A powerful image for him is an early photograph from the period when photographers were first learning what sort of truth they might capture on film. The first page of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, for example, contains a frame followed by a photographer’s claim that the picture demonstrates what he is able to accomplish with his new, fast shutter. The frame is empty. In Coming Through Slaughter, the historical photographer E. J. Bellocq, whose photographs recorded early Storyville life, becomes a character in the novel. Photographs mislead, however, by showing only one side of the truth; in that way they resemble narration from a single viewpoint, never allowing the viewer to see more than the photographer sees through a lens.

The photographer and the musician are both artists, however, and artists are another theme of interest to Ondaatje. In Coming Through Slaughter, the narrator identifies with the tormented artist Bolden, whose madness strikes in the midst of his career. At the novel’s end the narrator asks rhetorically what it was that drew him to Bolden’s story. The answer lies in his desire to understand Bolden.

Some similar impulse drew Ondaatje to Billy the Kid’s life. The ambiguities of the outlaw’s bloody career, the juxtaposing of his violence and his tenderness, seem to make him a metaphor for the artist. The artist’s task is like the illegal acts of Billy the Kid that society rejects.

Beginning with Ondaatje’s first volume of poetry, violence has been an important theme in his work. Violence defines Billy the Kid’s career; it surrounds Bolden; even Running in the Family, for all its pleasure in recording Ondaatje’s unpredictable family, has a dark vein of violence in his father’s alcoholism and in the forces of nature. Violence is particularly important in The English Patient, with its wartime setting and its title character, who is burned beyond recognition, as well as in In the Skin of a Lion and Anil’s Ghost (2000).

Ondaatje brings to his prose a poet’s precise attention to sensory impression. His writing is studded with evocative imagery. He finds the details that communicate the heat of a Sri Lankan afternoon. He creates the visual picture of a shooting victim’s neck vein pecked out by a chicken and drawn across the yard in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In The English Patient, he uses sensory details, such as Hana feeding the patient a peeled plum to suggest the strangely erotic relationship between them. Such imagery goes beyond scene setting; it offers the reader a key to the psychology of the characters. Some critics have suggested that his reliance on minute description gives Ondaatje’s work a static quality. Certainly his earlier works show more interest in descriptive moments than in sequenced events. Although linear narrative is never Ondaatje’s intention, in The English Patient the reader finds both. The narrative line moves steadily (though sometimes its movement is circular rather than forward), all the while illumined by Ondaatje’s startling images—the image of the young Indian sapper, for example, lying on his back to look through a rifle’s scope at the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel while flares provide the light. Images like these define the power of Ondaatje’s fiction.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems

First published: 1970

Type of work: Poetry and prose

Eyewitness accounts, poems, and legends tell the story of the outlaw William Bonney’s bloody career and death.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems depicts the last year of the outlaw’s life, his twenty-second, when Pat Garrett is made sheriff to clean up New Mexico. Shortly after Billy turns twenty-one, Garrett kills Tom O’Folliard, one of Billy’s gang, on Christmas Eve. “Blood a necklace on me all my life,” Billy says. Ondaatje tells the story in a series of pictures (sometimes literal pictures) that gradually moves the reader to the final confrontation between Billy and Garrett. Along the way, passages are spoken by various friends and enemies of Billy. Some of the pictures are poems, many in Billy’s voice.

The book is not intended to make a linear account of events, nor are the voices intended to evoke any characteristics of period speech or outlaw speech. Instead, Ondaatje wants to look at the mind of a man who became the subject of legend because of his cold-blooded killings. He wants to examine the meaning of that term “outlaw.” Ondaatje offers several scenes that show Billy as part of the ordinary world of human friendships, particularly in his appearances at the Chisum ranch and his friendship with Sallie Chisum, who recalls him as gentle, dapper, even witty. Garrett knew the Chisums, too, and he describes a time when Billy brought Angela D., his fiancé, to the ranch. Billy’s shooting of Sallie’s sick and aged cat ends that episode. Garrett says that Angela seemed terrified by this action. On a different visit to the Chisums, Billy recalls being told a story about a man who created a pack of spaniels so inbred, deformed, and vicious that the only thing they were fit for was destruction.

Billy also relates the sequence that follows his capture by Garrett. Garrett, earlier described as the “ideal assassin,” ties Billy and his men to their horses for the whole of a grueling five-day trek across the desert. Billy is even bareheaded; under the sun, he says “the brain juices begin to swell up.” By the end of the trip to jail, the whole episode is packed with nightmarish images of suffering. In a temporary jail, Billy recovers enough to give a lively interview to the Texas Star, and shortly after that he escapes, only to be killed by Garrett in the home of a friend.

The prose is interspersed with poems from Billy that demonstrate his distorted perceptions of the world. As a narrator, he cannot be trusted to tell the truth that others see. This misperception is a quality that makes him interesting to Ondaatje. Billy’s solitude and his habit of seeing things differently seem to suggest the outlaw quality of the artist, a subject Ondaatje addressed in later work.

