Michael Ondaatje

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Chelva Kanaganayakam (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Kanaganayakam, Chelva. “A Trick with a Glass: Michael Ondaatje's South Asian Connection.” Canadian Literature, no. 132 (spring 1992): 33-42.

[In the following essay, Kanaganayakam examines the representation of Sri Lankan culture in Running in the Family, discussing the personal and collective implications of the nation's colonial past for the returning expatriate.]

You tell me to pack up my bags and go
But where? I turn my face towards
Country after country
Silently I lip read their refusal
What do I call myself?
Exile, émigré refugee

Jean Arasanayagam “Exile II”

In an essay appropriately titled “Going Home,” Zulfikar Ghose reflects on the experience of visiting Pakistan after twenty-eight years, of becoming aware not only of the transformations caused by successive governments but also of deep-seated ambiguities in the task of reclaiming one's past, of establishing a space within one's psyche that promises contentment through its unequivocal assertion of identity. He describes a visit to the Peshawar museum where the incomplete statue of the fasting Buddha compels his attention:

The missing parts of the statue appear to have a vital presence: the starved, absent organs—shrunk, withered, annihilated—throb bloodily in the imagination; that which is not there startles the mind with the certainty of its being; it is an image of amazing contradictions, and illustrates the ambiguity of all perception: reality can be composed of absent things, the unseen blazes in our minds with a shocking vividness.

(Ghose 15)

For the exile, the expatriate, the referential surface is not without significance, but it remains a part of a larger perception that seeks continuities, detects dichotomies and connections, and forces the imagination to transform what is seen to reflect and accommodate what lies below the surface. If the experience of exile inevitably involves division, it also affords the perceptions of complex connections that question and subvert prevailing structures. As Aamer Hussein points out, “there is … a tremendous inherent privilege in the term, a mobility of mind if not always of matter, to which we as writers should lay claim: a doubling instead of a split.” (Hussein 102)

Michael Ondaatje, in Running in the Family, returns to a country he left twenty-five years ago, and his perception of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is no less profound, no less complex, for it entails returning to a past characterized by the duality of being both “native” and “foreign,” to a tenuous, middle-of-road position that served as a constant reminder to the British of the unfortunate effects of miscegenation; for the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Burghers symbolized the residual vestiges of colonial domination, and therefore an extension of British, metropolitan culture. As Ondaatje puts it, “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner” (79). The gap that separates the British finds expression early in Ondaatje's work:

Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations. There was a large social gap between this circle and the Europeans and English who were never part of the Ceylonese community. The English were seen as transients, snobs and racists, and were quite separate from those who had intermarried and who lived here permanently.


The Burghers, by implication, are closer to the land than the British, but they too do not escape the stigma of alienation. The author mentions that Emil Daniels, when asked by a British governor what his nationality was, replied “God alone knows, your excellency” (41). Particularly as the country moved closer to Independence, the tenuousness of a community whose strength and its weakness lay in its cultural syncretism...

(This entire section contains 4217 words.)

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became increasingly apparent. As Ernest Macintyre, whose plays point to the loss of self in neo-colonial Sri Lanka and whose decision to emigrate to Australia underlines the problems of the Burgher community in the country, comments, the Burghers “were to enjoy an entire mortality of heightened unreality, a surreality because they wouldn't be provided with even a humbug of ‘a tryst with destiny’ at midnight in 1947 when Ceylon was given the legality of Independence” (Macintyre 315). Ondaatje's return to the country of his birth needs to be seen as a complex version of the familiar “been-to” situation.

To be refused a role in history is to be denied the very basis of identity. Hence the author's need to establish a niche for himself in Sri Lanka, which appears time and again with obsessive insistence in his work. His father claimed to be a Ceylon Tamil, an identity that the son treats with some scepticism. His own sense of origins is deliberately ambiguous:

My own ancestor arriv[ed] in 1600, a doctor who cured the residing governor's daughter with a strange herb and was rewarded with land, a foreign wife, and a new name which was a Dutch spelling of his own. Ondaatje. A parody of the ruling language.


The ironies are striking. The name, hardly recognizable as Tamil or Sinhalese, with minor changes, means, in the Tamil language “to become one.” A far cry from the state of limbo that characterizes the Burgher community, a predicament that Derek Walcott's Shabine so aptly describes in The Star-Apple Kingdom

                    I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
                    and either I'm a nobody, or I'm a nation

(Walcott 4)

The need to probe and resolve this duality, however, is obsessive. Ondaatje left early enough to avoid the gradual disillusionment that set in among the Burghers in the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s following the introduction of Sinhala as the official language and the switch to Sinhala and Tamil as the languages of instruction. Speaking of the inevitable alienation and the desire to emigrate, Macintyre mentions the large-scale exodus from Sri Lanka to Melbourne, and of Ondaatje's family, “a small inner circle which had become far too used to their Ceylon fantasy to make that very real journey from Tullamarine airport to the suburbs of Melbourne” (Macintyre 316). Ondaatje himself chose to leave for Canada, but the need to return finds expression through dreams that encroach into his consciousness and through the marginal position of sleeping on a couch at a friend's home. The intertextual reference to Jane Austen's Persuasion is apt, for it underscores the hastiness of his departure from Sri Lanka and the need to re-live a romance that was once rejected. The return is not entirely euphoric, for images of claustrophobia constantly interrupt those of nostalgia. Dream and nightmare compete in the author's consciousness. The precariousness of the position is emphasized by the metaphor of balancing a glass of wine on his head while dancing. Ironically, it is while he is drunk, and most likely to stumble, that he acquires the art of balancing the glass. Now, tormented by the dreams that invade his mind, he loses the balance, the glass is about to tip over and the author says, “I knew I was already running.”

The notion of “running” is particularly appropriate, suggesting as it were several alternative prepositions, all of which define the preoccupations of this work. Running is as much about running “in” as it is about “to,” “from” or “against.” The constant shifts in perspective, the foregrounding of textuality, the anxiety to belong and the need for distance, the awareness of history and the self-consciousness about historiography—all combine to create the effect of a complex quest in which the notion of identity needs to be explored in all its multiplicity. Probing one's identity is problematic in the best of situations, let alone in the case of one who is seen as both the agent and victim of colonial hegemony. As in Ghose's essay, there is a constant awareness of the space that separates the real from the everyday, and the power of the imagination to transform the referential into a fictive construct that speaks more eloquently about the self than any preoccupation with meticulous detail. The objective is not without validity, but it remains only one of many possible representations. As Linda Hutcheon comments, “in all forms of narrating the past, the realization of the essential subjectivity of the enterprise has recently supplanted any positivist faith in objective representations” (Hutcheon 306). If the cold weather renders the people of Ontario “pink and frozen,” the generations who constitute his ancestry stand out in memory like “frozen opera.” To give them a meaningful reality is to transform them through the imagination: “I wanted to touch them into words.”

The problematic and controversial aspect of the work becomes evident at the very beginning, in the section entitled “Jaffna Afternoons,” which opens with a description of the governor's home in the Jaffna Fort, that impressive structure in the heart of Jaffna, overlooking the sea, an enduring symbol of subjugation and defeat. (It is significant that the fort, until recently, was used as a camp by the Sri Lankan army in their effort to overcome the Tamil rebels. According to recent reports, the rebels who have now secured control of the fort have begun to demolish it in an attempt to erase what they perceive to be a symbol of subservience.) Ondaatje's choice of beginning his work in Jaffna and not in Colombo suggests at least a partial recognition of his father's claim to be a Jaffna Tamil. Having done so, strangely enough, he isolates himself in the Fort, and hardly draws attention to the ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese during the past few decades. His reference to his uncle Ned as heading a commission on race-riots deepens the irony of seeking an elitist seclusion in the governor's home. Granted that ethnic violence in Sri Lanka did not escalate until 1983, the growing tension between the two communities was too obvious to be missed. Presumably, the author's intention was to distance himself from ideological issues that he did not feel strongly about. That writers like Jean Arasanayagam—another Burgher writer who decided to stay—chose to write about the ethnic conflict provides an interesting comparison with the apolitical stance of Ondaatje. This refusal to be drawn into issues that surface in any serious discussion of the country has been criticised, not undeservedly, as an example of solipsism. Arun Mukherjee's observation that Ondaatje “does not get drawn into the acts of living, which involves the need to deal with the burning issues of his time” (Mukherjee 34) can hardly be refuted, regardless of the author's angle of vision or aesthetic sensibility.

Even more significant is that Ondaatje visited Sri Lanka in 1978 and 1980, less than a decade after the 1971 Insurgency shook the country out of its complacency and forced it to confront issues it had chosen to ignore. Sri Lankan writers who for a long time had confined themselves to imitative writing, now responded to the pressure of the times, and several writers, including Punyakante Wijenaike, James Goonewardene and Edirwira Sarachchandra wrote about the effects of the Insurgency. Ondaatje could not have avoided discussing the movement, for some of the bloodiest battles were fought in Kegalle, where his ancestral home was located. He refers to the insurgents in Kegalle and their project of going from house to house collecting arms to begin the struggle, but only to shift the emphasis into one of irony. Here is the description of their visit to his ancestral home:

While all this official business was going on around the front porch, the rest of the insurgents had put down their huge collection of weapons, collected all over from Kegalle, and persuaded my younger sister Susan to provide a bat and a tennis ball. Asking her to join them, they proceeded to play cricket on the frontlawn.


The juxtaposition is hardly amusing or convincing. But when he speaks about the incarceration of the insurgents at Vidyalankara Campus, their graffiti poems that spoke of their hopes and anguish, he curbs the impulse to aestheticise the movement. The context in which this description occurs propels the narrative towards aesthetic distance, but the parallel with the graffiti poems on the rock face of Sigiriya, and the implied contrast between the love poems written to satisfy a despot king and the angry verses to defy a hostile government provide a saving sensitivity. The author concedes: “The works seem as great as the Sigiriya frescoes. They too need to be eternal” (85).

The author's quest is less ambitious than that of the insurgents, but it too involves history, a need to establish roots. Hence the excitement and exhilaration of seeing his name cut across the stone floor of a church:

To kneel on the floors of a church and see your name chiseled in large letters so that it stretches from your fingertips to your elbow in some strange way removes vanity, eliminates the personal. It makes your own story a lyric. So the sound which came immediately out of my mouth as I half-gasped and called my sister spoke all that excitement of smallness, of being overpowered by stone.


To have to be reminded of one's history in this manner is uplifting and painful, as he recognizes when he washes his hands and sees “the deep grey colour of old paper going down the drain” (68). The sense of inadequacy, the anguish of having been severed from history comes across in a wonderful statement that intertextually recalls Prufrock; the author comments:

After the cups of tea, coffee, public conversations … I want to sit down with someone and talk with utter directness, want to talk to all the lost history like that deserving lover.


The combination of urgency and self-consciousness is central to the work, for it defines the elusive tone of the book, points to the difficulty of attaching labels—“travelogue,” “autobiography,” “fiction”—all of which seem to be both true and false. That Ondaatje wanted to be truthful can hardly be doubted. In an interview with Sam Solecki, he speaks of having sent copies of the manuscript to various relatives before the publication of the book, to make certain that truth had not been misrepresented. He also mentions that “Running was difficult to write” (Solecki 331). The issue, then, is less with sincerity of motive than with representation of reality, of the manner in which a consciousness probes its own past. Ondaatje's work can hardly be entirely nostalgic or vituperative, and that explains the impulse to subvert expectations, mix genres and fuse a self-conscious narrative mode with a strikingly mimetic surface.

Ondaatje's preoccupation with history and the validity of what purports to be historical truth is evident at the outset. The two epigraphs with which the work begins, the first a statement by Oderic, a Franciscan friar of the 14th century and the second by Douglas Amerasekara in 1978 express the two ends of historical perception in relation to Sri Lanka. The first, clearly Orientalist and exotic, transforms the reality of a country into one that suggests myth and fable; the second, neo-colonial and self-deprecating, expresses a world view conditioned by centuries of colonial domination. Myths persist to shape the present. Ondaatje draws attention to enduring misconceptions: “From Sellyan to Paradise is forty miles,” says a legend, “the sounds of the fountains of Paradise is heard there” (81). However, for Robert Knox, who was held captive in the island for twenty years in the 17th century, the experience was one of desolation: “Thus was I left Desolate, Sick and in Captivity, having no earthly comforter, none but only He who looks down from Heaven to hear the groaning of the prisoners” (81). Ironically, his writings become a primary source for Daniel Defoe who then shapes his novel into a master narrative of colonial hegemony and binary structure. Ondaatje is aware that seventy years before him an Englishman called Leonard Woolf wrote a wonderful novel called The Village in the Jungle which avoids both the exoticism of traditional accounts and the colonial cringe of the more recent ones in its projection of a village gradually destroyed by nature and an uncomprehending British administration.

His own views must recognize these contraries. Ondaatje's tangential relation to this “wife of many marriages” requires a careful balancing act. He is the prodigal who is constantly drawn to the words “sea,” “harbour,” and “estuary” and who loves the song “Harbour Lights.” He is aware that in the blistering heat that accompanies New Year festivities, people enjoy themselves climbing grease poles, throwing water on passing cyclists. For his family, the experience is very different: “But my kids, as we drove towards lowland heat, growing belligerent and yelling at each other to shut up, shut up” (80). Even what appears to be most “primitive” or “exotic” has its use, while the cultural allegiance of his community lies in far off cultures.

The devil dances cured sickness, catarrh, deafness, aloneness. Here the gramophone accompanied a seduction or an arousal, it spoke of meadows and “little Spanish towns” or “a small hotel,” a “blue room.”


On the other hand, when at Kuttapitiya, the author's daughter says, “if we lived here it would be perfect” (146) he wholeheartedly agrees. About the task of writing the work itself, he says, “I just had to say to myself that I thought I was writing the book with enough love, that if it was me it would be OK” (Solecki 331). It is the dual awareness of closeness and distance, of fictions that masquerade as truth and truth that hides behind fantasy that leads to the experiment of his work. The foregrounding of “architecture,” of conflicting voices that cancel each other out, the juxtaposition of the public and the private, the claim to be universalist and representative and the insistence on the personal and the family are thus inevitable for one whose identities—Burgher, Sri Lankan, Canadian etc.—make the task of retrieving the past all the more complex. The work's singular achievement lies in the manner in which it projects the claims of both “History” in the national sense and “history” in the private sense to express what is at once a profound personal quest and a statement about the country that has chosen to remain, in many ways, oblivious of the realities that edge its complacent vision of itself.

The strategies that shape the narrative are subtle enough to maintain the precarious balance that this work requires. Thus a section like “The Honeymoon” says very little about the honeymoon itself, but provides a collage, a quick survey of information that resembles a skimming of headlines and column titles from a newspaper, possibly on a day during the honeymoon. The tangential relation between the two acquires depth through the manner of selection and the distribution of emphasis. The juxtaposition of “Fighting in Manchuria,” and the films at the local cinema, namely, “Love Birds” and “Caught Cheating” drives home dichotomies that lie beyond the referential surface. Leslie Mundwiler's comment that “even if narrative deceives, offers entertaining illusions in contrast with the straight medicine of reality, there is a kind of narrative which can transcend this limitation” (Mundwiler 136) accurately defines the strategies that inform this work.

For a work that is ostensibly linear in its overall conception of historical continuity, the structure is remarkably synchronic. Images, once they have been introduced, are abandoned for a period of time and then picked up at a later point, thereby drawing attention to the fictiveness of the construct and our perception of history. “Historical Relations,” which, at best, is a superficial treatment of relatives then acquires a special significance in relation the memoirs of Robert Knox. The section on “The War between Men and Women,” hardly has anything to offer beyond an instance of perversion, but a later chapter focusses intently on issues of gender in relation to the author's parents. Titles of sections, which at first seem deliberately misleading, gradually achieve their purpose of foregrounding the narrative, thereby asserting the fictiveness of both the literary construct and the episodes that are described. Such a process is of crucial significance in a work that seeks to decentre the “public” and install the “private” in its place.

The dense layering of intertextuality and self-reflexivity can hardly be missed in the work. References to Defoe, Shakespeare, Dickens, Lawrence and various other poets not only destabilize the realistic surface but also point to dimensions that are insistently personal and autobiographical. Dismissive of “anguished autobiographical novels,” he records an instance of being bathed by a vicious woman named Maratina, and what might have accounted for childhood trauma hardly enters his consciousness. And yet the personal element is very much a part of the work. The ghosts of ancestors do not merely inhabit the governor's home in Jaffna. They are very much in the author's mind, for his journey to Sri Lanka is mainly a quest for his father, an attempt to exorcise feelings of guilt, of betrayal.

There is no attempt to sentimentalise or universalize the experience between the father and the son. The father is a dipsomaniac, a bully, a spendthrift. He is very much a colonial officer, who even in his drunkenness and moments of hallucination, perceives the need to be respectful to British officers. Recreating that history involves listening to unflattering accounts of his father's activities, visiting Sir John Kotelawala who refuses to refer to Mervyn by name and insists on calling him “that chap.” But the dialogues of the latter part of the work change in tone to reveal a lonely, depressed and lovable man, who writes to his expatriate children that “he just wished that he could kiss [them] all once again” (178). To recognize such connections is to assert the significance of one's roots, one's ambivalent sense of belonging. It recalls for the author the predicament of Edgar, misunderstood and exiled, returning to make peace:

I long for the moment in the play where Edgar reveals himself to Gloucester and it never happens. Look I am the son who has grown up. I am the son you have made hazardous, who still loves you. … I am writing this book about you at a time when I am least sure about such words … Give me your arm. Let go my hand.


Clearly, Ondaatje's task in writing this work which straddles fiction and autobiography is to come to terms with a past that is both personal and collective. It involves looking back at a history that was formed three centuries ago and was all but terminated soon after the departure of the British in 1947. The work's weakness lies in its refusal to participate actively in the referential, in its reluctance to condemn or praise; in foregrounding the “narrative” at the expense of the “national,” Ondaatje abandons a wonderful opportunity to assert a much-needed sense of belonging. Those of his generation, the “Midnight's children,” many of them exiles and expatriates, have felt the need to create experimental and metafictional structures. As Hussein explains, “our texts constantly explore the boundaries between fact and fiction, memory and imagination, individual and collective consciousness” (Hussein 107). And yet they never fail to confront the immediate and the political. Except for occasional moments, as in the discussion of the poetry of Lakdasa Wikramasinha, Ondaatje hardly ever shows signs of impassioned involvement with contemporary events. In his failure, Ondaatje shares the shortcomings of the majority of Sri Lankan writing in English which, for the most part, has stayed clear of the upheavals that have transformed a kindly, generous nation into a cruel and mindless battlefield.

Sri Lanka's current dilemma is at least in part a result of forgetting the past, of creating identities that owe their origin to Eurocentric or nationalist fictions, of steadfastly refusing to perceive truths that lie behind the immediate and subjective. Ondaatje's work is an attempt to articulate the complexity of a colonial inheritance, the need to transcend binary structures, to perceive dichotomies and continuities between the referential and the real. Running provides a salutary reminder of the need to see beyond fictions that take on the appearance of truth. His work is a far cry from the realism of Leonard Woolf, but it remains an authentic narrative, the voice of the expatriate, the exiled voice that it is both marginal and central, divided in its loyalties, but clear and unequivocal in its commitment to struggle with competing identities. As the author points out:

During certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our job becomes to keep peace with enemy camps, eliminate the chaos at the end of Jacobean tragedies, and with “the mercy of distance” write the histories.


Works Cited

Arasanayagam, Jean. Trial by Terror (Hamilton, NZ: Rimu, 1987).

Ghose, Zulfikar. “Going Home,” The Toronto South Asian Review 9.2 (1991): 15-22.

Hussein, Aamer. “The Echoing of Quiet Voices.” Asian Voices in English. eds. Mimi Chan & Roy Harris (Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1991): 101-108.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Running in the Family: The Postmodernist Challenge.” Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. ed. Sam Solecki. (Montreal: Vehicule, 1985): 301-314.

Macintyre, Ernest. “Outside of Time: Running in the Family.Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. ed. Sam Solecki. (Montreal: Vehicule, 1985): 315-319.

Mukherjee, Arun P. “The Sri Lankan Poets in Canada: An Alternative View.” The Toronto South Asian Review 3.2 (1984): 32-45.

Mundwiler, Leslie. Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination. (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984).

Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982).

Solecki, Sam. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. ed. Sam Solecki. (Montreal: Vehicule, 1985): 321-332.

Walcott, Derek. The Star-Apple Kingdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980).


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Michael Ondaatje 1943-

(Full name Philip Michael Ondaatje) Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist, poet, director, playwright, memoirist, critic, and editor.

See also, Michael Ondaatje Criticism and volume 29.

Author of the award-winning novel The English Patient (1992), Ondaatje has emerged as one of the most celebrated and versatile Canadian writers since the 1960s. In both his poetry and fiction, Ondaatje focuses on the internal lives of his multigenerational characters and exhibits a fascination with extraordinary personality types, the dynamics of family life, the violence of war, and the loss of cultural identity in the postcolonial world. While his prose fiction is highly lyrical, much of his poetry contains elements of narrative. Nearly all of Ondaatje's works are structured as a pastiche of textual forms interweaving elements of poetry, fiction, memoirs, travelogue, myths, and photographs, among other literary conventions. Exhibiting a whimsical and imaginative writing style, Ondaatje's prose is marked by vivid detail, sensuous imagery, startling juxtapositions, and a preoccupation with intense experiences.

Biographical Information

Born on September 12, 1943, in Colombo, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Ondaatje is the grandson of a wealthy tea planter who owned a family estate in Kegalle. In 1948 Ondaatje's parents divorced, and in 1952, he moved to London with his mother, brother, and sister. When he was nineteen, Ondaatje immigrated to Canada where he joined his brother, who was already living in Montreal. From 1962 to 1964, Ondaatje studied English and history at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec. In 1964 he married Kim Jones, an artist, with whom he has two children; the couple later separated in 1980. Ondaatje left Bishop's University in 1964, transferring to the University of Toronto where he completed his bachelor's degree in 1965. During his years at university, Ondaatje began to write poetry and met such noted poets as D. G. Jones and Raymond Souster; the latter included Ondaatje's award-winning early writings in his anthology of young Canadian poets, New Wave Canada. In 1965 Ondaatje entered Queen's University, graduating with a master's degree in 1967 after writing his thesis on Scottish poet Edwin Muir. That same year, Ondaatje published his first volume of poetry, The Dainty Monsters. Ondaatje began teaching English at the University of Western Ontario, and in 1971 he joined the faculty of the English department at York University in Toronto, where he would teach for the next thirty years. Ondaatje also worked as an editor for Coach House Press from 1970 to 1994 and served as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu and Brown University. During the 1970s, Ondaatje published the well-regarded critical study Leonard Cohen (1970), several poetry collections including The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970), which won a Governor General's Award, Rat Jelly (1973), Elimination Dance (1978), and There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978 (1979), which also won a Governor General's Award, as well as his first novel, Coming through Slaughter (1976). A long-time cinema enthusiast, Ondaatje has also directed a number of independent films including The Sons of Captain Poetry (1970) and The Clinton Special: A Film about “The Farm Show” (1974). In 1992 Ondaatje published The English Patient, which won the Governor General's Award as well as the prestigious Booker Prize. In 1996 the film adaptation of The English Patient was released, directed by filmmaker Anthony Minghella. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, winning a total of nine awards, including best picture and best director.

Major Works

Ondaatje first attracted critical attention for his poetry, with scholars noting his continuing emphasis on lyrical imagery and cultural displacement. Taking its title from a poem by French poet Charles Baudelaire, The Dainty Monsters juxtaposes surrealistic images and fantastical creatures drawn from classical mythology with events from everyday domestic life. The poems in the collection also include monologues spoken by a variety of mythical and historical figures, including Lilith, Prometheus, and Queen Elizabeth I. Consisting of thirty-three short lyrics and a concluding ballad, The Man with Seven Toes (1969) is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Eliza Fraser, a Scottish woman who was shipwrecked in 1835 off the coast of Queensland, Australia, and lived among the aborigines before she returned to civilization with the help of an escaped convict. Widely considered Ondaatje's most important volume of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid draws upon the author's fascination with the culture of the American West and examines the nature of heroism and violence. The collection combines prose, verse, photographs, and drawings to present a fictionalized biography of the notorious outlaw William Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid. Rat Jelly, a collection of short lyrics informed by Ondaatje's marriage and family life, displays a preoccupation with domestic and personal conflicts, the often violent relations between humans and animals, and the destructive impulses of artistic personalities. Similarly, the subject matter of There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do concerns such topics as friendship and family history while including selections from Ondaatje's previous works. Secular Love (1984) is comprised of four unified sequences of confessional lyrics exploring paternal love, Ondaatje's traumatic divorce, and the redemptive qualities of love. The poems feature the author himself as both a character and the creative observer who molds his experiences into art. In 1999 Ondaatje published Handwriting, which consists of poems focused primarily on imagery drawn from the history, geography, mythology, and cultural traditions of Sri Lanka.

Ondaatje's first full-length work of prose, Coming through Slaughter, explores the life of legendary New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden, an early twentieth-century coronet player whose career ended abruptly due to his mental breakdown in 1907. Blending poetry and such prose forms as interviews and journalistic reports, Coming through Slaughter interweaves historical accounts with imaginary stories of Bolden's tormented life. Ondaatje's memoir Running in the Family (1982) integrates a contemporary travelogue—informed by Sri Lankan myths and legends—with childhood memories, family stories, and photographs to recreate Ondaatje's family history with a particular emphasis on the eccentric personalities of his father and maternal grandmother. Its title derived from a line in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, the novel In the Skin of a Lion (1987) chronicles the oppressed lives of immigrant workers who helped to expand and modernize Toronto, Ontario, during the 1920s and 1930s. The novel features elements of surrealism and a nonlinear plot, following twenty-one-year-old artist Patrick Lewis from rural Canada to a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Toronto where he struggles with racial prejudice and economic disparities. Incorporating figurative language and poetic imagery, The English Patient, Ondaatje's best-known work, traces the developing relationships between three men and a woman encamped in the ruins of an Italian villa during the last months of World War II. The novel opens with Hana, a young Canadian nurse, who is caring for the severely burned title character. Joining Hana and her patient are Kirpal “Kip” Singh, an Indian-Sikh soldier recruited by the British to diffuse German land mines, and David Caravaggio, a Canadian spy and thief who harbors suspicions about Hana's patient. As the narrative progresses, the characters' personal histories and secrets are slowly divulged: the patient—later identified as Amàlsy—recalls memories of his lover and her death; Kip relates his third-world experiences and exploits as a demolition expert in London during the blitzkrieg; and Carravaggio, whom Hana knew as a girl in Canada, discovers that the patient is actually a Hungarian count and German spy. Set in the midst of the 1980s Sri Lankan civil war, Anil's Ghost recounts the story of Anil, a Sri Lankan emigrant to the United States and forensic pathologist, who returns to her native country to investigate human remains for evidence of possible war crimes. She is assisted by Sarath, a Sri Lankan government archeologist, whose motives prove dubious at best. Less experimental than his previous novels, Anil's Ghost constructs a narrative with elements of both fact and fiction as demonstrated by the novel's appended bibliography of nonfiction sources. In 2002 Ondaatje released The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a collection of interviews between himself and acclaimed film editor Walter Murch, who won an Academy Award for best film editing for the movie adaptation of The English Patient. Throughout the work, Ondaatje stresses the parallels between editing prose and editing film as Murch discusses working on such classic motion pictures as The Godfather,Apocalypse Now, and American Graffiti.

Critical Reception

Critics—particularly in his adopted homeland of Canada—have enthusiastically received Ondaatje's works, praising the originality of his imagination and his successful blurring of literary conventions throughout his career. Many have also applauded the effective integration of mythical and historical allusions in both Ondaatje's poetry and fiction. Critics were initially impressed by the musical, sound-conscious language of Ondaatje's early poetry, and reviewers of his later poems have lauded the consistency of his experiments with the shapes and sounds of words. However, some have criticized Ondaatje for sacrificing accuracy and precise diction in his poetic works. In Ondaatje's prose, commentators have noted the author's skill at exploiting elements of humor, extravagant metaphors, and sudden shifts of perspective. Such reviewers have praised the intertextual nature of Ondaatje's narratives as well as his explorations of personal, family, community, and national identities. Critics of his later works—notably The English Patient and Anil's Ghost—have noted Ondaatje's incorporation of a variety of literary sources, including biblical stories and Arthurian legend. The range of scholarship on Ondaatje's oeuvre has investigated such diverse topics as Ondaatje's interests in national boundaries and identities, his increased sensitivity to gender relations, the complex cultural effects of war, and the glamorization of violence. In addition, reviewers have acclaimed Ondaatje's portrayal of Sri Lanka in his writings, often citing his lush descriptions of its landscape and detailed accounts of the country's rich culture. While some critics have derided Ondaatje for his lyrical excesses, most have argued that his linguistic virtuosity and manipulation of both established and personal mythology rank him as one of the most significant writers of his generation.

Christian Bök (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Bök, Christian. “Destructive Creation: The Politicization of Violence in the Works of Michael Ondaatje.” Canadian Literature, no. 132 (spring 1992): 109-24.

[In the following essay, Bök discusses the sociopolitical implications of the glamorized violence that characterizes the male protagonists of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming through Slaughter, Running in the Family, and In the Skin of a Lion.]

Michael Ondaatje has repeatedly demonstrated a writerly interest in violent, male protagonists who exhibit aesthetic sensitivity. William Bonney in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Buddy Bolden in Coming through Slaughter (1976), Mervyn Ondaatje in Running in the Family (1982), and Patrick Lewis in In the Skin of a Lion (1987), all play the role of violator, and often they resort to physical violence as an expressive outlet that is paradoxically both creative and destructive at the same time. Ondaatje's romanticization of such protagonists, however, suggests a potentially disturbing vision of the creative intellect, and little has been said by critics about the social implications of this motif. Ondaatje's texts actually appear to encourage the reader to forgive, if not admire, the protagonists for their violent excesses, and the texts appear to do so without adequately addressing the protagonists' degree of social accountability. Violence in Ondaatje's work represents an aesthetic virtue, but whereas Ondaatje's earlier texts appear to valorize violence enacted for purely idiosyncratic reasons, Ondaatje's later texts begin to reevaluate the ethics of such violence and suggest that it must ultimately serve a socially responsible end.

Exotic violence has indeed become a hallmark of Ondaatje's style: The Collected Works depicts a man eaten alive by mad dogs, “the hand that held the whip … left untouched” (62); Coming through Slaughter portrays a photographer who deliberately immolates himself, “diving through a wave and emerging red on the other side” (67); Running in the Family cites the death of a jockey “savaged to pieces by his own horse” (25); and In the Skin of a Lion refers to a bridge-worker cut in two by a giant wire whip, “the upper half of his body found an hour later, still hanging in the halter” (41). Protagonists in these texts are especially exuberant in their violence: William Bonney, for example, goes into a frenzy and blasts away at rats drunk on fermented grain (18); Buddy Bolden uses a straight-razor to mutilate a man in a barber chair (73); Mervyn Ondaatje goes into a drunken rampage and holds up a passenger train at gunpoint (148); and Patrick Lewis uses dynamite to obliterate a country hotel (167). Truly, Dennis Lee in Savage Fields is correct when appraising Ondaatje in terms of a cosmological space where “‘[t]o be’ is to be in strife” (11).

Stephen Scobie in “The Lies Stay In,” however, asks (but does not answer) the crucial question: “Does Ondaatje luxuriate too much in these images of violence” (119)? Douglas Barbour in “Controlling the Jungle” responds to the calculated brutality of Ondaatje's earliest, poetic images by praising the poet's stylistic refinement:

[Ondaatje] has a clear imaginative understanding of violence, yet this violence never overwhelms the poet. The poetry is not voluptuous in its violence; it is chiselled and carefully wrought. The old idea of decorum applies perfectly to these poems. … [T]he poet deals with varieties of physical and mental violence in an almost virginally pure style and manner. The result is a tremendous gain in imaginative force over most modern treatments of the theme.


Eli Mandel in Poets of Contemporary Canada sees that Ondaatje's poetry is characterized by “the cold precision of a surgeon's knife” (xvi), and Frank Davey in From There to Here points out that, “[i]n a world as bloody and violent as Ondaatje perceives it, the poet can apparently never relax his self-control” (226). Ondaatje in effect receives critical acclaim for his ability to stylize violence, to endow it with aesthetic integrity through both technical precision and emotional detachment.

Unqualified appreciation of such aesthetically rendered violence, however, raises unsettling questions about the social ramifications of violence in literature—for within the aesthetic celebration of brutality lies the potential for desensitization to brutality; continued exposure to violence as an aesthetic virtue may serve only to naturalize it as a social phenomenon. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse in “Representing Violence” emphasize this point: “To regard certain practises as violent is never to see them just as they are. It is always to take up a position for or against them” (9). Critical readers of Ondaatje's “Elizabeth,” for example, are presumably expected to react with horror to the poem's aristocratic narrator who can witness a graphic, public execution and then immediately afterward “find cool entertainment now / with … nimble rhymes” (69); nevertheless, critical readers go on to praise Ondaatje for his ability to maintain a similar sense of aesthetic refinement in the face of the violence that he depicts. Ondaatje is admired by critics in part because he can fix his gaze upon violence without flinching: like the nameless driver who runs over two copulating birds in “Application for a Driving License,” the poet appears to be quite capable of saying with breezy confidence: “nothing shocks me” (35). While this clinical detachment may heighten the reader's horrified response, such detachment goes largely unquestioned by equally clinical academics: such detachment begins to replace emotional empathy as a measure of poetic talent. Ondaatje seems to focus more upon the individual glory of victimizers than upon the collective suffering of victims, and for this perspective critics reward him with what amounts to a wary appreciation of his sadistic visions. What remains paramount thematically in Ondaatje's texts then are the very dangers inherent in this glamourization of such violence.

Ondaatje's infatuation with brutality may at first glance seem completely idiosyncratic; however, the violence in his work may also arise directly out of the postmodern milieu in which Ondaatje operates. Linda Hutcheon in The Canadian Postmodern suggests that postmodern literature disrupts any naturalized assumption that tries to efface its status as an ideological construct (12). Such disruptive impulses in postmodern writing actually embody a strategy of ostranenie—or “defamiliarization”: violence is in effect the bazooka of the innovative. Graphic depictions of aestheticized brutality not only attract the prolonged attention of an audience, but also shock an audience into a recognition of its own implication in violent, ideological processes. As with any strategy of defamiliarization, however, the unorthodox soon becomes doxa, a standard formula of representation that must in turn be dismantled violently: audiences soon become desensitized to shock tactics; consequently, more extreme strategies of defamiliarization are required to challenge reified structures. This “vicious circle” is violent, but not necessarily undesirable: the result is an expansion of discursive boundaries. Whatever has suffered violent marginalization because of oppressive ideology is in turn violently centralized.

Ondaatje's writing indeed addresses unpalatable issues, such as rape, murder, sadomasochism, and suicide; however, Ondaatje has in the past tried to disavow the sociopolitical implications of his writing. Ondaatje in the 1971 White Pelican interview describes himself as an “arch-romantic” (10), and indeed his early works appear to support Webb's claim in Coming through Slaughter that “[a]ll suicides all acts of privacy are romantic” (101);1 moreover, this romanticization coincides with the poet's own self-professed, political disengagement at the time. Ondaatje states during the 1972 Manna interview, for example, that The Collected Works contain no political significance or sociological meaning: “I'm not interested in politics on that public level. The recent fashion of drawing journalistic morals out of literature is I think done by people who don't love literature or who are not capable of allowing its full scope to be seen” (20). Ondaatje later admits in a 1975 Rune interview that he has an interest in “the destruction of social violence by the violence of outsiders” (46) and that “[t]he whole political thing has been obsessing me this last year” (51); however, he tries at the same time to deny any alignment with a systematized, political philosophy. Ondaatje states in Rune: “I avoid reading books on … politics. It's a funny thing, political theses I find impossible to read. I have to be affected emotionally or in a sensual way before something hits me” (51). Evidently, the early Ondaatje appears to agree with the sentiments of Patrick Lewis in In the Skin of a Lion: “The trouble with ideology … is that it hates the private. You must make it human” (135). Ondaatje in Rune, however, goes on to betray a potentially embarrassing, political naïveté by confusing Trotsky with Marx (52)—a curious, educational blindspot, given that In the Skin of a Lion appears to exemplify a political sensitivity to the plight of the working-class. Ondaatje in the 1978 Twelve Voices interview reasserts his sociopolitical disengagement by saying “I certainly don't feel any kind of duty to society as an ‘artist’ at all” (142); however, Ondaatje tempers this rejection of the sociopolitical world later in the interview, when he says:

I hate the term “artist,” I hate the term “poet,” it has so many connotations of someone who is separate from the real world, someone who supposedly “deserves” more, “knows” more, than the man on the street. It suggests someone who is superior to any other craftsman that exists around us today, and I think this is a real problem of artists. It's been created by artists who go around saying they are visionaries or they're prophets or they're noble figures.


On the one hand, Ondaatje does not feel accountable to society; on the other, Ondaatje craves to reduce the separation between himself and the “real world,” of which society is presumably a part. While the early Ondaatje appears to believe that great literature must be sociopolitically indifferent, the later Ondaatje appears to express a burgeoning tension between two conflicting, artistic impulses: the will to social retreat and the will to social contact.

Ondaatje's early obsession with the violent rejection of society is best expressed in his frequently anthologized lyric “White Dwarfs,” where the narrator asks: “Why do I love most / among my heroes those / who sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel” (70). Such heroes remain fascinating to Ondaatje because they “implode into silence” (71), retreat into “the perfect white between the words” (71), either the aphasia of death or the aphasia of madness. Ondaatje regards this kind of inward withdrawal into silence as the ultimate act of violence against society, perhaps because such aphasia represents a deliberate abandonment of language, the very means by which socialization is even possible. Ondaatje writes in Coming through Slaughter that “[t]he mystic privacy one can be so proud of has no alphabet of noise or meaning to the people outside” (64), and recurrently the poet suggests throughout his longer texts that artistic aphasia may stem in part from either an emotional pain harsh enough to silence the voice or a creative insight too profound to be expressed in words; moreover, the texts go on to suggest that perhaps this pain is itself the insight. Stephen Scobie in “The Lies Stay In” points out that, while “Ondaatje's first temptation is silence” (118), the poet resists this temptation through the very act of writing about it: whereas the hate-ridden narrator of “War Machine” admits that perhaps he “wd like to live mute / all day long / not talk” (14-17), the narrator of “White Dwarfs” admits that “[t]here is my fear / of no words of / falling without words / over and over of / mouthing the silence” (70). This infatuation with aphasia almost embodies a kind of artistic death-wish, a compulsion that suggests a pathological psychology; yet, the degree to which Ondaatje's violent characters represent possible states of the poet's own mind remains unclear.

Urjo Kareda in “An Immigrant's Song” points out that Ondaatje is admittedly terrified of violence and cannot account for the brutality of his own work (49). Kareda cites Stan Bevington, who wonders whether or not Ondaatje's lack of violent experience might actually lend the poet a certain “clarity” about violence (49). Kareda also cites Dennis Lee, who suggests that the tension between the gentleness of Ondaatje's nature and the violence of the writing represents not an “iron control,” but a “knowledge of something imaginatively grasped that cannot be acted out” (49). Ondaatje appears, however, to identify with his early protagonists and admits to Kareda that the works in which William Bonney and Buddy Bolden appear reflect a “private world” (40), one fraught perhaps with the constant threat of silence. Ondaatje admits to Gretchen Pierce in “Canada Gives Writer ‘Sense of Place’” that “[w]riting Billy was a catharsis and I learned more about myself” (30), and in the Manna interview Ondaatje discusses Billy and confesses: “I was writing about something that had always interested me, something within myself” (20). Ondaatje in Coming through Slaughter even intrudes as the ostensible narrator, who appears to identify with Bolden psychologically:

When he went mad he was the same age as I am now. …

When I read he stood in front of mirrors and attacked himself, there was the shock of memory. For I had done that. Stood, and with a razor-blade cut into cheeks and forehead, shaved hair. Defiling people we did not wish to be. …

What was there in that, before I knew your nation your colour your age, that made me push my arm forward and spill it through the front of your mirror and clutch myself?


As Ondaatje says in the article “From Gunslinger to Jazz Musicians” by Adele Freedman: “I put myself into the characters' situations for a long period of time. … A lot of my own world gets into their stories. It's probably a major illness” (1).

Ondaatje's apparent identification with such violent protagonists has prompted Robin Mathews in “Private Indulgence and Public Discipline” to describe Ondaatje as a self-indulgent writer who wallows in the “perverse titillation” of violence (40). Mathews believes that such self-indulgence cannot be “a means of figuring forth the internal turmoil … of the protagonist and … the author, in the face of a desiccated … culture which he or she must struggle to survive in”; instead, such self-indulgent authors are “often disconnected from the society except for artist/media connections, and are, … all-unconsciously, the most dominated by liberal ruling class ideology” (40). While Ondaatje does celebrate violent individualism in his early works from the position of a privileged class, he does attempt in his later works to reevaluate this aesthetic standpoint; moreover, violence as “perverse titillation” is perhaps an oversimplification of Ondaatje's use of violence. While his works may provide macabre entertainment to some readers, the violence is not merely embellishment, but appears to serve an integral purpose. Ondaatje actually appears to present a psychological argument in which the physical violence of his male aesthetes is in fact a pathological extension of a volatile creativity: in other words, the unmotivated violence of the characters parallels the chaotic intensity of their art.

William Bonney in The Collected Works and Buddy Bolden in Coming through Slaughter exemplify the socially irresponsible hero: both characters act out the romantic myth of the isolated, male artist unable to function within society, in part because of his anarchic sensitivity. Just as the character Pat Garrett affirms that William Bonney has an “imagination which was usually pointless and never in control” (43)—an imagination subject to macabre hallucinations (10), so also does the character Frank Lewis affirm that Buddy Bolden “was tormented by order, what was outside of it” (37). Both characters stand as models of dynamic individualism. The outlaw William Bonney can “never remain in one position more than five minutes” (44); he possesses a “range for everything” (74); and he remains fascinated with “the same stress as with stars, / the one altered move that will make them maniac” (41). Similarly, the jazzman Buddy Bolden “thought by being in motion” (109); he moved “gradually off the edge of the social world” (64); and he “did nothing but leap into the mass of changes and explore them and all the tiny facets so that eventually he was almost completely governed by fears of certainty” (15). Within both texts, multiple voices articulate conflicting impressions about a protagonist who remains impossible to define authoritatively: the protagonist is in fact defined paradoxically as something that escapes definition. William Bonney remains an enigma to his peers: “The rather cruel smile, when seen close, turned out to be intricate and witty. You could never tell how he meant a phrase, whether he was serious or joking. From his eyes you could tell nothing at all” (43). Similarly, Buddy Bolden asserts that “[a]s you try to explain me I will spit you, yellow, out of my mouth” (140), and indeed he remains inscrutable to his acquaintances: “Their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them” (63). Such volatility informs the very art of both protagonists.

William Bonney, for example, describes the process of his own poetic writing as virtually random and automatic: “a pencil that shifts up and sideways / mapping my thinking going its own way / like light wet glasses drifting on polished wood” (72)—“a pencil [that] … / goes stumbling into dots” (85). Similarly, Buddy Bolden strives to create perfect, unsystematic music: “Every note new and raw and chance. Never repeated” (95)—a spontaneous music intended to appeal to an audience as ephemeral as a passing parade (93-94). Such art does not valorize a formalized technique: indeed, both the poetry of William Bonney and the music of Buddy Bolden are predominantly concerned with the quality of the creative process, not with the formality of the creative product. Fittingly enough, this dynamic aesthetic is reflected in the very form of the texts in which the two characters appear: just as William Bonney and Buddy Bolden do violence to social codes, so also do the texts themselves do violence to literary codes. Robert Kroetsch in “The Exploding Porcupine” writes that “[i]n our most ambitious writing, we do violence to form” (108), and indeed Ondaatje emulates the aesthetic sensibilities of his protagonist by violating generic boundaries with the same irreverence that William Bonney displays when drifting back and forth across the Canadian border (20). The Collected Works and Coming through Slaughter each meander like the path in the Boot Hill cemetery: “the path keeps to no main route for it tangles / like branches of a tree among the gravestones” (9). The texts juxtapose unrelated fragments in the same way that Buddy Bolden mixes together “stray facts, manic theories, and well-told lies” (24) in order to produce his magazine The Cricket, and just as Bolden plays a conglomeration of blues and hymns, “mixing the Devil's music with His music” (81) in order to produce something stranger than both, so also does Ondaatje produce a hybrid of poetry and prose. The texts, like the characters depicted in them, violently resist definitive categorization.

Ondaatje does formalistic violence by breaking up the narrative syntax of his stories so that they are staged as a series of disordered, textual fragments. Such a writing style calls to mind the disturbing image of the crippled photographer E. J. Bellocq in Coming through Slaughter, a character who defaces the pictures that he takes and thereby acts out the artistic death-wish, in which “[t]he making and destroying come from the same source, same lust, same surgery his brain was capable of” (55). Ondaatje suggests through Bellocq that the creative impulse represents an unreliable exorcism of violence, that art represents a precarious means of sustaining the creative mind in the face of its own potential madness. Just as the objects of “violent beauty” made by the mute savage in “Peter” (5: 1) stem from the pain caused by the violent loss of his tongue, so also do Bellocq's gentle photos of prostitutes stem from his own violent misogyny that causes him eventually to slash his photos, “to romance them later with a knife” (55).2 Moreover, just as Peter fails in the end to resist the temptation to rape a woman, so also does Bellocq in the end fail to resist the urge to kill himself. Ondaatje's depiction of Bellocq actually suggests that male artists are always potentially psychotic, that social integration for them is at best temporary if it is ever at all possible.

Women as artists in fact do not appear to figure largely in Ondaatje's aesthetic vision;3 instead, women appear to represent the passive victims of male volatility: Tara in “Peter” is brutally raped (5: 1-17), as is Mrs. Fraser in The Man with Seven Toes (16); Angela Dickinson in The Collected Works is shot in the wrist by a gunman (66); the “mattress whores” in Coming through Slaughter lie beaten and mutilated, their ankles broken by pimps (118); and the woman depicted on the cover of There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do stands as the passive target of the male knife-thrower. Teresa de Lauretis in “The Violence of Rhetoric” points out that violence is almost always engendered as a male construct, that the relationship between the victimizer and victim is a gendered paradigm (240): “The discourse of the sciences of man constructs the object as female and the female as object. This … is its rhetoric of violence, even when the discourse presents itself as humanistic, benevolent or well-intentioned” (253). Such pornographic objectification of women by Ondaatje is certainly consistent with the kind of violence that he wishes to explore, but while he may faithfully depict this paradigm as an accurate reflection of modern reality, he often refuses to make explicit moral judgements about such patriarchal violence and seems unprepared to acknowledge effective alternatives to an art that requires some male gesture of extremism.

Ondaatje's romanticization of violent males does begin, nevertheless, to undergo some reappraisal in Running in the Family, a work in which the alcoholic father Mervyn Ondaatje is portrayed in a way that, although nostalgic, does little to glorify violent behaviour. Just as William Bonney and Buddy Bolden represent violators, so also does Mervyn Ondaatje deliberately flout established social codes; yet, unlike William Bonney and Buddy Bolden, Ondaatje's erratic father lives a life of tragic humour through his “technique of trying to solve one problem by creating another.” Ondaatje goes on to define this anarchic protagonist as “one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut” (200)—an enigma that is again defined paradoxically by its inability to be defined: “[W]e can only guess. Guess around him. To know him from these stray actions … told about by those who loved him” (200). Ondaatje also repeats the romantic motif of the male artist by endowing his father with qualities that suggest an isolated, hypersensitive personality: Mervyn, for example, suffers paranoid delusions about the poisoning of his family (199); he strips nude and runs madly into a train tunnel where he spends hours dreaming of suicide (149); and on one occasion, he runs away naked from the train, only to be discovered later holding up five ropes, with a large black dog dangling from each one, as though “[h]e had captured all the evil in the regions he had passed through and was holding it” (182). The text even begins with a dream of Mervyn “chaotic, surrounded by dogs” (21), an image that recalls the madman Livingstone in The Collected Works—a man who breeds a race of mad dogs and in the end gets eaten by them.4 Mervyn actually follows in the footsteps of his violent, literary predecessors (albeit in a more subdued way) by retreating into “the well of total silence” (199) where he dies as a virtual madman.

Violence in Running in the Family is, however, qualitatively different from the violence in earlier texts: Mervyn never kills or maims anyone, despite his volatility. Mervyn's criminal behaviour is in fact not so much romanticized as pitied. Ondaatje in “Letters and Other Worlds” attributes the quality of “complete empathy” (46) to his father, even though Mervyn “edged / into the terribly acute hatred / of his own privacy” (46), and as Tom Marshall observes in “Layering”:

“[C]omplete empathy” is a rather more positive characterization of the poetic process so often seen in earlier poems as predatory or cannibalistic or suicidal. Perhaps this may even indicate the possibility of a new identification with the real that is now so close that it is no longer an imposition of [Ondaatje's] private myth of the world or a “suicide into nature” … but a reconciliation with the world—a balance that transcends the two poles of destruction and self-destruction.


Just as Ondaatje suggests that the creative works of both Bolden and Bellocq stem paradoxically from destructive impulses, so also does Ondaatje suggest that the articulate emotion in Mervyn's letters stems from Mervyn's last anarchic years as a “silent drinker” (54). Mervyn in Running in the Family says: “if I revealed this world to you you would suffer for you had no knowledge, no defenses against it” (200)—and here again the implication is that an artist's severe retreat from the social world may ultimately arise from an unbearable degree of sensitivity to the violence of the social world. Susan Glickman in “The Emerging Myth of Michael Ondaatje” asserts that “[i]t is Ondaatje's recognition of the adolescent fatuity of the code ‘White Dwarfs’ addresses, its spurious glamour, which makes him deflate it even as he continues to explore its romance” (79), and she goes on to point out (81) that in Tin Roof (published immediately in the wake of Running in the Family), Ondaatje admits the possibility that “solitude … / is not an absolute, / it is just a resting place” (37)—not necessarily a violent doom.

While Mervyn conforms to the recurring pattern of artistic aphasia, the socio-political implications of language and silence are broached more directly in Running in the Family, especially when Ondaatje discusses the colonial history of Ceylon, a country “courted by invaders who … claimed everything with the power of the sword or bible or language” (64).5 Subjected to a multilingual heritage, the country has, not surprisingly, cultivated a myth of language, a myth that reiterates Ondaatje's own motif of the artistic death-wish: the Sinhalese actually believe that eating the tongue of the thalagoya lizard endows “verbal brilliance”—the side-effects of which include “bad behaviour” and possible death (74). Ondaatje's attitude toward such creative self-destructiveness through the use of language, however, undergoes some reevaluation, for he realizes that the artist's ultimate “violence of silence” amounts to only a private form of social protest:

When the government rounded up thousands of suspects during the Insurgency of 1971, the Vidyalankara campus of the University of Ceylon was turned into a prison camp. The police weeded out the guilty, trying to break their spirit. When the university opened again the returning students found hundreds of poems written on walls, ceilings, and in hidden corners of the campus. Quatrains and free verse about the struggle, tortures, the unbroken spirit, love of friends who had died for the cause. The students went around for days transcribing them into their notebooks before they were covered with whitewash and lye.


Ondaatje begins to recognize that the privacy of silence can be defied via graffiti; such writing can be more than an autotelic act of violent transgression; such writing can also be a revolutionary statement of communal solidarity. Ondaatje responds to the militant, political poetry of the Sri Lankan writer Lakdasa Wikkramasinha (85) by writing a “communal poem” that combines diverse fragments of graffiti found upon the fortress walls of a despot king (92-94). Ondaatje begins to acknowledge that art can be more than the solitary expression of an individual ego in the face of social adversity.

Elsewhere in Running in the Family, Ondaatje asserts that language is a metaphorical violence, that “[w]ords such as love, passion, duty, are so continually used they grow to have no meaning—except as coins or weapons” (179). Ondaatje breaks from his previous attitude toward the violence of language by stressing that the responsibility of writing is to “keep peace with enemy camps, eliminate the chaos” (179), to grant both order and meaning to the apparently disjointed textual fragments that comprise the very structure of his familial history. As in the case of both The Collected Works and Coming through Slaughter, the anarchism in the content of Running in the Family is reflected in the fragmented structure, but whereas the shocking violence in the form of the earlier works represents a rebellious act that rejects social order and moves toward isolation, the subdued violence in the form of this later work represents a revolutionary act that reclaims social order and moves toward integration. Unlike the violence depicted in The Collected Works and Coming through Slaughter, the violence in Running in the Family is valued only in conjunction with some ordering principle that can channel such volatile energy toward a productive end.

Ondaatje in effect does not reform his politics so much as qualify his romantic ethos. This subtle shift in attitude becomes most explicit in In the Skin of a Lion, a work that does not romanticize aesthetes who passionately reject social integration in the name of aphasia, but instead romanticizes aesthetes who passionately serve the social interests of the oppressed. Whereas William Bonney, Buddy Bolden, and Mervyn Ondaatje move away from all social gesture toward silence, the proletarian worker Patrick Lewis moves in the opposite direction and finds in a newly discovered language some sense of social communion and social purpose. Patrick, like his literary predecessors, has “always been alien, the third person in the picture” (156) and can “hear the rattle within that suggested a space between him and community” (157); however, the politically active character Alice chastizes Patrick for demonstrating the very characteristic that Ondaatje has until now admired: “You believe in solitude, Patrick, in retreat. You can afford to be romantic because you are self-sufficient” (123). Such individualism is seen to be inadequate. Patrick cannot immerse himself in the alienated environment of the Macedonian immigrants until he tries “desperately to leap over the code of language between them” (113), until he abandons his deliberate aphasia.

Although a violent outsider as hypersensitive as William Bonney and Buddy Bolden, Patrick does not conform to the psychological pattern of heroes commemorated in “White Dwarfs.” Whereas the early Ondaatje apparently admires the spontaneous chaos prevalent in the aesthetic sensibilities of the outlaw, the violator of boundaries, the later Ondaatje in In the Skin of a Lion now insists: “Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and the order it will become” (146). As Ondaatje emphasizes to Kareda in 1983: “Writing is trying to make order, to understand something about yourself. Orderless situations are, for me, the most interesting things, and I tend to write about the finding out of order” (49). Admittedly, Ondaatje has always been fascinated by sustaining the delicate equilibrium between order and chaos in art, an equilibrium vulnerable to the “one altered move”; however, his earlier works suggest that any attempt to achieve this unstable balance is self-justifying, while his later works begin to reevaluate the autotelic nature of such an aesthetic. Whereas his earlier works emphasize the chaotic variable in the artistic equation, his later works begin to emphasize the ordered variable in the artistic equation.

Ondaatje's usual motif of creative self-destructiveness is in fact suggested only once in In the Skin of a Lion through the figure of Patrick's father, Hazen Lewis, a man “withdrawn from the world around him, uninterested in the habits of civilization outside his own focus” (15)—a man as silent and as introspective as Ondaatje's own father, Mervyn. Hazen's talent as a dynamiter is described in poetic terms that endow it with aesthetic integrity—like art, it becomes a craft of timing and precision; nevertheless, Hazen has destructive fantasies that recall Bellocq's own nightmares:

[Hazen] was sullen even in the company of his son. All his energy was with the fuse travelling at two minutes to the yard under floorboards, around the trunks of trees, and up into someone's pocket. He kept receiving that image in his mind. Could he do it? The fuse stitched into the cloth of the trouser leg. The man sleeping perhaps by a campfire, the fuse smouldering horizontal into his shirt pocket, blowing out the heart.


Unlike similar images of violence in Ondaatje's earlier works, however, such fantasies of unmotivated destruction are never fulfilled in this work. Whereas the protagonists in The Collected Works and Coming through Slaughter exercise violence indiscriminately, often against the innocent, the protagonist Patrick attempts to exercise violence against the exploiter, against Commissioner Harris and his waterworks, his “palace of purification” that represents a cathedral-like monument to alienated labour. The kind of destructiveness seen in earlier works is now endowed with social purpose.

Ondaatje begins to demonstrate a more profound awareness of the sociopolitical implications of silence. Whereas his earlier texts deal with a silence that individuals impose upon themselves in order to escape social ideology, In the Skin of a Lion deals with a silence that social ideology imposes upon individuals in order to prevent them from exercising power. Within such a context, silence no longer becomes an act of sociopolitical rebellion, but an act of sociopolitical surrender. Aphasia loses its power to be an effective means of violent protest. Immigrant workers in In the Skin of a Lion, for example, perform illegal, agit-prop drama that allegorically mimes their own essential powerlessness resulting from their silence, from their inability to articulate injustice, to speak out effectively with their own voice against official ideology (116-117). Whoever controls discourse, controls official truth, and any socially sanctioned attempt on the part of the oppressed to break their silence implies the possible loss of their own native voice. While the immigrant Nicholas Temelcoff observes that, “[if] he did not learn the language he would be lost” (46), his attempt to learn English from popular songs on the radio implies a possible willingness to engage the popular ideologies of an imperial culture on their own terms: “He loves his new language, the terrible barriers of it” (43). Non-verbal aggression becomes the only apparent recourse for the immigrant worker who wishes to speak in anger without succumbing to the ruling-class language. In the Skin of a Lion thus appears to reject the romance inherent in the “violence of silence” and opts instead for the romance of an art that centralizes the plight of the politically impotent. Whereas Ondaatje's earlier works reject discourse in the name of private protest, this last work attempts to wrest discourse away from its controllers in the name of social revision.

According to John Moss in Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel, “[v]iolence may be trivial, demeaning, horrific or heroic in fiction, but, whatever, it demands a moral response to the conflict that generates it” (12). Critical readers who see that, like Pat Garrett, the early Ondaatje can “come to chaos neutral” (47) may simply decide that Ondaatje leaves the moral reckoning to others; after all, the early Ondaatje, like the narrator in “Billboards,” appears to claim that “[h]ere was I trying to live / with a neutrality so great / I'd have nothing to think of” (33-35); and indeed, such neutrality cannot possibly accommodate moral judgements. Moreover, the early Ondaatje does not seem prepared to elaborate upon the kind of tantalizing comment that William Bonney makes: “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup—” (54). While Ondaatje hesitates to broach the socio-political ramifications of his writing, he sees no reason to apologize for his depictions of violence and defends his work in the 1978 Twelve Voices interview by saying:

I don't think I'm a particularly violent poet. … I think I have a vision of reality that is totally normal to me. … The thing is it's a very real world to me and if people don't want to see [violence] as part of the real world, then they're ignoring it. It's been said that violence is normal in our lifetime just as good manners were normal to the world that Jane Austen created. You know, it's a reality.


Ondaatje defends his case by alluding to the socially conscious playwright Edward Bond, who also tries to justify the violence of his own work in the “Author's Preface” to Lear:

I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future. People who do not want writers to write about violence want to stop them writing about us and our time. It would be immoral not to write about violence.


While Ondaatje admits in a recent Paragraph interview that he no longer trusts “[n]ovels that give you the right way to do things” (5), he does stress the importance of exposing violence, especially the kind that official history tries to ignore: “If there was a kind of direction in [In the Skin of a Lion], it was making sure that something got said, to write about that unofficial thing that was happening. There were a lot of strikes, just as violent and extreme as anywhere else, but you hardly ever read about that in Toronto history” (5). While Ondaatje has always emphasized that artistic innovation does not occur without some act of violent intensity, of extreme defamiliarization, he no longer appears to value such intensity purely for its own sake or for its privileged ability to generate a private vision that turns its back upon generalized oppression; instead, he values such intensity for its ability to energize a collective, social vision that resists specific forms of ideological authority.


  1. “Privacy” here, and elsewhere, refers to any individual disengagement from societal interaction.

  2. Linda Hutcheon has pointed out that photography implies an act of violence: “Taking pictures is a way of both certifying and refusing experience, both a submission to reality and an assault on it. … Cameras can engender in the photographer both aggression and a passivity born of impotence” (47).

  3. The female artists in Ondaatje's corpus of work include such characters as Clara the radio-actress, Anne the writer, and Alice the mime, all in In the Skin of a Lion; these female artists are either exploited by men or marginalized by patriarchal society.

  4. Livingstone's impulse to create something, no matter how grotesque, can only provide an unstable outlet for his latent insanity: “[H]e never showed any sign of madness or quirkiness. As if he left all his madness, all his perverse logic, behind that fence on his farm” (61). Livingstone's death becomes a metaphor for the Frankenstein complex, in which the male artist, the creator, is destroyed by his art, the thing created.

  5. Douglas Amarasekera's epigraph to Running in the Family emphasizes Ondaatje's concern with the power of lingual imperialism: “The Americans were able to put a man on the moon because they knew English. The Sinhalese and Tamils whose knowledge of English was poor, thought that the earth was flat” (9).

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy, & Leonard Tennenhouse. “Representing Violence, or ‘How the West Was Won.’” The Violence of Representation. eds. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (London: Routledge, 1989): 1-26.

Barbour, Douglas. “Controlling the Jungle: A Review of The Dainty Monsters.Spider Blues. ed. Sam Solecki (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1985): 111-113.

Bond, Edward. Lear (Norfolk: Cox and Wyman, 1972).

Davey, Frank. From There to Here (Erin: Press Porcepic, 1974).

Freedman, Adele. “From Gunslingers to Jazz Musicians.” The Globe and Mail 22 Dec. 1979: Sec. Entertainment, 1.

Glickman, Susan. “‘Philoctetes on the Island’ to Tin Roof: The Emerging Myth of Michael Ondaatje.” Spider Blues. ed. Sam Solecki (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1985): 70-81.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988).

Kareda, Urjo. “An Immigrant's Song.” Saturday Night Dec. 1983: 44-51.

Kroetsch, Robert. “The Exploding Porcupine.” The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989): 108-116.

Lauretis, Teresa de. “The Violence of Rhetoric: Considerations on Representation and Gender.” The Violence of Representation. eds. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (London: Routledge, 1989): 239-258.

Lee, Dennis. Savage Fields (Toronto: Anansi, 1977).

Mandel, Eli, ed. Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972).

Marshall, Tom. “Layering: The Shorter Poems of Michael Ondaatje.” Spider Blues. ed. Sam Solecki (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1985): 82-92.

Mathews, Robin. “Private Indulgence and Public Discipline: Violence in the English Canadian Novel since 1960.” Violence in the Canadian Novel since 1960. eds. Terry Goldie & Virginia Harger-Grinling. (St. John's: Memorial Univ.: 1981): 33-44.

Moss, John. Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977).

Ondaatje, Michael. “Application for a Driving License.” The Dainty Monsters (Toronto: Coach House, 1967): 35.

———. “Billboards.” Rat Jelly (Toronto: Coach House, 1973): 14-15.

———. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto: Anansi, 1970).

———. Coming through Slaughter (Toronto: Anansi, 1976).

———. “A Conversation with Michael Ondaatje.” eds. Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie. White Pelican 1.2 (Spring 1971): 6-15.

———. “Elizabeth.” The Dainty Monsters (Toronto: Coach House, 1967): 68-69.

———. Interview. Manna 1 (March 1972): 19-22.

———. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” ed. Sam Solecki. Rune 2 (Spring 1975): 39-54.

———. In the Skin of a Lion (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987).

———. The Man with Seven Toes (Toronto: Coach House, 1969).

———. “Moving to the Clear: Michael Ondaatje.” Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets. ed. Jon Pearce (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1980): 129-144.

———. “Peter.” The Dainty Monsters (Toronto: Coach House, 1967): 71-77.

———. Running in the Family (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982).

———. “Letters and Other Worlds.” There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979): 44-46.

———. “Tin Roof.” Secular Love (Toronto: Coach House, 1984): 21-43.

———. “War Machine.” Rat Jelly (Toronto: Coach House, 1973): 11.

———. “Where the Personal and the Historical Meet.” With Cary Fagan. Paragraph 12.2 (1990): 3-5.

———. “White Dwarfs.” Rat Jelly (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1973): 70-71.

Pierce, Gretchen. “Canada Gives Writer ‘Sense of Place’; Author of Billy Keeps Low Profile.” Halifax Chronicle Herald 10 Oct. 1975: 30.

Scobie, Stephen. “The Lies Stay In: A Review of There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do.Spider Blues. ed. Sam Solecki (Montreal: Vehicule, 1985): 117-120.

Principal Works

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The Dainty Monsters (poetry) 1967

The Man with Seven Toes (poetry) 1969

*The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (poetry) 1970

Leonard Cohen (criticism) 1970

The Sons of Captain Poetry [director] (documentary film) 1970

Carry on Crime and Punishment [director] (documentary film) 1972

Rat Jelly (poetry) 1973; revised as Rat Jelly and Other Poems: 1963-1978, 1980

The Clinton Special: A Film about “The Farm Show” [director] (documentary film) 1974

Coming through Slaughter (novel) 1976

Elimination Dance (poetry) 1978; revised edition, 1980

Claude Glass (poetry) 1979

There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978 (poetry) 1979

Running in the Family (memoirs) 1982

Tin Roof (poetry) 1982

Secular Love (poetry) 1984

All along the Mazinaw: Two Poems (poetry) 1986

In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel (novel) 1987

The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (poetry) 1989

The English Patient: A Novel (novel) 1992

From Ink Lake: Canadian Stories [editor] (short stories) 1995

Handwriting: Poems (poetry) 1998

Anil's Ghost (novel) 2000

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (interviews) 2002

*Ondaatje adapted this work as a play in 1973.

†Ondaatje adapted this work as a play in 1980.

‡Ondaatje adapted this work as a play in 1987.

Manina Jones (essay date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Jones, Manina. “‘So Many Varieties of Murder’: Detection and Biography in Coming through Slaughter.Essays in Canadian Writing, no. 53 (summer 1994): 11-26.

[In the following essay, Jones traces the diverse ways the conventions of detective fiction and biography converge in Coming through Slaughter, demonstrating the appropriation of both genres by Ondaatje's postmodern narrative strategies.]

[W]hat the structural and philosophical presuppositions of myth and depth psychology were to modernism … the detective story is to postmodernism. …

—Michael Holquist (150)

Among the silenced heroes celebrated and mourned in Michael Ondaatje's poem “White Dwarfs” is the writer Dashiell Hammett: “And Dashiell Hammett in success / suffered conversation and moved / to the perfect white between the words” (71). According to the prevailing myth, after winning early fame as a novelist, short-story writer, and originator of the character Sam Spade, Hammett fell “creatively silent” for nearly thirty years at the end of his life (Nolan 258). A Pinkerton detective who became a hard-boiled detective-fiction writer, Hammett was also a hard drinker whose habit took on self-destructive proportions. He suffered a nervous breakdown. Hammett is thus, like Buddy Bolden, a figure included among those twentieth-century “extremist artists” Sam Solecki catalogues in his study of Ondaatje's work, artists who create “an aesthetic artifact directly, recklessly, even violently out of [their] own experiences” (247).

Hammett is also an evocative character in relation to Buddy Bolden and Coming through Slaughter because he is known as “the mystery man of mystery fiction” (Nolan xi). His life story seems to thwart the conventions of both traditional literary biography and classical detective fiction, its narrative ironically dis-solved by the various textual reticences that punctuate it. In Coming through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje subtly appropriates the genre in which Hammett was an innovator, taking on the role of detective as novelist, and investigating the biography of Buddy Bolden, the mystery man of early-twentieth-century jazz, whose famous cornet performances were never captured on records and whose final twenty-odd musically silent years were spent in the East Louisiana State Hospital for the insane. The biographical and detective genres converge in Coming through Slaughter in complex and ambivalent ways. I would like to touch on some of the fictional magnets that attract these genres, since Coming through Slaughter is, it seems to me, a novel that takes the popular form seriously indeed, suggesting how provocative a theoretical model detective fiction can be for the activity of reading and writing the life/text.

Glenn Most has pointed out “the striking proximity, in place and time, of the rise of the detective story and of that of the modern biography: for detective stories are, for many readers, installments in the fragmentary biographies of their heroes” (345). Detective stories might also be considered metabiographical narratives in the sense that they both document and comment on the process of reconstructing traces of (often the last) moments in the life of a missing character (usually the victim of murder), as well as the deliberately concealed story of the agent responsible for that loss. As Tzvetan Todorov perceives, the detective story has reflexivity built into its very structure. Composed of two narrative lines, “the story of the crime and the story of the investigation” (Todorov 44), the detective tale seems to anticipate Coming through Slaughter's engagement with the postmodern challenge of biographical metafiction (Hutcheon 304): “The first story ignores the book completely, that is, it never confesses its literary nature. … On the other hand, the second story is not only supposed to take the reality of the book into account, but it is precisely the story of that very book” (Todorov 45). The doubleness of Coming through Slaughter's narrative is apparent from its opening passages, in which an unnamed contemporary narrator drives through the brothel district of Storyville “today,” mapping out the storied terrain of Bolden's past life (8). This investigative situation frames the body of the novel, implying, perhaps, that the story is an elaboration of the narrator's verbal/visual survey of Bolden's neighbourhood:

The sunlight comes down flat and white on Gravier, on Phillip Street, on Liberty. … This is where he lived seventy years ago, where his mind on the pinnacle of something collapsed. … There is so little noise that I easily hear the click of my camera as I take fast bad photographs into the sun aiming at the barber shop he probably worked in.


While there is no literal murder in the orthodox sense in Ondaatje's novel, it does have the word slaughter in its title, a punning epithet that conflates the scene of the crime and the crime itself. Coming through Slaughter is, perversely, a biography concerned less with the immortality of its hero—Bolden removes himself from “the 20th century game of fame” (134)—than with Bolden as “private I,” obsessed with mortality, and with the small self-mutilations of everyday life that embody it: “So many murders of his own body,” the narrative voice observes, “From the slammed fingernail to the sweat draining through his hair eventually bleeding brown into the neck of his shirt. … So many varieties of murder” (49).

Coming through Slaughter is also, like the conventional detective novel, structured by a series of unnarrated biographical gaps, narrative self-mute-ilations, perhaps: the loss of Bolden's music, the silence at the end of his life, his extended disappearance at midcareer. Slavoj Žižek describes the genesis of the detective story as a void, “a blank of the unexplained, more properly, of the unnarrated. … The story encircles this blank, it is set in motion by the detective's attempt to reconstruct the missing narrative by interpreting the clues” (58). In Coming through Slaughter, Nora Bass initiates police officer Webb's “missing persons” search when she emphatically informs Webb early in the novel that “Buddy went, disappeared, got lost, I don't know Webb but he's gone” (19). In the conversation that follows, he presses her for information about Bolden's whereabouts that she cannot provide. This section of the dialogue ends with an italicized line that reinforces the force of biographical/narrative desire in the process of investigation: “Tell me” (19). This equivocal statement resonates at several narrative levels, in part because italics set it off from the rest of the conversation. It is in one reading simply a forceful plea from Webb to Nora for more information. His investigation involves gathering stories from Bolden's friends and acquaintances, accumulating narrative testimony as a clue not just to where Bolden is, but to who he is. Webb, in fact, makes the same request to “Tell me” of Cornish in a later interview (70). In this first instance, the italics might also indicate a shift in voice, representing the narrator's metanarrative commentary inserting itself into the conversation, evincing the biographer's need to account for a life. The line may also, uncannily, be Bolden's own appeal to the detective and/as novelist for a biographical narrative: tell me.

The reader of Coming through Slaughter is informed that “perhaps the only clue to Bolden's body was in Webb's brain” (22), a hint that the investigation is not the traditional, objective, detached search for physical evidence, but implicates the very subjectivity of the investigator. This is an issue I want to return to later. Webb's statement when he attempts to reconstruct a picture of Bolden in his mind's eye has the potential to be read metaphorically as a clue to the reading of the biographical detective story itself. Indeed, the perception of metaphor as clue is essential to the interpretation of Coming through Slaughter, a book that also transforms the detective story into the poetic novel. Webb thinks, “I can't even remember what you look like too well. I'd recognize you but in my mind you're just an outline and music” (50-51). That “outline” is open to several interpretations that are metaphorical transformations of one another: it is, certainly, the vague contour that marks both a memory and a memory lapse; it is, perhaps, the chalk outline drawn by police around the remains of a murder victim to mark the body's position when it is taken away; it is the biographical plot outline that the writing and reading of the novel's revisionary detective story work to complicate, rather than simply to fill in.

Both the literal detective character in the text and the biographer-novelist as detective attempt to track Bolden. Though they are not necessarily seeking the same answers, and do not necessarily work in concert with one another, their searches are analogous. Webb seeks a person who has, apparently, disappeared without a trace. The narrator, similarly, visiting Bolden's old haunts long after his death, muses on the lack of physical evidence: “There is the complete absence of him—even his skeleton has softened, disintegrated, and been lost in the water under the earth of Holtz Cemetery” (133). This is a case, then, in which the legal rule of habeas corpus has been violated. After his final performance, Bolden, like the subject of a criminal investigation, is “arrested, put in the House of D[etention]” (133), where he is suspended in the silence of history. Coming through Slaughter seeks not to produce a conclusive body of biographical evidence, but to produce, through fiction, an equivocal intertextual body that cannot, finally, be localized. For this reason the novel might well be designated a postmodern biography that by definition places the stability of its self in question.

Richard Goodkin has argued that detective fiction offers “an implicit model for the theory of intertextuality itself” (82).1 Reading a given text as the intersection of other writings involves the reader in a “detective-like” process of following up textual clues (82). Regarding detective fiction as a model of the biographical process in Coming through Slaughter, then, might itself be seen as an example of a self-consciously intertextual “detective-like” mode of reading that sees one genre in terms of another. Coming through Slaughter, unlike the classic realist text, draws attention to its own mosaic composition in its obtrusive embedding of both real and invented documentary clues as to the details of Bolden's life in its body. These include, for example, the various transcribed interviews, the listed song titles and band names, the selections from A Brief History of East Louisiana State Hospital, or the photograph of Bolden's band.

This strategy of embedding documentary materials is, interestingly, used in perhaps the earliest instance of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe's “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which presents a series of contradictory affidavits regarding the murders in question by way of newspaper excerpts. Each witness offers an interpretation of the same piece of evidence: a conversation in a foreign language. The use of this device in Poe's short story illuminates its function in Coming through Slaughter. Its effect is to demonstrate that clues are texts that have different significance when perceived from different positions, and, further, that interpretations themselves can come to constitute clues: Poe's detective, Dupin, solves the case by explicating the differences between the various interpretations of the original conversation. The narrative technique of embedding, in both the nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples, also exploits and foregrounds the reader's pleasure in playing the role of detective, allowing her access to the evidence in its raw form, so that she may work, in her reading, to anticipate the resolution of/solution to the narrative. Indeed, as Glenn Most observes, the detective is “the figure for the reader within the text, the one character whose activities most closely parallel the reader's own. … That is why the literary detective … tends so strongly to marginality, for he is quite literally the only character who resides at and thereby defines the margin between text and reader” (348).

One moment when the tenuous margin between fictional detective and reader is uncannily represented in Coming through Slaughter occurs during Bolden's attempt to explain Bellocq to Webb. “I can't summarize him for you,” he says, frustrating Webb's apparent expectation of a simple biographical explanation. Bolden then offers his friend this invitation: “Come with me Webb I want to show you something, no come with me I want to show you something. You come too. Put your hand through this window” (91). The “You” of “You come too” appears to be the reader herself, who is urged to break “this window,” the barrier, perhaps, between passive reader and text as object, in order to participate in the investigative process. Because he is known to shout a similar phrase at his audiences during performances, Bolden's exhortation to “Put your hand through this window” creates an analogy between the (fictional) biography and his performances.

In contrast to those of more traditional exemplars of the biographical and detective genres, Coming through Slaughter's documentary clues do not add up to a summary, a final explanation of Bolden's life that reconciles all its apparent incongruities. Rather, the novel presents Bolden's life as composed of a bricolage of heterogeneous discourses and voices. The narrator “mingles history with fiction and document with narrative, yet offers no authoritative synthesis of them” (Bjerring 331). What I would call the novel's textualization of evidence—its insistence on evidence as a material text (in the broadest sense of that world) to be interpreted, but not decoded or transcended by an all-embracing biographical solution—implies that as a biography it is literally a reading of Bolden's life. Pamela Banting writes that “Confronting the materiality of the signifier … initiates a point of possible conjunction with others” (104). The process of biographical investigation is thus both a hermeneutic operation and a necessarily intersubjective one.

Perhaps the most striking textualization of documentary evidence in Coming through Slaughter is the use of the photograph of Bolden's band. Included without caption at the beginning of the novel,2 it is reintroduced into the text with this statement: “There is only one photograph that exists today of Bolden and the band. This is what you see” (66). The “this” that follows, however, is not the photograph itself. “[W]hat you see” as a reader is a list of names and instruments that identifies each of the people in the picture, a gesture that emphasizes the substitution—or transcription … perhaps even translation—of the typographical print of the novel for the photographic print.3 A similar gesture occurs later in the book, when a landscape that has been offered as discursively real or original is recontextualized as a historical document: “The sun has swallowed the colour of the street. It is a black-and-white photograph, part of a history book” (134).

As Webb watches Bellocq develop the photograph of Bolden's band, it is “As if the search for his friend was finally ending,” but Webb seems to rethink that assumption, confirming that the photograph is a text to be interpreted, rather than positive identification. Bolden, he muses, was “the friend who in reality had reversed the process and gone back into white, who in this bad film seemed to have already half-receded with that smile which may not have been a smile at all, which may have been his made dignity” (52-53). Webb's statement, ironically, identifies Coming through Slaughter as developing out of negative evidence, perversely offering proof of the absence of its subject. The language of photography and crime-scene investigation overlap: at a crime scene, (finger) prints are only traces left by an absent suspect, however distinctive a signature they might be. Webb, like the reader of the novel, gets to “Keep the print”—both photographic and typographical—but Bellocq scrupulously, and symbolically, destroys the original image, dropping the negative into acid so that it will bleach out (53). He perceives, perhaps, the possibility that the photograph's reception as a simple solution to the question “Who was Buddy Bolden?” might itself mortify the memory of Bolden, becoming like the morgue photographs of which his own pictures of prostitutes remind Webb: “the only difference between these and morgue files was the others were dead” (50). Evidence may become murder weapon. Bellocq, significantly, uses his camera tripod as a weapon against Webb when the latter breaks into his studio.

The sonograph that precedes the narrative of Coming through Slaughter is another clue to the treatment of biographical evidence in the novel (6). Coming through Slaughter is impelled not just by an impulse to document musical history, but a desire for Bolden's lost music as a life story. As Frank Lewis puts it in Coming through Slaughter, “see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes” (37). The sonograph is, literally, sound writing, a method of transcribing sound into a readable visual text. (The caption below the sonograph is a crash course in interpreting that text.) In a solution worthy of the author of “The Purloined Letter,”4 the missing notes of Bolden's musical career are transcribed into the textual notes that compose the fragmentary form of Coming through Slaughter, creating a punning “double inscription” (Žižek 54). So while the story of the novel takes place “away from the recorded history” (10), and away from the “wax history” of musical recording (37), it substitutes the enigmatic written record for the purloined notes of Bolden's musical career. This is another explanation for the prominence of the biographer's research notes, including a “Transcript Digest,” which is, literally, an attempt to record in writing Frank Amacker's performance/interview (152).

I like to think of Coming through Slaughter in terms of yet another generic permutation, as a kind of jazz mode of detection in which the biographer, rather than solving the mystery of Buddy Bolden, fictionally improvises on the historical evidence of him. In the absence of musical recordings, the writer, in effect, plays Bolden's documentary records, collaborating with other voices in a performative text. What Linda Hutcheon writes of Ondaatje's Running in the Family is equally true of Coming through Slaughter: “Performance is very much a part of the content of this book”; it is also part of its form (306). Bolden's music is described in terms of narrative—“He tore apart the plot” (37)—and the narrative of Coming through Slaughter may conversely be described in terms of improvisational jazz. Like the New Orleans jazz in which Buddy Bolden was a pioneer, the novel's text has aural appeal; it is dense, polyphonic, and not merely fragmentary but also contrapuntal. The story, like the melody in jazz, is passed from voice to voice.5 Frank Lewis describes Bolden's performance as a process: “It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed, passed it seemed along the way as if travelling in a car, passed before he even approached it and saw it properly” (37). The biographer, like Stanley, one of the children Bolden accompanies with his own children to school, gets caught “passing notes,” notes full of the puns, jokes, and stories that riddle Bolden's life (115-16).

The “performing” (see Hutcheon) or quasi-fictional narrator who enters the text of Coming through Slaughter is a figure Nancy Bjerring describes as “a postmodern deconstructionist, simultaneous, tentative, inevitably personal; he inspects and invents the data in order to ‘re-story’ rather than ‘restore’ his long-dead protagonist. His search impels him to re-story Storyville as well” (328). The scene of the crime in Coming through Slaughter, then, is a scene of narrative. The first chapter of the novel, headed “His geography” (8), surveys the “mean streets” of Storyville (to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler), and “the various homes of Bolden, still here today, away from the recorded history—the bleak washed out one-story houses” (10). As the writer of what Naomi Jacobs designates a “new fiction biography” that “overstep[s] the boundaries of research and of reason” (4), or, as Ondaatje himself puts it in his acknowledgements, that polishes and expands the facts “to suit the truth of fiction,” the novelist is a detective who operates outside the law, creatively trespassing on both the ground of history and its institutional conventions. He is a kind of second-stor(e)y man who, through his fiction, breaks into and enters, rather than simply engaging in an attempt to reconstruct, the one-stor(e)y houses of traditional “definitive” biography and history. As Bjerring points out, Ondaatje signs the final credits of the novel with his initials, a “narrative joke” that suggests his subversive modus operandi (Bjerring 336). Buddy Bolden's comment on his own music extends the architectural trope, and applies equally to the novel's approach to narrative closure: “The right ending is an open door you can't see too far out of” (94).

But the novel's lack of resolution of Bolden's “outline” (narrative, physical, and psychological) does not necessarily only represent a rejection or mockery of “the world-view and narrative devices of the detective story,” as Bjerring argues (325). Her article on detection and antidetection in Coming through Slaughter borrows Stefano Tani's notion of the postmodern antidetective story. She sees the persistently enigmatic quality of Bolden's character in Coming through Slaughter as parodic of the positivist ideology of the classical detective tale: “Whereas the classical detective ‘solves’ the mysteries of being, the postmodern antidetective bogs down, even wallows in the mystery” (326). Bjerring stresses the contrast between Webb and “the quasi-fictional antidetective-narrator,” viewing Webb's version of the sleuth as a send-up of the positivist tradition. Webb is a conventional, rational cop, who “assembles the facts of the case in order to get his man” (328). Bjerring reminds us, for example, that his name recalls Jack Webb, who played Sergeant Joe (“Just the facts, ma'am”) Friday, flatfoot hero of the television series Dragnet (329, 337). She also offers an insightful reading of Webb's “hilarious explanation of the death and disappearance of Nora's mother” as a revealing parody of the empirically based ethos of the classical detective tale:

Using an example from real life, albeit with a certain prescience—the accidental death of Isadora Duncan, strangled in 1927 when her scarf caught in the wheel of a Bugatti—in conjunction with clues about the possessions of the deceased—her pet snake—Webb concocts an inductively valid yet wildly improbable hypothesis about her death: the snake accidentally strangles Mrs. Bass, but lives to slither away. Webb observes to Buddy: “No trace of a weapon. If the snake was human it wouldn't get much more than manslaughter. … Sometimes Bolden I think I am a genius.” Ever the man who needs a solution to explain appearances, Webb closes the case.


Webb's theory cannot be empirically proved. After Buddy and Nora transport the body to Pontchartrain, the car in which it is concealed is stolen. Bjerring's argument, however, works exclusively within the British tradition of classical detective fiction, along the lines of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P. D. James. While there is no question that Coming through Slaughter evokes this tradition, it seems to me that Ondaatje's novel is also productively read in relation to the conventions of American hard-boiled detective writing (as practised by writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald), a movement that had, by the 1930s and 1940s, already begun to place in question some of the most basic assumptions and strategies of the classical mode. Raymond Chandler, for instance, condemned the latter mode as “an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications” (232).

Coming through Slaughter might be read as an elaboration of the hard-boiled detective story, an extension and theorizing of the implications that the earlier form had begun to explore. For example, hard-boiled detective fiction may self-consciously suspend the narrative, moral, and ethical resolution that is characteristic of the classical tale. Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is, perhaps, the prototype of this method. In it, a valuable relic of the crusades, the “glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels” (124) (now disguised by a black enamel coating) is the formal object of desire, obsessing the avaricious characters that populate the novel. It is also the object of the reader's narrative curiosity, and might, further, function as a symbol of the enigma that, according to Roland Barthes, stimulates and structures narrative desire itself (75), since when the bird is located, presumably, the case will be solved and the novel concluded. But the quest that structures the narrative of The Maltese Falcon is ironically deflated: when the black bird is finally obtained it turns out to be a substitute, a reproduction or simulacrum of the real thing:

Gutman turned the bird upside-down and scraped an edge of its base with his knife. Black enamel came off in [a] tiny curl, exposing blackened metal beneath. Gutman's knife-blade bit into the metal, turning back a thin curved shaving. The inside of the shaving, and the narrow plane its removal had left, had the soft grey sheen of lead.


The novel thus ends with the extension of the quest, rather than its fulfillment. The metal “lead” becomes a “lead” or clue for further investigation.

An analogous case might be made for Buddy Bolden as the object of biographical desire in Coming through Slaughter. If Bolden is the enigmatic object of both Webb's and the biographical quest, then Coming through Slaughter similarly resists a sense of transcendent resolution in which the detective is redeemed by success, and the society in which he operates is brought back into balance, as is the structure of the narrative itself. The hard-boiled detective story makes it clear that the investigation itself involves violence. “The appearance of the detective breaks the balance,” Fredric Jameson observes of Raymond Chandler's work, it “sets the various mechanisms of suspicion ringing, as he triggers the electric eyes, snooping and preparing to make trouble in a way which isn't yet clear” (143-44). The notion that the investigation is itself necessarily an act of violence, rather than a disinterested study, adds another dimension to the title of Ondaatje's novel.

In Coming through Slaughter, even when the researcher locates Buddy, producing a catalogue of reliable facts as well as documentation to account for his final, missing years in the state hospital (132, 137-38), he finds no simple key to Buddy's life: “Laughing in my room,” Ondaatje has Buddy respond within the novel, “As you try to explain me I will spit you, yellow, out of my mouth” (140). Even rational Webb recognizes that his successful location of Bolden at the Brewitt's home is a false victory: “Webb was releasing the rabbit he had to run after, because the cage was open now and there would always be the worthless taste of worthless rabbit when he finished” (83-84). Bolden is, in effect, constituted by a desire that exceeds the simple, linear, subject-object structure of the hunt. The final line of Coming through Slaughter also reinforces this sense (it would also be a fitting conclusion to Hammett's novel): “There are no prizes” (156). Or, as Chris Philpott once put it in a conversation about the novel, borrowing Coming through Slaughter's jazz idiom, “You can shake and shake, but you still don't get no cake.”

It is sometimes joked that the classical British cosy, or puzzle-plot mystery, is a book in which several people are killed but nobody gets hurt. Ironically, violence as action is virtually absent from this kind of stylized writing. The traditional body in the library functions, in a sense, as a literary prop. It seems to me that the preponderance of physical violence in Coming through Slaughter is, in part, an appropriation and poetic rereading of the sensationalist violence that is central to the American hard-boiled tradition. According to Michael Holquist, such a use of violence is one way contemporary fiction exploits kitsch for new effects, perceiving “the potential for real violence—violence to our flabby habits of perception—in the phony violence of the detective story” (173-74).

Violence is a key element of Coming through Slaughter, and it takes on a number of sometimes enigmatic dimensions. It is, significantly, directed inward, to the fragmented structure of the novel itself, as well as the fragmented consciousness it represents. It is also one way of representing Bolden's almost suicidal obsession with his own mortality and with the consequences of a loss of physical control. Bolden is fascinated, for example, by a woman mindlessly cutting carrots: “As with all skills he watches for it to fail. If she thinks what she is doing she will lose control. … The silver knife curves calm and fast against carrots and fingers. Onto the cuts in the table's brown flesh” (31). The novel also implicitly develops an extended play on the word cut that creates an analogy between the notion of cutting a record and physical mutilation. The stasis of print, like the technological inscription of music, does violence to the life of its subject. The memory of the fluidity and spontaneity of Bolden's performances remains uncorrupted because they were never captured on wax: “it is good you never heard him play on recordings,” says Frank Lewis:

If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes—then you should never have heard him at all. He was never recorded. He stayed away while others moved into wax history, electronic history, those who said later that Bolden broke the path.


Bolden's life is “a desert of facts” (134), but the narrator enjoins the reader to use violence against them, to participate in the rupture of their integrity by cutting the records themselves: “Cut them open and spread them out like garbage” (134).

The biographer of Coming through Slaughter is like a barber; this is just one example of the transferences that take place between Ondaatje the writer and Bolden the musician. When Bolden shaves his customers he is entrusted with the countenance of his clients, given the power to “manipulate their looks”—and the power to disfigure them with his razor: “Dreams of the neck. Gushing onto the floor and my white apron” (48). It is just such disfigurement that seems to obsess Bellocq, the character who in Coming through Slaughter takes the role of the private eye to violent voyeuristic extremes: he is a photographer who enters the brothel salons not to have sex with the prostitutes, but to take their pictures. After developing them, he slashes these photographs with a knife, suggesting the brutal frustration that results from his position as outsider, as documentary photographer who perceives himself unable to engage—either sexually or aesthetically—with the subjects of his art: “The cuts add a three-dimensional quality to each work. Not just physically, though you can almost see the depth of the knife slashes, but also because you think of Bellocq wanting to enter the photographs, to leave his trace on the bodies” (55).

Bellocq's violent frustration both exemplifies and grows out of the dominant, distanced position of the voyeur in relation to his subjects. The detached, objective detective persona is, similarly, “designed to create one privileged discourse within the text that is capable of determining the value of all its other parts but that is not itself dependent on them,” whereas the hard-boiled American detectives are necessarily “caught up in the uncertainties of the activity of interpretation itself” (Most 349-50). The singular objective point of view is surrendered and critiqued in hard-boiled detective writing, along with the sense that the detective is “the subject supposed to know” (Žižek 62). The hermeneutic activity, in other words, becomes an ethical dilemma. Coming through Slaughter pursues this revision, taking it to its logical outcome, for if the detective inevitably leaves his trace on the bodies of his subjects, then the reverse is also true, and the narrator suffers an autobiographical trauma. The investigator is not just implicated in the investigation, but becomes its subject, and the process of interpretation is revealed as an intersubjective activity:

The thin sheaf of information. Why did my senses stop at you? There was the sentence, “Buddy Bolden who became a legend when he went berserk in a parade …” What was there in that, before I knew your nation your colour your age, that made me push my arm forward and spill it through the front of your mirror and clutch myself?


The private eye of the narrator goes public.

Slavoj Žižek's description of detection borrows from Jacques Lacan's famous dictum about the unconscious, drawing attention to the parallel between literary detection and the psychoanalytic process: “The detective's domain,” he writes, “as well as that of the psychoanalyst, is thus thoroughly the domain of meaning, not of ‘facts’ … the scene of the crime analyzed by the detective is by definition ‘structured like a language’” (57). Coming through Slaughter applies a twist to the detective plot when it turns out that Bolden, whom Webb had presumed dead, is the living victim of a locked-room mystery, enclosed in the hospital/prison in his final days. It is to the biographical scene that the biographer returns in order to reread and rewrite the texts of memory as signs of (a) life.


  1. Goodkin distinguishes between the “simple” and “complex” intertextuality via the distinction between detective fiction and tragedy. “Simple” intertextuality seems to mean source finding, whereas “complex” intertextuality appears to mean intertextuality in the Kristevan sense. However, his own complex analysis of “tragic intertextuality” in Sara Paretsky's contemporary detective novel Killing Orders (1985), I think, reveals the untenability of his own binary distinction.

  2. The photograph appears on the cover and title page of the 1976 House of Anansi edition of the novel, and inside the front cover of the 1982 General Publishing edition. In the former edition, the title-page photo is captioned “Buddy Bolden.” The text of the two editions is paginated identically.

  3. I am influenced here and elsewhere in this paper by Pamela Banting's formulation of “translation poetics.” Her discussion of Robert Kroetsch's poetry, for example, explains that in it the past is not covered, but archaeologically excavated and translated from one mode of discourse to another (93).

  4. In Poe's story, the missing letter is not missing at all, but hidden in plain sight: the envelope is simply turned inside out and readdressed.

  5. I am relying in part here on the descriptions and examples offered in The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (see Williams).

Works Cited

Banting, Pamela. “Robert Kroetsch's Translation Poetics: Questions of Composition in the (Rosetta) ‘Stone Hammer Poem’ and Seed Catalogue.West Coast Line 10 (1993): 92-107.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill, 1974.

Bjerring, Nancy E. “Deconstructing the ‘Desert of Facts’: Detection and Antidetection in Coming through Slaughter.English Studies in Canada 16.3 (1990): 325-38.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Howard Haycraft. New York: Grosset, 1946. 222-37.

Goodkin, Richard E. “Killing Order(s): Iphigenia and the Detection of Tragic Intertextuality.” Yale French Studies 76 (1989): 81-107.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage-Random, 1992.

Holquist, Michael. “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Postwar Fiction.” Most and Stowe 149-74.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Running in the Family: The Postmodernist Challenge.” Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Ed. Sam Solecki. Montreal: Véhicule, 1985. 301-14.

Jacobs, Naomi. “Michael Ondaatje and the New Fiction Biographies.” Studies in Canadian Literature 11.1 (1986): 2-18.

Jameson, F. R. “On Raymond Chandler.” Most and Stowe 122-48.

Most, Glenn W. “The Hippocratic Smile: John le Carré and the Traditions of the Detective Novel.” Most and Stowe 341-65.

———, and William W. Stowe, eds. The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983.

Nolan, William F. Hammett: A Life at the Edge. New York: Congdon, 1983.

Ondaatje, Michael. Coming through Slaughter. Toronto: Anansi, 1976.

———. “White Dwarfs.” Rat Jelly. Toronto: Coach House, 1973. 70-71.

Solecki, Sam. “Making and Destroying: Coming through Slaughter and Extremist Art.” Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Ed. Solecki. Montreal: Véhicule, 1985. 246-67.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Typology of Detective Fiction.” The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1977. 42-52.

Williams, Martin, selector and annotator. The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Rec. 1916-66. Division of Performing Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1973.

Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge: MIT P, 1991.

Lorraine M. York (essay date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: York, Lorraine M. “Whirling Blindfolded in the House of Woman: Gender Politics in the Poetry and Fiction of Michael Ondaatje.” Essays in Canadian Writing, no. 53 (summer 1994): 71-91.

[In the following essay, York investigates the thematic importance of gender issues—particularly as they relate to questions of ownership—in Ondaatje's poetry and fiction, observing a heightened sensitivity toward gender relations in Ondaatje's later work.]

In his introduction to Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, Sam Solecki lists a few “approaches to Ondaatje's work not included [in the volume] because not yet written”: Ondaatje as dramatist, Ondaatje's humour, stylistic analyses, Ondaatje as film-maker (9). He gives the final pride of place, however, to psycho-analytical criticism, mainly because of what he calls “the centrality of the father” in Ondaatje's writing: “I suspect it's only from that direction that someone will deal adequately with the radical darkness at the heart of Ondaatje's vision …” (10). Is anyone missing here? Yes—the “not yet written” feminist criticism of Michael Ondaatje.

By the middle of the 1980s, when Spider Blues was published, feminist theory and criticism was a burgeoning academic field, but she is absent from the criticism of this important poet and novelist as well as from Solecki's list. Of course, psychoanalysis, in the hands of a Mary Jacobus or a Jane Gallop, has taught us much about the law of the father from a feminist perspective, but the psychoanalysis that Solecki alludes to in Spider Blues is of a distinctly masculine cast; psychoanalysis would be effective, he suggests, because of the presence and textual domination of the father. That paternal domination is no less felt in the critical writing inspired by the poems, novels, and films of Michael Ondaatje.

There are, to begin, not very many women critics writing on Ondaatje. The essay collection Spider Blues, for example, has five women contributors (four essayists, one bibliographer) and fourteen male ones. And though women critics have written on Ondaatje—most notably Linda Hutcheon, Manina Jones, Constance Rooke, Smaro Kamboureli, and Anne Blott—they have focused on issues other than gender, even though gender has been a prominent feature of the other critical writings of most of them. This is also true, I must add in a shamefaced postscript, of my own limited work on Ondaatje. So why don't we have a gender criticism of Ondaatje in the nineties?

My hypothesis is as follows: feminist critics shied away from Ondaatje because they assumed that there wasn't much to write about, or that, if they did write, they would end up compiling a survey of “images of women” in Ondaatje—in essence, a catalogue of Atwoodian victim positions—which would be theoretically sparse and of limited use. And standing before them was this body of criticism—for example, the work of critics such as Sam Solecki, Dennis Cooley, and Stephen Scobie—much of it very good, but, taken as a whole, belonging to a male milieu. Take the critical commentary on the cover of Ondaatje's selected poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, if you think that I'm overstating the case. Stephen Scobie opens his review of the volume, reprinted in Spider Blues, with the following accolade:

Only Ondaatje, people say, shaking their heads in knowing admiration, only Michael could have found the cover illustration. A woman stands against a wooden board, a target, with knives all around her; the words of the title also cluster around, she is their target too. … Only Ondaatje, they say, could have found this photograph. …


Hmmm. And if you're a bit taken aback by that word “admiration,” then let's consider a similar comment by George Bowering:

On the cover of Michael Ondaatje's selected shorter poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979), there is a photograph of a seated man using his left foot to throw knives around the body of a woman who looks like Dorothy Livesay. Whether or not that says anything about the course of Canadian poetry, it does suggest the nature of Ondaatje's wit.


To quote a line from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, “HAWHAWHAW” (57). Witty, isn't it? And there's the added delight of imagining a pioneering Canadian feminist poet pinned and wriggling on a board, a target for a male poet's word knives, just to sharpen the edge of the “wit.”

I haven't been alone in my gendered distance from some of this criticism and its assumptions. In a review of Spider Blues, Susan Gingell briefly takes issue with a comment by Sam Solecki about the unnamed woman in Ondaatje's second book of poetry, The Man with Seven Toes. He claims that she has “simultaneously positive and negative responses to her rape” (“Point Blank” 141). “Has any woman ever perceived any aspect of rape positively?” Gingell tartly inquires (216).

I do not intend to pen an indictment of Michael Ondaatje's critics, even though I have had a few tart comments of my own to offer in the preceding paragraphs. Nor will I launch into a massive debunking of Ondaatje, a writer whom I admire and whose works I enjoy reading, though I will not offer an apology for his “tricks with a knife” either. I aim, rather, to acknowledge the silences and assumptions of both critical and poetic texts, and to move from there to a more intensive project of studying the role of women and gender in Ondaatje's works in all of its contradictoriness and complexity. This is not to say that indictment of any male author has no place, no useful function in feminist criticism. For all of its flaws, one must applaud the locus classicus of feminist indictments, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970), simply because of its energizing, astringent effect on women readers and critics, who, after the book appeared, could feel that they had a right to a dissenting voice, a right to be what Judith Fetterley has since termed a “resisting reader.” By the same token, indictment should not be the only strategy available to feminist critics dealing with men's texts, especially if those texts reveal a complex working of the variable of gender.

Feminist critics who have chosen not to indict the men's texts that they find of interest to feminist studies tend to be somewhat defensive about the charge of being apologists. Susan Rudy Dorscht, for instance, in the first chapter of her book Women, Reading, Kroetsch: Telling the Difference, guards herself against that charge by taking one giant step backwards from her earlier critical position, that Kroetsch is amenable to feminist purposes because “a … simple deconstruction of the subject” renders sexual difference null, and because his works are full of such productive subjective decentrings (16). Instead, Dorscht argues that feminist readings of Kroetsch are her focal point; they offer the “challenges to notions of self, origin, truth and meaning” that are “allied with feminist practice” (22), let Kroetsch's texts say what they will. This is critical damage control of a sort, undertaken to avoid a charge of providing an apology for a writer whose gender politics are, shall we say, complex.

Male critics who are interested in bringing gender issues to bear in their discussions of men's works must also negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of indictment and apologetics, though the dynamics are quite different (see Heath). To indict a male author out of sympathy with feminist aims may make the male critic sound embarrassingly like a rescuing knight for helpless women readers and critics, while to apologize for that author is implicitly to defend oneself and one's critical practices; as Stephen Heath puts it, “Men's relation to feminism is an impossible one” (193).

In a recent (1992) article on the issue of violence in Ondaatje's work, Christian Bök opens, if briefly, a discussion of gender, one that attempts to negotiate these “impossible” critical stances. In the couple of paragraphs where he considers violence against women, he notes that “Women as artists in fact do not appear to figure largely in Ondaatje's aesthetic vision; instead, women appear to represent the passive victims of male volatility” (116). Bök promptly acknowledges artist characters such as Clara, Alice, and Anne from In the Skin of a Lion in an endnote, but he claims that they are either exploited by males or socially marginalized (122). He then laments the lack of “explicit moral judgements about such patriarchal violence” in Ondaatje (116). In light of the examples I cited earlier of male critics' insensitivity to gender problematics in Ondaatje, this seems a brave stance to take, but the net effect of Bök's indictment is to downplay the moments in Ondaatje's texts when women are not victims, when the text discloses its own gender complexities and inconsistencies—moments that I will analyse in the rest of this paper. Besides, indictment is often associated with prescriptive criticism, and Bök's call for “explicit moral judgements” seems a touch Zhdanovian (see Eagleton 37-40).

Though Bök does not engage in apologetics of a correspondingly explicit sort, he is, at times, tempted to frame a narrative of conversion in describing Ondaatje's poems and novels. He claims, for instance, that “Ondaatje's romanticization of violent males does begin, nevertheless, to undergo some reappraisal in Running in the Family,” and he bases his argument on his sense of Mervyn Ondaatje as “tragic” and pitiable rather than glorified (116, 117). (I think he is both—another classic example of Ondaatjean mixedness.) In accounting for the change that he discerns in the later works, Bök emphasizes that “Ondaatje in effect does not reform his politics so much as qualify his romantic ethos” (119). And yet, Bök's article concludes this way:

While Ondaatje has always emphasized that artistic innovation does not occur without some act of violent intensity, of extreme defamiliarization, he no longer appears to value such intensity purely for its own sake or for its privileged ability to generate a private vision that turns its back upon generalized oppression; instead, he values such intensity for its ability to energize a collective, social vision that resists specific forms of ideological authority.


That does sound like political reformation. Narratives of progress are difficult to resist, though they can shade all too easily into apologetics.

Keeping this in mind, I will examine the evidence that gender, as a category of inquiry and thought, assumes greater importance in Ondaatje's later work, because I agree with Bök that something interesting and new is happening in the texts of the eighties and nineties, but I will not sketch any sort of conversion scenario, whereby “formerly patriarchal writer sees the light and adopts affirmative stances.” The texts, in all of their political complexity, seem to deny such a narrativization. The changes that do occur in Ondaatje's later works are neither unproblematic nor linear, and they involve more than Ondaatje softening his line on violent males. Gradually, there is more awareness of issues of gender, especially as they relate to ownership—the poet's ownership of the material, the patriarch's ownership of the female, and the imperialist's ownership of the colonized. But vestiges of traditional gender assumptions linger even in the most recent works, “shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear” (Rat Jelly 62), but never achieving clarity, stasis, or conversion.

The traditional, Thurberesque war between men and women has been a feature of Ondaatje's writing both early and recent. In “A House Divided,” from the first collection of poetry, The Dainty Monsters, the language of war is explicitly invoked in this farcical confrontation:

Your body, eager
for the extra yard of bed,
reconnoitres and outflanks;
I bend in peculiar angles.

This nightly battle is fought with subtleties:

you get pregnant, I'm sure,
just for extra ground
—immune from kicks now.


The title of a series of Thurber cartoons graces one of the sections of Running in the Family, the episode where a man on a bus fondles Lalla's foam breast: “The War between Men and Women.” And it resurfaces, once again, slightly altered, to serve as the title for one of the poems in Secular Love: “(The Linguistic War between Men and Women).” These explicit references to the war of the sexes typically occur in lighter poems, as though to lampoon the very notion of a serious battle between male and female.

But, in the later works, alongside the lampoons, one occasionally finds the soberer skirmishes of heterosexual romance. In Running in the Family, for instance, a farcical account of a marriage trick rapidly fades into a glimpse of a more serious domestic battle: Lalla, to poke fun at Mervyn's Tamil background, “had two marriage chairs decorated in a Hindu style and laughed all through the ceremony. The incident was, however, the beginning of a war with my father” (119). In retrospect, laughter dissolves into crossfire. We later hear of Mervyn's planting of cacti and roses in order to discourage Lalla's botanical plundering, and, later still, in the section graced by the Thurberesque title “‘What We Think of Married Life,’” the scenario darkens further: Mervyn “reportedly couldn't stand his mother-in-law, Lalla, for what he saw as her crudeness, although the stories about my father are closer in style to those about Lalla than anyone else” (169). Here the domestic war emerges as a complicated palimpsest; Mervyn can displace onto Lalla his own mortification at the embarrassment he causes his wife, Doris, by his own Lallaesque exploits.

Clearly, farcical gender wars may also be read as major traumas. Ondaatje may find the performance given by his siblings, and stage-managed by Doris, when Mervyn is drinking (“Daddy, don't drink, daddy, if you love us” [170]) to be thrilling dramaturgy, but his older brother and sister feel “guilty and miserable” “for days after” (171). Perhaps Thurber's “The War between Men and Women” isn't that far removed from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? after all.

Another aspect of Thurberesque gender comedy looms largest in Ondaatje's earliest works: female stereotypes. These are drawn at their broadest in his first book of poems, The Dainty Monsters, though the echoes are more of early T. S. Eliot than of Thurber. In “Henri Rousseau and Friends,” for instance, we hear of the douanier's waltzing man, tiger, and bird hanging

scattered like pearls
in just as intense a society.
On Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot's walls,
with Lillie P. Bliss in New York.


The adage about “casting pearls before swine” lingers in the air; clearly, in this early poem, to adapt Eliot (from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), “the women come and go / Talking of douanier Rousseau.” But the Eliotic disdain disappears from Ondaatje's work, even if traces of Thurberesque nervousness remain; we find few such passages in the poetry and prose to come. Indeed, in the next book of poetry and prose, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje sports with the stereotypes of the helpless heroine and the femme fatale in the comic section “Billy the Kid and the Princess”: “Gracias Señor. You are so strong and brave … and very gallant!”; “This table needs a man like you, Señor Bonney. Others have occupied that chair but none so well as you” (99, 100). In a more serious vein, Coming through Slaughter appears to set up the opposing stereotypes of woman versus whore (“The women wore Gloria de Dijon and Marshall Neil roses and the whores sold ‘Goofer Dust’ and ‘Bend-Over Oil’” [9]), but then breaks down those stereotypes in the figure of Nora Bolden: a wife (read “respectable”) and former prostitute—or is she still involved with her pimp, Tom Pickett? We never know, and so we are unable to reformulate those supposedly oppositional terms whore and wife.

The feature of Ondaatje's writing that has, more than the use of stereotypes, kept feminist analysis at a distance is what I'd like to call “the male chaotic”—a realm of seemingly random, centrifugal violent energy, associated with males and either opposed or ignored by females. It dominates the early poetry, particularly the first collection, The Dainty Monsters. There it exists, for example, in the Ted Hughesian chaos that takes over the domestic space of “The Republic”:

While we sleep
the plants in frenzy heave floors apart,
lust with common daisies,
feel rain,
fling their noble bodies, release a fart.
The clock alone, frigid and superior,
swaggers in the hall.
At dawn gardenias revitalize
and meet the morning with decorum.


Plants lust with daisies, which are, in turn, associated with decorum-loving morning gardenias: the gendered division between male plant and female flowers is clear. Indeed, this recalls not only Hughes, but a Canadian predecessor, Dorothy Livesay (she of the book-cover dartboard). In her 1952 poem “Bartok and the Geranium,” the Bartok music is the male chaotic rampant, and the geranium the quieter—but surviving—female flower. In Ondaatje's early poem, however, sympathies are more heavily invested in the lusty plants; to resist the male chaotic is to be “frigid.”

Livesay's poem echoes again in another, similarly spirited poem from The Dainty Monsters, “The Diverse Causes,” wherein a close relative of the whirling, frenzied Bartok of Livesay's poem, Stravinsky, “roars at breakfast” over the glumly domestic powdered milk (22). But here the two realms nudge closer; the mundane details of frost on the window and the speaker's daughter dangling her red-shoed feet over the lake water suddenly give way to the Stravinsky roar of energy and chaos when they are transformed into a “scarred” window and a girl who “burns the lake” (22, 23). They can only be thus metamorphosed, however, through the eyes of the poet as he filters his domestic world through the refracting lenses of the male chaotic.

Indeed, the daughter's obliviousness, legs suspended over the lake she is metaphorically igniting, is shared by many of the women in the early poetry when they are confronted by the male chaotic. The female lover or wife of “The Diverse Causes” is sleeping while the male poet observes the “moving” “that turns like fire” under her eyelid (22); she, too, is ignorant of the fires of the chaotic. We are but a hop and a jump away from that other sleeping woman, the wife in “Spider Blues” (from Rat Jelly) who is similarly unconscious of the chaotic workings of the male artists-spiders-poets. Again, it is the poet-speaker who witnesses the “scene” (65), and who can exclaim at its beauty and lock it, like the suspended woman, into his poem. But the sense of uneasiness at this distinction between the male poet conscious of the chaotic and the unconscious, dreaming, art-object woman increases tenfold in “Spider Blues.” At the beginning of the poem, for example, the wife's body is described as “dreaming,” but later in the poem the poet refers to the ending as a “Nightmare for my wife and me” (63, 65). The grammatical parity suggested by the conjunction “and” only underscores the fact that the “Nightmare” is not the same for the two participants, just as the calculated domestic melodrama that the Ondaatje children perform in Running in the Family is different for the performers than for Ondaatje himself, who was too young at the time to participate. The poet can witness the nightmare, whereas the woman is, to use an Ondaatjean coinage, “nightmared”; the term is here used in an appropriately passive sense. By the last stanza, the dream moves out of the private orbit of its original owner, the woman: now the “air” is “dreaming” (65); that is, the dream has ceased to inhabit the private and is now floating out into the public realm, out of the woman's control. By the end of the poem, the dream belongs only to the “black architects” of her fate; it is “their dream,” once they have sucked it out of the woman-fly (65).

Of course, “Spider Blues” has affinities with other Ondaatje joke poems or prose passages, and a good number of these jokes involve women as the objects of humour (see “Notes for the Legend of Salad Woman” and “Letter to Ann Landers,” both from Rat Jelly, and “Sweet Like a Crow,” from There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, reprinted in Running in the Family). In “Over the Garden Wall” from The Dainty Monsters, for instance, we find the first in a series of breast jokes:

My mother while caressing camels
had her left breast bitten off,
so I was weaned on half a body.
In spite of this I've no objections
to camels, one hump or two …


The circular metaphor is worthy of note: mother caresses camels and metaphorically becomes a one-humped camel as a result. Then there are the various misadventures of Lalla and her foam breast, the result of an unnecessary mastectomy: it crawls over her back, joins its fleshy twin, gets gnawed by the pet dog, et cetera. It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the eliminations in Ondaatje's Elimination Dance reads as follows: “Women who gave up the accordion because of pinched breasts” (28). (To be fair, Ondaatje does manage to work a penis joke into that work, as well, for the sake of gender parity: “Anyone who has mistaken a flasher's penis for a loaf of bread while cycling through France” [14]). But my intention here is not simply to list these jokes, shaking my head in dour disapproval. What interests me, instead, is the way the woman-object jokes are, for the most part, first muted and then phased out in the later works. For instance, the jokes directed against women (like those directed against men) in Running in the Family are of a gentler, less dehumanizing timbre: “A Mr Hobday has asked my father if he has any Dutch antiques in the house. And he replies, ‘Well … there is my mother.’ My grandmother lower down gives a roar of anger” (27). But then, this book emphasizes and celebrates the contextual—“each memory a wild thread in the sarong” (110), as Ondaatje refers to his aunts' stories and to his own—and the contextual renders humour of a severing, objectifying sort alien, out of place. In later volumes such as Secular Love,In the Skin of a Lion, and The English Patient, the woman joke finds no place at all—a sign in itself that gender has become more complex and problematic for Ondaatje.

This observation would seem to suggest that there is some rethinking of the commodification of women going on in Ondaatje's poems and novels, though I would emphasize again that this process is not a linear, progressive one. In a poem from the “Pig Glass” section of There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, “Farre Off,” the poet's desire to write poems as stunning as Thomas Campion's and Sir Thomas Wyatt's is matched by his desire to possess the elusive female who is characteristic of Wyatt's best-known lyric, “They Flee from Me.” “Women Like You,” a poem included in Running in the Family, is very close in spirit to “Farre Off,” for it celebrates a communal love poem, “Hundreds of small verses / by different hands” (93), written to sublimely unreachable female lovers. In these “small verses,” text and body overlap once more, forming “an alphabet / whose motive was perfect desire” (93). The second half of the poem shades into the poet-speaker's twentieth-century alphabet of desire, one that includes a blazon that Wyatt and Campion would no doubt recognize as an intelligible part of their poetic world:

you long eyed women
the golden
drunk swan breasts
the long long eyes


Still, one might argue, it's difficult to imagine a more straightforward recognition and critique of the commodification of women's bodies than the opening pages of Coming through Slaughter, with their intense focus on the Storyville prostitutes. But gender in this novel is no easier, no less complicated than in Ondaatje's other works. Reconsidered, the fascination with the buying and selling of women in those opening pages acts mainly as a prelude to—and reflection of—the novel's central concern with the buying and selling of artists such as Bolden; as Bolden later reflects when he sees the horribly abused mattress whores, “My brain tonight has a mattress strapped to its back” (119).

Though critics of the novel have spelled out the sense of complicity with which Ondaatje approaches the early jazz master, none has considered another possible meditation offered up by the novel: the complicity of the poet with the buyer and user of women. Of course, this is exactly what Bolden himself does. He is complicit with Bellocq's project of photographing the prostitutes in that he convinces some of the women to pose. That assistance not only marks him as a patron of the more sensitive elements of the artwork (“What you see in his pictures is her mind jumping that far back to when she would dare to imagine the future, parading with love or money on a beautiful anonymous cloth arm” [54]), but it also makes him complicit with the knife slashes Bellocq inflicts on those photographed bodies. We have here an implicit portrait of the artist as complicit commodifier of the female.

This strain of self-conscious poetic indictment is a much more marked presence in recent works. Patrick of In the Skin of a Lion “wondered if at first she had been something he wanted to steal, not because she was Clara but because she belonged to the enemy. But now there was her character” (72). The passage itself modulates from generic commodity to humanizing name, from a “something” and a “she” to “Clara.” This is, in mirrored form, the nagging doubt of the self-conscious poetic “stealer” of women. It surfaces in more explicit terms in Running in the Family, when Ondaatje opens the chapter entitled “Aunts” with one simple sentence of self-indictment: “How I have used them” (110).

What Ondaatje—and we—are launching into here is a study of the gender politics of the writer's gaze, and so it should not be surprising that gazes themselves may become more politicized along gender lines in the later work. This doesn't seem to be the case in the poem “To Colombo” from Running in the Family, its last line imagistically objectifying the female: “the woman the coconuts the knife” (91). But in The English Patient, there is a complicated dance of gazes, of acts of perception that speak volumes about gender and colonial power. Caravaggio can gaze at, and muse about, Hana when he comes upon her sleeping in the library, but she quickly wakes when he sneezes, “the eyes open staring ahead at him” (81). This very phrase emphasizes Hana's unabashed act of concentrated looking. In a moment, she has chosen to reveal one of her most precious secrets to Caravaggio's gaze—her decision to end her pregnancy. And, in the scene that ensues, Hana takes control of perception in order to critique nationalism's objectification and disposal of human beings:

“My country taught me all this. It's what I did for them during the war.”

He went through the bombed chapel into the house.

Hana sat up, slightly dizzy, off balance. “And look what they did to you,” she said to herself.


Hana here echoes another Ondaatjean woman, Nora Bolden, who directs perception for her interlocutor, Buddy, in a more pointed fashion: “Look at you. Look at what he did to you. Look at you. Look at you. Goddamit. Look at you” (127). Some of the sleeping women of Ondaatje's early works have woken up to assume narrative and to direct the gaze.

In the Katharine-Almásy love-affair section of The English Patient, this battle of direct gazes intensifies, mainly because Almásy does not expect to be the object of a woman's steady gaze: “I see her still, always, with the eye of Adam. … Now I think she was studying me. … She was studying me. Such a simple thing. And I was watching for one wrong move in her statue-like gaze, something that would give her away” (144-45). So simple, and so unexpected from Adam's Eve. As John Berger, a writer much admired by Ondaatje, has phrased it,

[M]en act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.


One of the most striking scenes in The English Patient is the one in which Hana, playing the piano, becomes “a sight”—the object of two unfamiliar men's gazes. The men have placed their guns on the end of the piano, and these gaze at Hana, too. But Hana's gaze remains riveted on her piano keys and her art—a matriarchal art, for she plays a song taught her by her mother, Alice. She refuses to allow those two supreme signifiers of patriarchal power, men and guns, to dominate more than her peripheral vision for those few minutes.

What Hana does, in effect, is merge what Berger calls “the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman”: “the surveyor and the surveyed” (46); she clings tenaciously to her act of artistic sight, and at the same time she is conscious of being powerfully sighted. But postcolonial variables lend this scene of gender gaze further complexity. In a sense, Hana, playing this Western tune before Kip, the Sikh man who will become her lover, is aiming a gun of sorts, too. Only a couple of pages later, we hear that “Caravaggio grumbles at [Kip's] continuous humming of Western songs he has learned for himself in the last three years of the war” (73). By the end of the novel, Kip will refuse to dance to the tunes of the West; Hiroshima and Nagasaki will have changed all that, and they will have altered forever the gazes of the four main characters of this novel.

For Berger, and for other political critics of the gaze, to see is an act of penetration. Ondaatje appears to be rethinking this act, and so one is prompted to ask: What of all the acts of penetration in his work, the knives, the scars? Are they being rethought too? In “Christmas Poem 1965” from The Dainty Monsters, an idealized moment of sexual intimacy is likened to the red lights of a Christmas tree penetrating the skin of the woman:

You are in purple
with the red of the tree
moving into your skin
like my love my love


Intensify this image of the warm, penetrating, red light of love, and you have the familiar Ondaatje image of the scar, which makes its first appearance in this collection, as well. “The Time around Scars” shifts from a woman whom the speaker has inadvertently scarred some years ago, to the speaker's wife who was accidentally scarred before he knew her, back to an imagined version of the first woman; the poet now wishes that he could amalgamate his love for his wife and his scarring of the first woman:

I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.


The dominant tone is wistfulness—a desire to inscribe the scar letter of love.

There is a similar sense of performance awe in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid when Billy peers into the knife-ripped wrist of Angela in an attempt to fish out a bullet lodged inside:

look at it, I'm looking into your arm
nothing confused in there
look how clear
Yes Billy, clear


The critical reactions to this episode are revealing from the perspective of gender inquiry. J. M. Kertzer, pursuing his concern with the destructive duality of mind and body in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, sees this moment as evidence that “Mind confuses, corrupts, goes mad. The body remains simple, urgent, and ‘clear.’ When Billy digs bullets from Angela's arm, he gazes right into her body” (90). The male gaze right into the body of a woman appears more problematic for Anne Blott, dealing as she does with

the interrelation of the killers, the photographers, and the poet who catches life and fixes it on the page. … The killer Billy the Kid is a photographer, like Huffman fascinated by the look of motion frozen into form, as in his examination of Angela D's split arm.


Both this scene and “The Time around Scars” are reminiscent of Buddy Bolden's desire to penetrate the labyrinth of Nora Bass: “With the utmost curiosity and faith he learned all he could about Nora Bass, questioning her long into the night about her past. Her body a system of emotions and triggers he got lost in” (15). As Robert Kroetsch has written of his contemporaries,

The theory of answers, for us, is a dangerous one. We must resist endings, violently. … Contemporary criticism is full of our attempt to break out. Or, more exactly, to break in: that is, to penetrate. … We want to penetrate the word, penetrate the image, and uncover story.


For Ondaatje, “breaking in” is both desired and discomforting; he obviously has a great deal of admiration for the act of breaking in, as the return of the thief Caravaggio in The English Patient demonstrates. Yet Caravaggio's acts of breaking in result, as Hana observes, in his own breakage. More tellingly, the intended victim of the robbery that leads to Caravaggio's disfigurement is being penetrated by her lover as the thief slips through her room; she sees Caravaggio, but does not betray him to her lover. For all of its fascination for Ondaatje, penetration takes on, at moments, a nasty ideological aftertaste. Small wonder that, in his poem for his daughter in Secular Love, “To a Sad Daughter,” the poet advises her, “If you break / break going out not in” (97).

In recent Ondaatje works, there is a growing suspicion of the pen-penis equation, of storytelling as a male art. And yet, critics describing Ondaatje's artist figures favour the penis metaphor. Consider, for example, Dennis Cooley's description of Billy and Buddy: “Throughout Billy the Kid and Slaughter (especially in their climaxes) their tortured art orgasmically explodes ‘out there’—in the hot, open spaces beyond the provisional edges where they constantly find themselves” (211). Female listeners or companions of these artists are, as we've seen in the image of Angela's split wrist, penetrated by these artists. There is also Buddy Bolden's wild desire to penetrate the mysterious woman he imagines is dancing to his music during his last parade, or his compulsion to plunge his fingers into Robin Brewitt's back while they dance, as though he were playing his cornet, “improving on Cakewalking Babies” (59). But in In the Skin of a Lion, phallic art is subjected to more questioning; Rowland Harris, the commissioner of public works, envisions the bridge he is building as a direct product of his patriarchal sway—“his first child as head of Public Works” (29). But, a moment after he forms this thought, five nuns—women who announce their choice not to be penetrated—trespass on that phallic child. And the nun who falls from the bridge—Alice—will pick up the lion's skin of storytelling and creativity.

In fact, in recent works by Ondaatje, the woman as penetrated audience or object often turns creative—and that is enough to set patriarchal bridges of all kinds crumbling. This does not occur, however, in an early poem about Queen Elizabeth 1, “Elizabeth,” wherein the queen's art is a replacement for resisting patriarchal rule. After the guillotining of her lover, Tom, Elizabeth finds “cool entertainment now / with white young Essex, and my nimble rhymes” (Dainty Monsters 69). Coming through Slaughter contains a segment entitled “Nora's Song,” but it is a lament for the absence of a male, Buddy, and it is even more private and hidden than the unrecorded music of Nora's husband: “Dragging his bone over town …” (17). Women's art, in Coming through Slaughter, seems dependent on a man's art, in more ways than one; while Buddy watches a woman, probably Robin Brewitt, slicing carrots, he translates this domestic (women's) work into a commentary on his art: “As with all skills he watches for it to fail. If she thinks what she is doing she will lose control” (31). And Nora's mother, Mrs. Bass, figuratively becomes a woman artist—the dancer Isadora Duncan—only through the male investigator Webb's deduction that the circumstances of her death were the same as Duncan's. But female emulation of Duncan takes on a more subversive cast in Running in the Family, where “Doris Gratiaen and Dorothy Clementi-Smith would perform radical dances in private, practising daily. Both women … were greatly influenced by rumours of the dancing of Isadora Duncan” (33). What's more, unlike Nora Bolden and Robin Brewitt, they soon carry their art into public performance.

But it's with In the Skin of a Lion that women artists come to the fore, as Christian Bök notes, though I read their accomplishments more positively than he does. When Clara and Alice “slip into tongues, impersonate people,” they embody women artists who have taken the exhilarating but dangerous step of “slipping into their tongues.” What's more, “Patrick is suddenly an audience,” the narrator notes in some surprise (74). Like Hana in The English Patient, the two artists continue their work after the male audience has deserted them and gone to bed; they do not exist for him. In this early hour of subversiveness, Clara and Alice take the adventurous next step of turning their former audience into an art object: “After an hour or so they say to each other, ‘Let's get him.’ … Approaching a sleeping man to see what he will reveal of himself in his portrait at this time of the night.” No wonder their shared sheet of paper “sometimes tears with the force of the crayon” (75); used to being an audience for so long, women wield even the unvalued domestic tools of art with an irrepressible energy.

The most explicit example of one such female writer in In the Skin of a Lion is Anne Wilkinson, whose journals are quoted (just as her poetry is remembered by a grown Hana in The English Patient [288]). She makes a cameo appearance in this text in the character of Anne, the writer (198; Butterfield 166). Caravaggio (who is also a central character in The English Patient), the artist of penetrating and taking, watches her deep in the act of creation, and he soon realizes that he is separated from her by more than a pane of glass. But when that difference is articulated, we see the true complexity of gender in the works of Michael Ondaatje; what Caravaggio envies in Anne is her ability to penetrate the page:

[S]he was staring into a bowl of kerosene as if seeing right through the skull of a lover.

He was anonymous, with never a stillness in his life like this woman's. … The houses in Toronto he had helped build or paint or break into were unmarked. He would never leave his name where his skill had been. He was one of those who have a fury or a sadness of only being described by someone else. A tarrer of roads, a house-builder, a painter, a thief—yet he was invisible to all around him.


Clearly, the Kroetschian artist who both builds and transgressively penetrates still has his attractions.

What Caravaggio—and, arguably, Ondaatje—does here is to take ownership of the female artist by assuming that he can enter her creativity and liken it to his own, in spite of the powerful differentiating forces of history. Indeed, Ondaatje's (re)thinking about gender turns on the crucial question of ownership, as I intimated at the beginning of this paper, and the main metaphor in which Ondaatje tries to sort out this question is, not surprisingly, that of the house. In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Sallie Chisum moves about the house from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., doing the jobs that her husband, John, has left on a list for her. Even her “large bones somehow tak[e] on the quietness of the house” (33); her bodily house is housed, and both legal and domestic writing decree that both houses belong to her husband. Clearly, Sallie, like Billy, longs for wilderness: “She had lived in that house fourteen years, and every year she demanded of John that she be given a pet of some strange exotic breed” (36). Still, she appears as a species of ministering angel in that house, caring for Billy as he recuperates from sunstroke and carrying out delicate domestic ceremonies.

In later Ondaatje works, we find a strikingly different portrait of males trying to move in a female house and finding it to be a disorienting—but revealing—experience. Patrick of In the Skin of a Lion whirls around a room blindfolded before Clara, whom he has instructed to keep still for his performance. But she refuses to obey and moves, just as she has refused to alter her plan to go to Ambrose Small: “She refuses all this and moves off the bed, positioning herself on the northeast corner of the rug,” holding her ears shut to “his endearments” (80). She is hit; Patrick, nose bleeding, admonishes her, “You moved. I told you not to. You moved” (81). The speaker of the prose poem “Her House” from Secular Love has, in effect, tried similar experiments. He turns, however, not to recrimination but acknowledges, and expresses his admiration for, his wife's ability to walk in her own house and skin:

On certain evenings, when I have not bothered to put on lights, I hit my knees on low bookcases where they should not be. But you shift your hip easily, habitually, around them as you pass by carrying laundry or books. When you can move through a house blindfolded it belongs to you. You are moving like blood calmly within your own body.


At the same time, the speaker acknowledges his own Patrick-like desire to locate Woman on a map of the house:

It is only recently that I am able to wake beside you and without looking, almost in a dream, put out my hand and know exactly where your shoulder or your heart will be. … And at times this has seemed to be knowledge. As if you were a blueprint of your house.


The last poem of the collection, “Escarpment,” confirms and echoes this uncertain knowledge; a male speaker and a woman walk along a riverbank, and the man tries to baptize the river with some verbal commemoration of his lover: “Heart Creek? Arm River?” (126). At the same time, he is aware that what he seeks “is not a name for a map—he knows the arguments of imperialism,” and so he rationalizes his desire by calling it “a name for them, something temporary for their vocabulary” (126). Near the end of the poem, the speaker acknowledges the woman's power to name, though he can only do so, in the words of this poem, by naming for her some flowers that botanists have already named: “He thinks of where she is, what she is naming. Near her, in the grasses, are Bladder Campion, Devil's Paintbrush, some unknown blue flowers” (126). In that last phrase, the door of patriarchal language is left open a crack for further naming and renamings, for the woman in the room of language to “refus[e] all this” and move through it. But the poem ends with the reinscription of male naming desire: “He holds onto the cedar root the way he holds her forearm” (126). That desire is a tough root, too.

What has happened here, in this poem that reproduces, in its contradictory, back-and-forth river wanderings, the very movements of gender in Ondaatje's writing that I have traced in this essay? In short, the poet-speaker “knows the arguments of imperialism,” and, at last, he has begun the painful process of applying them to gender relations. Some years earlier, Ondaatje did apply the language of gender relations to the country of his birth:

And so its name changed, as well as its shape,—Serendip, Ratnapida (“island of gems”), Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and Ceylon—the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword or bible or language.

(Running in the Family 64)

With the growing general recognition that the poet, too, participates in this courting and claiming of the powers of the linguistic sword, Michael Ondaatje has come to be a source of greater interest to critics of gender. If now he twirls about the room of his exquisite language, Bartok-like, blindfolded, he knows that he will hit the figure of a moving woman.

Works Cited

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Bök, Christian. “Destructive Creation: The Politicization of Violence in the Works of Michael Ondaatje.” Canadian Literature 132 (1992): 109-24.

Bowering, George. “Ondaatje Learning to Do.” Solecki, Spider Blues 61-69.

Butterfield, Martha. “The One Lighted Room: In the Skin of a Lion.Canadian Literature 119 (1988): 162-67.

Cooley, Dennis. “‘I Am Here on the Edge’: Modern Hero/Postmodern Poetics in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” Solecki, Spider Blues 211-39.

Dorscht, Susan Rudy. Women, Reading, Kroetsch: Telling the Difference. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1991.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. London: Methuen, 1976.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

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Heath, Stephen. “Male Feminism.” Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Mary Eagleton. London: Longman, 1991. 193-225.

Kertzer, J. M. “On Death and Dying: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.English Studies in Canada 1 (1975): 86-96.

Kroetsch, Robert. “The Exploding Porcupine: Violence of Form in English-Canadian Fiction.” Violence in the Canadian Novel since 1960/Violence dans le roman canadien depuis 1960. Proc. of a conference. Ed. Terry Goldie and Virginia Harger-Grinling. St. John's: Memorial U Printing, [1981]. 191-99.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto: Anansi, 1970.

———. Coming through Slaughter. Anansi Fiction 36. Toronto: Anansi, 1976.

———. The Dainty Monsters. Toronto: Coach House, 1967.

———. Elimination Dance/La danse éliminatoire. 1978. Trans. Lola Lemire Tostevin. London, ON: Brick, 1992.

———. The English Patient. Toronto: McClelland, 1992.

———. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland, 1987.

———. Rat Jelly. Toronto: Coach House, 1973.

———. Running in the Family. Toronto: McClelland, 1982.

———. Secular Love. Toronto: Coach House, 1984.

———. There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978. Toronto: McClelland, 1979.

Scobie, Stephen. “The Lies Stay In: A Review of There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do.” Solecki, Spider Blues 117-20.

Solecki, Sam. Introduction. Solecki, Spider Blues 7-11.

———. “Point Blank: Narrative in The Man with Seven Toes.” Solecki, Spider Blues 135-49.

———, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Véhicule, 1985.

Further Reading

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Adhikari, Madhumalati. “History and Story: Unconventional History in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.History and Theory 41, no. 4 (December 2002): 43-56.

Adhikari discusses how Ondaatje's The English Patient and James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific create an unique literary perspective on the legacy of World War II.

Pesch, Josef. “Post-Apocalyptic War Histories: Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.ARIEL 28, no. 2 (April 1997): 117-39.

Pesch identifies characteristics of post-apocalyptic life as represented by The English Patient and other literature of the apocalyptic tradition.

Russell, John. “Travel Memoir as Nonfiction Novel: Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family.ARIEL 22, no. 2 (April 1991): 23-40.

Russell analyzes the narrative structure and rhetorical strategies of Running in the Family in terms of the interplay between the conventions of travelogues and nonfiction novels.

Spearey, Susan. “Mapping and Masking: The Migrant Experience in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 2 (1994): 45-60.

Spearey interprets the migrant experience represented within In the Skin of a Lion by explaining the novel's intertextual patterns in relation to thematic concerns and structural devices involving movement and transformation.

Tait, Theo. “Hit the Circuit.” London Review of Books 22, no. 14 (20 July 2000): 39-40.

Tait questions the purpose and achievement of Anil's Ghost, comparing its styles and themes to Ondaatje's previous efforts.

Additional coverage of Ondaatje's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 42, 74, 109; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 14, 29, 51, 76; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 60; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 28; Poetry for Students, Vol. 8; and Twayne's World Authors.

Rod Schumacher (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Schumacher, Rod. “Patrick's Quest: Narration and Subjectivity in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.Studies in Canadian Literature 21, no. 2 (1996): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Schumacher delineates the relationship between language and subjectivity in In the Skin of a Lion as well as examining the roles of community and narrative in the development of Patrick Lewis, the novel's pivotal character.]

My discussion of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion is intent on seeking a correspondence between narration and the acquisition of subjectivity. To achieve this correspondence I centre my argument specifically on Patrick Lewis in order to illustrate how his incremental movement from private to communal symbolic registers facilitates his quest to subjectify himself within society. This approach is dependent upon understanding the role narration plays in the framing of personal and collective experience, and also how narration functions as a medium for desire. The theoretical foundation of my discussion borrows heavily from Lacanian poststructural theory. Here again, I am attempting to gain a fuller understanding, not only of the relationship between language and subjectivity, but also the important roles that community (or collective discourse) and narrative play in the development of subjectivity.

In addition to my analysis of Patrick, I also intend to situate the reader as a subject who gains knowledge through narration by identifying his/her own position within textual discourse. My reading necessitates viewing Patrick as the pivotal agent through whom the reader is encouraged to enter the fictional realm, seek and discover knowledge, and finally, carry that knowledge into the real world. In this regard my discussion is very much in the service of the social and political aims of Ondaatje's text. However, before dealing directly with the novel it is necessary to present a fairly broad understanding of how I will be employing the term narration in the contexts of reading and framing experience.

Poststructural theorists such as Jacques Lacan and the later Roland Barthes have continually reminded us that we are always involved, consciously and unconsciously, in reading the world and narrating our experience. As Barthes states: “narrative begins with the very history of humanity; there is not, there has never been, any people anywhere without narrative” (Semiotic 95). Reading the world constitutes a narrative act, a continual placing and displacing of signifiers, the goal of which, on a conscious level, is to gather experience into a coherent pattern. Our memories, conclusions, dreams, fantasies, careers and our projected visions of our futures appear most coherent to us when we can consciously situate them within narratives.

According to Lacan, narration is motivated by the unconscious search to reinstate the unity of the self that is imagined to have existed prior to the acquisition of language. For Lacan, our need to speak our experience and to attend to stories is driven by our desire to be (what V. A. Miller calls) sutured to a symbolic representational code, to unite the speaking subject with the “whole structure of language” (Cohen 156). In other words, language is both a representational substitute for the absence of a whole self, and the source of the self. Likewise Barthes views narration as a process motivated by the desire to bond with language: “reading is a conductor of the Desire to write … we desire the desire the author had for the reader when he was writing, we desire the love-me which is in all writing” (Rustle 40-41). However, despite the implied promise of wholeness, language “does not unify subjectivity … but, on the contrary, continually manifests the division of the subject” (Cohen 156). That is, we can imagine there is meaning in language, we can be inscribed by discourse and situate ourselves within a community, but we can never become the being of our speech or the subject of speech. Signification is always a process of “sliding … [of] no fixed binding of signifier to signified in the mental life of the subject” (Cohen 157).

My point in presenting this brief excursus into poststructuralism is to emphasize how discourse—and by extension narrative—is always falling short of unifying the speaking subject with the subject of speech; we are always subjects of, and subjected to, the representational system of language and, as Cohen and Shires assert, the subject “cannot mean independently of it” (153). And because we are unable to step outside this symbolic realm, we strive to attach meaning to it in order to mediate our lives. Language, applied in all of its possible forms, remains the primary means by which we attempt what might be called self-closure (the contentment of being). However, as listening and speaking agents, as nominal producers and subjects of narrative, we constantly grant “some full meaning to the words we speak” and hear, only to be “surprised to find them determined by relations outside our control” (Cohen 161). Every discursive community is always already formed prior to our entrance into its representational codes and, according to Lacan, our status as subjects within these representational codes begins when we are initiated into the established structures of discourse.

In their explanation of Lacanian theory, Cohen and Shires note that “a narrative representation of subjectivity functions similarly as a signifier with which a reader or viewer identifies” (149). By extrapolation, a narrative such as Ondaatje's, with its focus on acquiring identity through language, functions as a sort of surrogate world in which the reader, by becoming entangled in the hero's desires, imaginatively joins in the quest for subjectivity. According to Lacan, the reader is motivated by the unconscious desire to pursue narrative as a means to construct an image of him/herself that will hopefully resolve the separation that occurred when the symbolic register of language fractured the coherent relationship between the mother and the pre-linguistic child. The reader's desire is the unconscious Other, the buried aspect of the human psyche that, like a hungry infant, is always craving contentment. The desire of the reader is an attempt to resolve the lack of the mother. As Barry Cameron states in his article “Lacan: Implications of Psychoanalysis and Canadian Discourse,” “For Lacan, narrative is an effort to catch up retrospectively on the traumatic primordial separation from the self and mother with the entry into language” (Moss 148). In other words, the text activates the reader's unconscious desire to be sutured to its symbolic code, the hoped-for result of which is to enable the reader to share Patrick's desire to be signified as a coherent subject. (Of course, not all novels provide the same level of subjective coherence, and may seek to resist signifying a coherent subject; however, this is not the case in Ondaatje's text.) Because the reader is always positioned outside the text s/he has to enter into a very personal relationship with the work in order to discover how s/he can become signified within it. This is one of the reasons Barthes refers to the act of reading as “a work and a game” (Rustle 41). When we commit ourselves to a text—and here as throughout this paper I am referring to a literary text—we enter into a process that allows us to play the fictional text against our own personal texts. In doing so, we test the competence of our personal experience against that of the text's. This interaction is, in essence, founded on the reader's desire to continually search for alternative modes of representation that will provide a more stable self-image. In addition, the reader also gains pleasure in imagining him/herself as an active and desiring subject within a discursive field that is distanced from the turbulence of everyday life. In other words, literature offers a safe outlet for the desire of the unconscious Other.

As I have stated, Patrick Lewis is the pivotal figure in Ondaatje's novel, and for a number of reasons. First of all, Ondaatje intended the reader to seek to identify with Patrick and to use him as a guide throughout the text. There are many other important characters in the novel but Patrick is the only one whose process of self-discovery is intimately related. The narrative is dependent upon Patrick's ever increasing awareness of the world, and more importantly, the actions which stem from what he learns. If we desire to read and learn this world we will seek to identify with Patrick, because he, like us, and in the manner of the Bildungsroman, is also being introduced to it. In other words, Patrick and the reader share in the activity of cultural initiation, and as we shall see, Ondaatje has made certain that the ground on which we begin our journey is as barren as possible.

The novel begins with Patrick looking out at the world, trying to situate himself in the “pale green and nameless” backwoods of northern Ontario. Because there is very little knowledge of the world available to him, Patrick uses the few resources he has to feed his imagination and give voice to his thoughts. He studies the moths and insects attracted by the kitchen light, giving them fictional names and recording their visits in a notebook. He opens his geography book and whispers the exotic names of “Caspian, Nepal. Durango” (9). This very rigorous display of writing, reading, whispering, and imagining are in direct conflict with what Christian Bök has termed Patrick's “deliberate aphasia” (119). Any feelings of alienation that Patrick experiences, either in the wilderness or in Toronto, arise not from some calculated withdrawal from the world, but rather from his inability to use language effectively. His desire is not to seek silence, but to break out of it. The names he creates and reads from maps serve his desire to frame his private experience in language, and this begins the naming motif that runs throughout the text. By naming the world, even if only in whispers and in his imagination, Patrick displays his desire to create his own private narrative.

Patrick's textualizing of his life is presented as a concealed act, something he does not do in the presence of his father. He waits until his father is asleep, and this furthers the isolation of his desire to narrate his experience. Hazen Lewis, being an “abashed man, withdrawn from the world … uninterested in the habits of civilization” (15), is clearly of no help to Patrick's quest. There is very little conversation between Patrick and his father; in fact, there are only two moments in the novel in which there is dialogue between them, and even these instances amount to a scant thirteen words (12, 14). Hazen's first words to Patrick, “I'm going under now” (12), are significant in that they imply that the end result of remaining silent is to be left in obscurity, and this is exactly what happens to Patrick's father. Hazen's silence denies Patrick the opportunity to vocalize his experience, and this in turn forbids him to test his own competence with language. As the text points out, “he wants conversation” in his life; only by sharing language with others will he be able to “leap … over the wall of this place” (10). By being restricted to a concealed and monologic articulation of experience, Patrick's desire to situate himself in the world is severely hampered.

The isolation and silence of Patrick's early years serve a very specific function in the novel. As we know from the first epigraph, and from Gordon Gamlin's comparative analysis, Ondaatje framed much of the narrative around The Epic of Gilgamesh. There are many approaches to a comparative study of the two narratives—Gamlin, for example, discusses the corresponding oral implications. Many of my predecessors (Beddoes, Beran, Duffy, Sarris) have also offered comparative readings of the two texts, and a general consensus exists in viewing Patrick in the image of the ancient hero Gilgamesh.1 However, there is more than a passing likeness of Enkidu, the beloved friend of Gilgamesh, in Ondaatje's hero, Patrick Lewis, in that both have been raised outside a highly-developed cultural setting. In addition to this, both narratives tell the story of how these two characters respond when encountering a civilization wherein a majority of the inhabitants is oppressed by a dominant figure of power. And finally, both Enkidu and Patrick, by managing to remain on the periphery of culture, are positioned as having a perspective that I will generalize as being aloof from ideological constructs. By comparing Patrick's character to Enkidu's, it becomes possible to view Patrick as a culturally uninscribed figure who carries within him some sort of instinctive ability to separate justice from injustice. This instinctive aspect is very central to both narratives; and although it would not be in the interests of most poststructuralists to allow for it, I will, nevertheless, refer to it on occasion. Suffice it to say, that where Enkidu's “primeval” nature (Kluger 31) acts as a positive and active force in Gilgamesh, Patrick's marginalized cultural inscription—he has, after all, gone to school, and has at least a fragmented history—functions as a means to defamiliarize, or, better yet, disassociate the reader from his/her own cultural/ideological perspective. In other words, the beginning of the novel details a world so personal that the reader's imaginative entrance into Patrick's life is more a sensual initiation than a social and cultural introduction. We would not be far off the mark to consider Patrick as representing l'enfant savage popularized in Europe in the 1970s, the feral child of folklore, or any one of the similar romantic figures who have surfaced since Rousseau's era. By initiating our identification with Patrick outside of a highly structured discursive community, we become dependent on his ability to provide us with the knowledge of the text. And because so much of his boyhood experience is founded on his instinctive relationship with nature, we are encouraged to trust in our own ability to sense our way through the text, rather than trying to bend it into a predisposed coherent pattern. In short, the reader, as subject, is seduced by Patrick's lack of identity into privileging an emotional response over a cognitive one. Ondaatje is attempting to loosen our attachment to established centres of discourse in order to intensify our desire to assume a subject position similar to Patrick's. Ondaatje wants the reader to feel the experience of being displaced.

When we meet up with Patrick again, he is twenty-one years old and has just been “dropped under the vast arches of Union Station” in Toronto (53). We quickly realize that during the nine years since we first met him he has made very little progress in giving voice to his experience. His documented past is reduced to nothing more than “letters frozen inside mailboxes (53), a figure that once again echoes his desire to share language and also foreshadows a time—a spring—when he will be able to. Once again, his most significant memories arise from sensual experience: “What he remembered was loving only things to do with colour … the warm brown universe of barns, the breath and steam of cattle” (53). There is still no sign of his having acquired the vocabulary necessary to signify his subjectivity. His past is still predominantly couched in private images of the natural world of his early years. Patrick's attachment to nature, when considered in the context of Lacan's theory, suggests that he has cultivated an imaginary relationship with nature in order to mediate the silence in his life. This point will be developed further when I discuss the important role Clara plays in preparing Patrick's full entrance into the symbolic register of language; suffice it to say that even the fragmented, private narrative of his youth has been lost: “He spoke out his name and it struggled up in a hollow echo and was lost in the high air of Union Station” (54).

After this very brief reintroduction the novel leaps through time and Patrick is now employed as a searcher. There is a specific irony in his trying to discover the whereabouts of Ambrose Small in that, unlike Patrick who desires to name and situate himself within a community, Small has purposely fashioned a network of false names in order to become invisible. It is also ironic that while searching for someone so determined to erase himself from history, Patrick should find the very person who initiates his self-identity.

When we consider the components of Patrick's private narrative it is easy to understand why he becomes infatuated with Clara. In less than two paragraphs the text of his introduction to Clara calls forward all of the signifiers of his concealed narrative. Her body not only provokes his sexual desire, it also affects him like a sensual wound. She is “rare” and “perfect” (61) like the exotic names of far away countries. Her elegant clothes remind him of “a damsel fly” and his boyhood fascination with moths and insects. Furthermore, there is no coincidence in our being told of their destined lovemaking in the “silence of the reading room” at the library (62)—a site which evokes both the silence and the textual basis of his boyhood desire to know the world. Patrick is also drawn to her because he senses that by “not turning around to talk to him properly,” Clara may live in a silence similar to his own. In this brief and evocative passage, Clara textualizes the whole repertoire of Patrick's concealed narrative; his personal signifiers have, for the first time, been validated beyond his private sphere. Her body has become a text of his desire for wholeness. Clara's impact on Patrick is a necessary step in his subjective quest, but it does not, in itself, bring him fully into the realm of collective discourse. What Clara does is provide him access to a coherent personal history.

As we read the novel, we are aware that Patrick's narrative is destined to encounter the other narratives that have been interlaced with his. His contact with Clara can be understood as a necessary step in preparing his entrance into the whole context of the novel. There is a pattern represented here, in which the stories that weave around Patrick's narrative correspond to his desire to fill the absence in his own life. In this regard, the Lacanian notion of suture has been incorporated within the very structure of the novel. As the novel progresses Patrick's narrative becomes more and more imbricated with the other narratives—he and the reader are gradually moving from a private and isolated space to an interpersonal relationship with Clara, which in turn will lead to the collective site of the immigrant community. Clara's function is to bridge the space between personal and social narrative. The origins of Patrick's infatuation, at least from the point of view of narrative, stem from her ability to articulate and educate Patrick in the intimate details of personal history:

He loved the eroticism of her history, the knowledge of where she sat in the classroom, her favourite brand of pencil at the age of nine. Details flooded his heart … he found he had become interested only in her, her childhood, her radio work, this landscape in which she had grown up.


By listening to Clara narrate her past, Patrick learns a valuable and practical lesson regarding the importance of maintaining personal history. By becoming an engaged listener—an activity that corresponds to the reader's entanglement with narrative—Patrick begins to understand that his own history has significance, and that there are forces outside of himself that have shaped his life. However, when encouraged to narrate his own life, he is still incapable of speech:

He defended himself for most of the time with a habit of vagueness … There was a wall in him that no one reached … A tiny stone swallowed years back that had grown with him and which he carried around because he could not shed it … Patrick and his small unimportant stone. It had entered him at the wrong time in his life.


The isolation of his youth and the silence of his father are obstacles which even Clara's history cannot overcome. There is, however, a reason why Patrick's relationship with Clara fails to immediately bring him into the realm of language.

What is of particular significance vis-à-vis a Lacanian reading of Patrick's youth is the mystery of the mother-figure. Ondaatje's text carefully avoids any mention of a feminine presence in Patrick's early years. We are left to assume that the dynamic Oedipal moment, so necessary in psychoanalytic theory, has somehow not taken place, and therefore his acquisition of language and the subsequent identification outside of the mother have yet to be completed. This lack of mother is further evidence of his entering the social realm as a marginally inscribed subject, but it does not necessarily imply that the mother-figure is absent during his upbringing.

As I have already stated, Patrick's attachment to nature represents an imaginary relationship through which he attempts to situate himself in the world. In other words, he has adopted the natural world as an imaginary referent for the absent mother. The manner in which the text describes his bond with nature is similar to the kind of protective relationship a young boy would have with his mother. Patrick's maternal bond with nature is obvious in his response to the Finnish skaters. This scene also serves to intimate the increasing degree of conflict he will encounter as he becomes more and more subjectified within language.

In Lacanian terms, Patrick's fascination with the skaters represents his unconscious desire for the phallic authority of language symbolized by the light cast from the burning cattails. In fact, the whole motif of fire and light that runs throughout the novel can be read as a symbol of Patrick's search for the authority of language. Just as the months are attracted to the man-made glow of his kitchen light, so too is Patrick attracted to the “fire” of the symbolic register. However, when he approaches the river he senses the authority of the male skaters and hides the lamp he is carrying behind a tree so he will remain hidden from view—a gesture similar to a timid child clinging to the hem of a mother's skirt. He is afraid to contact “these strangers of another language” (22) because their “light” threatens his bond with the mother-figure which is troped as nature. The skaters remind him of “a coven, or one of those strange druidic rituals” he had read about. And even though he is fascinated by their joyful energy, and wishes he could “hold their hands and skate the length of the creek,” he still refuses to step from the safety of the bushes. He cannot compete against the light of this strange language which gives these men the confidence to move “like a wedge into the blackness” (22). The encounter has awakened his desire to enter the authoritative realm of language, but it has also made him aware that these men are his rivals; that is, they are in possession of “his shore, his river.” In other words, he senses that the phallic authority of language is a threat to his maternal bond with nature. By remaining in the darkness of the trees, by concealing himself from view, he is safe from confronting what Lacan calls “The Law of the Father”: the masculine authority inscribed in the symbolic register which prohibits the child's desire for and access to the intimacy of the mother. According to Lacan, “The Law of the Father” manifests itself in language by renouncing desire for the mother, and substituting and/or compensating this loss by seeking dominion over the feminine (mother/nature) through the possessive act of naming. This capacity to authorize existence, to situate himself and gain some form of control in the world, is exactly what Patrick is striving for. However, because he is unable to articulate an appropriate response, some kind of self-empowering statement, retreat “back through the trees and fields” (22), is his only option. His withdrawal to the safety of the mother-figure is an unconscious acknowledgement of his inability to defend his subjective status. However, as the title of the chapter suggests, the incident has given him the “Little Seeds” that eventually bring about his full entry into the symbolic register.

It is important then to view Clara (and to a lesser extent Alice) as representing, in a very literal though non-biological sense, Patrick's absent mother(s). By transferring his maternal bond from the natural world to a genuine female presence he has achieved another incremental step in his quest. Through Clara, he seeks to establish contact with the mother who lives solely for him and is the object of all his desires. The reason he is still unable to speak his own narrative in the presence of Clara is because he is fully contented with being the object of her attention; and the reason he becomes attracted and distressed when in contact with the phallic “light” of the Finnish skaters is because he has yet to move from the imaginary to the symbolic registry. In terms of a Lacanian reading, Patrick, although nearly thirty years old, has yet to find the means to mediate his separation for the mother-figure. As long as Clara remains in his life he will be content to simply be in her presence, and this in itself will furnish him with all the meaning he requires. It is only after Clara disappears, like an actress having fulfilled her part, and leaves Patrick to suffer the absence, or the lack, of the mother-figure, that language begins to function as a substitute for his loss. With Clara no longer present, he finally rehearses the “Oedipal crisis, which is the inauguration of full entry into the symbolic register” (Cohen 159). His brief and passionate relationship with Clara is a belated yet necessary step in his quest for subjectivity.

Patrick's next attempt to position himself within the symbolic register begins with his entry into the labour class. However, the representational register through with he comes to identify himself is not based on language, but on the visual markings that distinguish the various jobs of the immigrant workers. When we consider the important role that the natural or sensual worlds play in both his life and in the novel as a whole, it seems appropriate that Patrick should first come to situate himself according to visual or tactile inscription. The stained skin of the dye workers, the stiff clothing of the tunnelers and the signifying hole in the back of their shirts are like the tribal body inscription of “primitive” societies. Again, this manner of seeking identity is another incremental step toward the more sophisticated register of language.2

After two years of living in almost total silence, Patrick finally becomes situated within Toronto's Macedonian community. It is important to note that his initiation into this cultural site is precipitated by his having learned and employed the Macedonian word for iguana: “A living creature, a gooshter” (112). Once again we see how the phallic authority invested in naming, and therefore codifying and possessing the feminized natural world, serves as an attraction to the symbolic register. Furthermore, this one new word leads to a vast network of “new words” (113) that “he must now remember” (114). At this point in the novel Patrick's acceptance into the Macedonian community is dependent upon his ability to articulate some aspect of his character that aligns him with the cultural expectations of the community. In order for him to become a trusted member of this society, and, more importantly, for him to feel he truly belongs within their ranks, he needs to prove his competence, as much to himself as to the community at large. There is a correspondence here that I wish to develop between Patrick's inscription into the Macedonian community and Lacan's interpretation of the fort/da game played by Freud's grandson.

The relationship between language and community is similar to the fort/da game in that, just as the child gains control over his separation from his mother by staging the disappearance and return of the lost object, so too does Patrick come to position himself by testing his personal text against the social text of the community. In a sense, Patrick must cast his personal narrative outward in order to test whether or not it will be accepted by the greater community. If he has acquired a representational code that corresponds with, or is sympathetic to, the ideological concerns of the immigrant labour classes, he will then be able to enter a community that will permit him to vocalize, and therefore situate himself, as a subject. Just as Freud's grandson transferred his anxiety to a referent outside the mother, so too does Patrick employ language as a referent to seek a fuller sense of control within a greater field of discourse. This sense of control can only be obtained by testing his personal experience against the customary knowledge of the community. Customary knowledge, to borrow Jean-Francois Lyotard's explanation, “includes notions of ‘know-how,’ ‘knowing how to live,’ how to listen” (18). Patrick must test his lived experience, his personal narrative, and his ability to articulate, in order to prove his right to become subjectified within a larger social narrative. If his personal narrative is deemed competent, it is because it “conform[s] to the relevant criteria of justice, beauty, truth, and efficiency respectively accepted in the social circle of the ‘knower's’ interlocutors” (Lyotard 19). Of course Patrick's admittance into the Macedonian community is easily achieved since both parties share the common narrative of displacement.

By being accepted within the Macedonian community Patrick is given access to a vast history of cultural experience. This is the first time he has come in contact with a collective narrative that is older than any living individual. There are roots here that he has never imagined before, and he begins to love the historicity of culture. It should be noted that Macedonia and Epic of Gilgamesh—which, like Ondaatje's novel, is also a narrative of tribal solidarity—are culturally and geographically inseparable, and by using them as referents in the novel Ondaatje is explicitly drawing attention to narrative as the primal structure for making meaning and, perhaps more importantly, sustaining culture.3 Material referents of culture—bridges, water stations—have always been subject to decay, but narrative, travelling through time from subject to subject, has always been able to carry cultural identity to future generations. As Fredric Jameson states:

[P]ersonal identity is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with one's present; and … such active temporal unification is itself a function of language, or better still of the sentence … If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify … our own biographical experience.


Patrick's newly-acquired social register also unites his narrative with the inner-narratives that have woven their separate paths throughout the novel. We have anticipated the merging of these narratives to be a sort of joyful reunion for Patrick, and also for ourselves as readers. The fragmented linearity of the text has encouraged us to desire that Patrick's narrative become sutured into the whole structure of the novel. Although this wholeness is achieved, the joy that we have anticipated is only temporary. I suggest that Patrick's growing attachment to Alice and Hana, and the regularization of his life within immigrant culture, represent the kind of imaginative celebration of wholeness that we seek as readers. However, Alice's role—to “veer” Patrick “to some reality” (88)—is clearly meant to foil the celebration that we wish for Patrick and ourselves. Her primary function is to activate the political implications that are always already attached to all discourse. It is Alice who bursts Patrick's bubble by educating him—as Clara, though in a different capacity, has done earlier—in the hard world of political expediency. “I'll tell you about the rich” (132), she says to him, and Patrick stubbornly begins to realize that language is also a powerful political weapon, and that the power in Alice's words is dangerous and necessary. By becoming a subject within the discourse of the marginalized, he has unknowingly and unavoidably situated himself in opposition to dominant culture. In a particularly parodic move, Patrick begins to conceal his identity from his employers so he can join Alice in bringing down the authority of the elite. Like Ambrose Small, Temelcoff, and his father, Patrick begins to make himself as invisible as possible. Just as Enkidu in the Gilgamesh narrative struggles to correct the abuse of authority, so too must Patrick attempt to bring justice to his world.

Although Alice initiates Patrick into the politics of signification, it is through the printed word that he becomes fully acquainted with the barbaric treatment of immigrant workers. By reading Cato's letters, and the “official histories” (145) wherein only the elite are credited with the construction of their cultural monuments, Patrick realizes that the vibrant history and the contributions of the immigrants has not been, and will not be, properly documented for prosperity; the depth and warmth of the very community in which he has become a subject will be erased from history—its narratives will become invisible. When Alice is accidentally killed by a bomb that has likely been made by Patrick, his anger with himself is displaced to the rich. His immediate response is to retreat into silence—an attempt to cast off the irresolvable turmoil which surrounds him and to reclaim the wonderment and innocence of his youth. But his entrance into immigrant society has altered him; he can never return to his past, and he can never step outside of the realm of language. It is important to note that from the time of Alice's death and Patrick's encounter with Harris, Patrick never expresses remorse. And it is during this time that he becomes personally involved in destructive activities. Judy Beddoes likens Patrick at this point in the novel to “a child playing with matches” (211), and Sarris goes even further by viewing him as a “purely sensual, unthinking savage” (197). The word “feral” surfaces both in the novel (172) and in Sarris's essay (197), but nowhere is there any sense of the innocence that was so much apart of Patrick's early years of isolation in the Ontario wilderness. His romanticized attachment to nature has been shattered by the ideological implications inscribed in language and his indoctrination into the constant turmoil of civilization. As in all encounters where innocence is defeated by experience, there is no way to retrieve the past.

His militant activism is largely due to his inability to speak of his involvement in Alice's death. Silence and violence have become the only channels through which he can attempt to mediate his loss. In short, Patrick is literally tongue-tied because he has yet to assume responsibility for the creation of his own narrative. By this, I mean that his entrance into the symbolic register has been achieved by borrowing from Alice's discursive schema. We recall how, unlike Clara's open and detailed history, Alice's past “remains sourceless” (74), and her body is filled with “suppressed energy” (75). By relying on Alice to indoctrinate him into language, Patrick has become an extension of her militant story. He has yet to find his own vocabulary, or the kind of skin that will grant him the means to express his own subjectivity.

What Patrick has unwittingly been attempting to achieve in his search for Small, and also in his encounter with Harris, is to finally confront the father-figure who left him “at the wrong time in his life” (71). Figuratively speaking, Patrick's ultimate quest is to steal the “fire”—the phallic authority—that resides in language. According to Lacan, gaining the authority of language requires some form of violent psychological struggle, a castration or “self-mutilation” (Cohen 159). We can now understand why Patrick, as a boy of only eleven, was so intimidated by the Finnish skaters. If he is to find “his own time zone, his own lamp” (143), he must first accept the wounding by the father-figure; only then will he be able to detach himself from the imaginary realm represented by Clara and nature, and move toward the symbolic register. The burns (read: the wound) he receives from Small's attack are yet another step toward spitting out the “small unimportant stone” (71) that has kept him from accessing his own narrative voice—a voice he eventually discovers to be quite different from the one he has borrowed from Alice, who, in turn, had borrowed it from her husband, the self-named Cato.

Patrick's encounter with Harris in the water plant can be viewed as his ultimate confrontation with the authority of language, and I would like to take two discrete yet corresponding approaches to the scene. First of all, the encounter creates a wonderful sense of the unifying potential of narrative. There is a distinct archetypal pattern here as first Harris, and then Patrick, reveal their intimate narratives in the dark and cave-like space that surrounds them—a setting that is also a Father-space, made to control nature (water). Even the moon-shaped windows suggest Harris and Patrick are removed from the time frame of the novel and are acting out the most fundamental social activity known to humankind. Harris begins defending himself by narrating the visions he had in dreams. He tells Patrick that “We need excess, something to live up to” (236), and that the only reason the elite exist is because people like Patrick reject the responsibility of power, and therefore allow “bland fools” to speak for them. He tells Patrick that what he is “looking for is a villain” (237), and because Harris's narrative is not founded on political power, but on a personal vision of beauty, Patrick is unable to view Harris as a figure of evil. Patrick then turns on the light—a significant gesture in Lacan's lexicon—to confirm Harris's sincerity:

Patrick turned the light on and saw Harris' eyes looking directly into his.

—Have you decided?

—Not yet.

He switched off the light. Again they disappeared from each other.


The material world is the point of contact, but the world of narrative is where we wrestle with ourselves, and with each other.

It is now Patrick's turn to tell his private narrative, but, as with Clara, he is still reluctant to speak. Again another ironic shift occurs as Harris, who we might have supposed to symbolize the authority of dominant culture, becomes the agent who insists that Patrick not remain silent. When Patrick balks at speaking of Alice's death—“I don't want to talk about this anymore” (239)—Harris tells him his life will “always be a nightmare” (238) if he refuses to speak. Giving voice to private experience, and sharing it within a community of listeners—even if that community is made of only a speaking subject and a single listener—provides both Patrick and Harris the opportunity to be heard, understood, and also to frame experience into a coherent narrative pattern. The darkness of the scene shuts out the real world, and we are left with two individuals struggling with language, trying to find some common ground. Beran claims that “[I]n acknowledging his own role in the accident that killed Alice Gull, Patrick ends his defiance and denial” (78). I agree with Beran, but I would place less emphasis on Patrick acknowledging his role—he was undoubtedly aware of it from the very moment the bomb went off—than I would on the actual act of speaking about it. The theme of breaking silence, of giving voice to what lies beneath the surface of events, is too important an issue in the novel, and Patrick's silence is much less an act of denial than an inability to articulate grief.

Patrick, after finally voicing his distress, falls asleep on Harris's bed. Sarris takes a Rip Van Winkle approach to Patrick's sleep by interpreting it as a “withdrawal from the world … a forfeit[ing] of moral responsibility” (200). In contrast to Sarris's appraisal, this sleep scene is also one of the most powerful and affirming moments in the novel, in that it further asserts the unifying potential of narrative while at time same time providing a figurative reunion of the earlier image of Patrick and his father sharing the same bed after rescuing the cow from the river. It would be difficult to imagine a more complete gesture of trust than falling asleep in the presence of a potential persecutor. When Harris realizes the danger in Patrick's incredible entry into the building—“My God, he swam here … What vision, what dream was that?” (241)—he is stunned by Patrick's selfless devotion to his ideals. By listening to each other they have become obligated to the common ground expressed in their personal narratives. If Harris hands Patrick over to the authorities, he knows he is also rejecting the vision that has guided his own life.

The second interpretation of this scene involves recognizing it as Patrick's final confrontation with the Lacanian father-figure. Patrick, although believing he has entered the water station to destroy it, is really motivated by his subconscious desire to gain or at least challenge the phallic authority that it symbolizes. His encounter with Harris defuses his urge to destroy the building because Harris, the holder of phallic power, becomes actively involved in helping Patrick identify his role within the symbolic register. In short, Harris becomes the benevolent father-figure who passes phallic knowledge to the younger male. Patrick's underwater journey, his subsequent wounds, and his meeting with Harris in the womb-like atmosphere of the temple, symbolize his acceptance of “The Name of the Father,” a crucial and final step in his entrance into the whole context of language. He has, in effect, suffered the pains of rebirth and fully entered the symbolic realm. He now knows his role is not that of an anarchist, and his life is “no longer a single story but part of a mural … a wondrous web” (145) that must be preserved. And finally, he has come to the point of taking responsibility for his own narrative. He is now able to interpret Alice's favourite quotation from Joseph Conrad—“Let me re-emphasize the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects” (135)—on his own. He no longer believes, as Alice did, that Conrad is calling for the destruction of the centres of authority. He now realizes that what Conrad is really stating is that all ideological structures are inherently vulnerable, and they will all be replaced by other structures that are similarly flawed. And the only cultural objects that can withstand the rise and fall of these loose ideological objects are the narratives of its history. As Dennis Duffy states, the novel “makes use of ancient, durable monuments and thereby demonstrates the power of the fragile medium of paper finally to encompass them” (132). These “durable monuments” are in ironic juxtaposition to the seemingly fleeting and unstable nature of language.

As the novel closes we realize the entire story has been told by Patrick while he and Hana are driving to reunite with Clara. Patrick will never be silent again, and by sharing his narrative with Hana his story and the stories of the immigrant workers will be carried into the future. Sarris, after acknowledging that most critics agree the novel's point of view belongs to Patrick, makes an important and, for the purpose of this paper, a very significant claim that “perhaps that point of view might more accurately be seen as that of Hana, Alice's daughter” (189). Sarris argues for this shift because in the novel Hana is the actual recipient of Patrick's story. Hana's role, as stated in the prologue, is to “gather” Patrick's story, a gesture which, when placed within a Lacanian reading, is an attempt to unify the mediating realm of language/narrative with the wholeness that is associated with the female/mother realm. Patrick remains the focus of the novel, but on a figurative level Hana, at the age of sixteen, can be seen as a sort of mythic regenerator of narrative, whose role is to gather, incubate, and safeguard what she hears. If this story had been a fairy tale we would have no difficulty viewing Hana as the embodiment of an ideal similar to Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Her gender, age, purity, and fecundity make her an idyllic figure for the safeguarding and regeneration of language, and the fantasized site of the longed-for resolution of the lost mother.4 What Patrick passes on to her is not an “official history,” and there are no statistics attached to it; and it is only one of the living narratives Hana will use to position herself in the world. The closing image of Patrick and Hana driving toward the rising sun once again opens readers' imaginations to the possibility that the wholeness we desire in narrative may still be achieved.

By joining in Patrick's quest we gain a fuller understanding of what it means to be an attentive listener, and we also become better acquainted with the importance attached to sharing our experiences in an intimate atmosphere. In fact, every time we become entangled in narrative we are, in a sense, reenacting Patrick's and Harris' intimate struggles to be heard and understood: we read, pay attention, ask questions—we feel the life within the pages. Literature constantly reminds us who we are, who we were, and who we might become. As Robert Kroetsch states, “we haven't got an identity until somebody tells our story. The fiction makes us real” (63).

If we place any significance in Barthes statement that “literature and language are in the process of recognizing each other” (Rustle 11), then we have already begun to acknowledge that when we speak we are calling forward the text of our experiences. And even though this text is only a symbolic register of experience, and has already been coded with meaning, it is still the primary medium for mediating our lives. In the case of Ondaatje's novel, the text draws our attention to the role narration plays in inscribing and sustaining meaning. In other words, the novel calls attention to the value of narration, and specifically, it reminds us that stories are the fundamental mode of transferring cultural knowledge. On this point I conclude by recalling Lyotard's assertion that narration “is the quintessential form of customary knowledge” (75).


  1. Although my focus throughout is on Patrick, it is interesting to note a similar correspondence exists between Enkidu and Ondaatje, as both arrive in a civilization of which they have no previous knowledge, yet both step boldly forward to address existing injustice. Enkidu, perhaps the oldest example of what we now refer to as Rousseau's noble savage; Ondaatje, the contemporary writer from the margins. Carol L. Beran also views Commissioner Harris as “one of the most surprising alter egos” for Ondaatje, as both imagine “wonderful structures and then bring them into being” (72).

  2. In fact, Patrick's movement from the wilderness to Macedonian society can be read as a retelling of humanity's emergence as linguistic beings.

  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh is also the oldest narrative known to the west, and considered by many scholars to be a founding text of western civilization. See Kluger.

  4. Furthermore, Hana, like the fairy-tale characters mentioned, also lacks a living mother.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Toronto: Collins, 1986.

———. The Semiotic Challenge. Trans. Richard Howard. Toronto: Collins, 1988.

Beddoes, Julie. “Which Side Is It On? Form, Class, and Politics in In the Skin of a Lion.Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 204-215.

Beran, Carol L. “Ex-centricity: Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising.Studies in Canadian Literature 18.1 (1993): 71-84.