Coming Through Slaughter

First published: 1976

Type of work: Novel

Jazzman Buddy Bolden created music in the midst of poverty and violence until he disappeared and later went mad during a performance.

Coming Through Slaughter chronicles the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the founders of Dixieland jazz. Little factual material is known about Bolden, who lived in poverty and played cornet in the Storyville district of New Orleans during the 1890’s. From the fragmentary evidence produced by his research, Ondaatje portrays Bolden as a man driven by the demands of his art, as well as by his human attachment to his family and friends. Tension mounts in Bolden until he feels forced to disappear. He reappears briefly and returns to his music, but the stress is too much for him, and he is precipitated into madness. Bolden was born in 1876; in 1907, he was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1931.

As in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems, Ondaatje tells the story through shifting points of view, sometimes speaking as Bolden himself, sometimes through Bolden’s friend Webb, the detective who finds Bolden when he disappears. Even E. J. Bellocq, the historical photographer who documented New Orleans life in the late nineteenth century, has a voice. Once again, Ondaatje explores the isolation of the artist, and once again he is uninterested in the sociological implications of his subject. Bolden’s oppressed position as a black musician and his poverty are never explicitly discussed.

The novel’s early sections portray Bolden as a lively man, a barber and writer for a local broadside as well as a musician. Despite his heavy drinking, he manages to juggle these jobs successfully. At the same time, he seems to be happy in his marriage and he obviously is solicitous of his children’s well-being, walking them to school and telling them jokes. Then he disappears. His old friend Webb, a detective, goes to see him, only to be told by Bolden’s wife, Nora, that Bolden has left her, his job, his writing, his music, everything. The central part of the novel is a detective story. To trace his friend, Webb goes first to the photographer Bellocq and manages to get a picture of Bolden from him. The picture, a group shot of Bolden’s band, is reproduced on the title page of the novel. Webb finally finds Bolden living with some old friends. He has been gone for nearly two years; in that time he has not played a note.

His return home is brief. Bolden is changed, erratic, and detached from his old life. A few days later, he joins a parade where his music somehow achieves all he has ever wanted it to be. “God this is what I wanted to play for, if no one else I always guessed there would be this.” That is when he goes mad. He is taken by train to the hospital, passing through little towns in northern Louisiana, including Slaughter, but in a larger sense Bolden has been coming through Slaughter all his life.

In the Skin of a Lion

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

The story of the role of Canada’s immigrant population in founding Toronto is told thorough the experiences of native-born Patrick Lewis.

Ondaatje offers two epigraphs for In the Skin of a Lion. One is from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh and refers to the hero’s sorrowful search for his dead friend. The second is from the novelist John Berger; it asserts that no story is the only story. Both epigraphs apply to the multiple threads of narrative in this novel, which in part tells the story of Patrick Lewis’s journey from backwoods Canada to Toronto; of his love affair with an actress, Clara Dickins; his introduction to radical politics; and his later love affair with Clara’s friend Alice Gull. However, the novel also incorporates historical events from the life of Toronto millionaire Ambrose Small, including his mysterious disappearance. Also woven throughout the work are several building projects—a bridge, viaduct, tunnel, and water purification plant—all of which grew from the labor of Italians, Greeks, Finns, and Macedonians—the whole body of immigrants whose sweat built the city.

When Patrick leaves home for the city, he leaves behind his first connections with immigrants—the loggers for whom his father worked as a dynamiter. With Ondaatje’s typical interest in visual effects, one of the novel’s many powerful images is of Finnish loggers, ice skating by night, lit by torches made of flaming cattails. In the city, Patrick meets actress Clara Dickins, and their love affair flourishes despite her position as Ambrose Small’s mistress. When Ambrose disappears (this historical event dominated the news in the 1920’s), Clara disappears as well, and Patrick becomes one of Canada’s many “searchers” who sought the missing millionaire. As he often does, Ondaatje has blended two historical figures, Small and Clara, with a cast of fictional characters, including Patrick and Clara’s friend, Alice.

Patrick’s real search is for Clara; when he finds her, she insists that she must stay with Small, and Patrick returns to Toronto to work on a huge tunnel under Lake Ontario, part of a water purification plant. He also begins a love affair with Alice, who takes him to some secret meetings of labor organizers. Participants come from every part of Toronto’s immigrant workers’ world, a world in which Patrick gradually becomes comfortable. He also enjoys his life as a foster father to Alice’s daughter Hana, the same Hana who later appears in The English Patient, as does the neighborhood thief Caravaggio.

In the novel’s climactic events, Patrick and Caravaggio sabotage the water plant as part of a labor protest. After a term in prison, Patrick returns to the city and to Hana, who has lived with a Russian family after her mother’s death. She and Patrick now form a miniature family that, at the novel’s end, is about to be increased by Clara’s return.

The novel is developed in a series of oblique pictures in which various characters sometimes hold the spotlight. Indeed, sometimes the building projects themselves seem to become central characters. The result is an unusually rich weave of character and event in a relatively short work, one in which every story seems part of other larger stories.

The English Patient

First published: 1992

Type of work: Novel

In Italy at the close of World War II, Hana, Caravaggio, and Kip care for a burn patient, who may be a spy.

The English Patient is Ondaatje’s most conventional novel, but it retains many characteristics of his earlier works in its shifting viewpoints, its use of historical documents, and its insistence on the ambiguity of truth. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1992.

As the novel begins, Hana, a young Canadian nurse, has been left in charge of a badly burned patient who seems to have been shot down while flying over the desert. They are the only inhabitants of the Italian villa that had been used as a hospital until the close of World War II, when staff and patients moved elsewhere. Hana often puzzles over the notebook the patient has made from an old copy of Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709). Most of his entries concern the Arabian desert.

Hana is joined in the villa by Caravaggio, a thief whose thumbs have been cut off. He accuses her of being in love with the English patient, but she denies it, saying that she thinks he is a “despairing saint” whom she wants to protect. Soon the three are joined by Kip, a young Indian explosives expert. Kip is a detached and solitary person who sleeps in his tent at the edge of the villa’s grounds. After Hana helps him defuse a bomb, they are drawn into a love affair, although Caravaggio is also vying for Hana’s attention.

The novel’s fourth section concerns the events that happened to an expedition from the London Geographical Society into the Arabian desert in the 1930’s. The expedition was searching for a lost oasis, Zerzura. One of the party, Geoffrey Clifton, brought along his bride, Katharine. She and Almásy, the narrator of this section (and apparently the English patient), eventually begin a passionate affair. Caravaggio later identifies Almásy as a Hungarian spy for the Germans in North Africa. Even Caravaggio’s extensive inquiry, however, cannot confirm that Almásy is the patient. The patient’s story jumps to 1942, when, stranded in the desert, he remembers that the earlier expedition left an airplane hidden in the desert caves. In the cave, he finds Katharine’s mummified body. She had died at her husband’s hands, and her husband had then killed himself. Attempting to fly her body out of the desert, Almásy crashes and burns. This, at least, is one version of the story. Parts of it are retold in ways that cast doubt on its truth.

Kip has told Hana how he was selected for special explosives training by the kindness of Lord Suffolk. He spent the early years of the war in England, a country he much admired. When the atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima, he realizes that he is essentially Asian and, after a tension-filled confrontation with the others in which he threatens to shoot the English patient, he leaves. Caravaggio also leaves. The novel’s end moves into the future, when the Indian sapper and the nurse are still solitary, ever altered by their affair in the closing days of the war.

Anil’s Ghost

First published: 2000

Type of work: Novel

Returning from the United States to her native Sri Lanka to investigate what caused the death of some newly discovered skeletons, Anil Tessera, a forensic anthropologist, must confront the effects of political terrorism on her homeland.

The terrorism which has thrived in Sri Lanka since the early 1980’s forms a backdrop for this novel, although the historical factions involved in its ongoing guerrilla war are never explicitly named. Instead, Ondaatje’s focus is on themes of family, history, identity, and the effects of violence on these important elements of humanity. The novel is developed with Ondaatje’s characteristic indirection, but it is told primarily from Anil’s point of view, moving backward and forward through her own history as she grapples with the problem of collecting evidence which will prove that the skeleton with which she is entrusted met with a recent and violent death.

Anil’s life has been privileged. She grew up in a well-to-do Sri Lankan family and studied first in London and then in the United States, where she participated eagerly in the strange community of forensic investigators. Now she has been called by a human rights organization to use her considerable analytical skills in her native country, a nation which feels familiar to her in many ways. She knows its language, food, clothing, and customs; she even has a few acquaintances left in the capital city. However, she is also aware that the country’s political turmoil means that no one can be taken at face value; no secret is entirely safe. For that reason she cannot feel quite sure that Sarath, the archaeologist with whom she must work, can be trusted when she realizes that the skeleton they have named “Sailor” was surely murdered in the near past. Nor can she be sure that Sarath is really cooperating as they try to identify the skeleton, the first step in assembling evidence which might locate and convict his killers.

Ondaatje’s descriptions of the novel’s Sri Lankan settings are particularly vivid, a product perhaps of both the author’s feelings about his homeland and his life as a poet, as well as a novelist. Thus the country’s greenery and flowers, its pools and ancient temples take on their own weight as characters in the work. Vision is often a powerful theme for Ondaatje; in this novel it is realized in the character of Ananda, a nearly blind sculptor whom Anil and Sarath hire to reconstruct a bust of Sailor in hopes that someone in the area will recognize him. Anil’s part of the novel concludes with her defeat by corrupt government officials, the same ones who probably ordered Sarath’s death. In the novel’s final images, Ananda has been hired to paint the eyes in a reconstructed statue of Buddha, thus using his art to confound the terrorists who destroyed the original.

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Michael Ondaatje Poetry: British Analysis


Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael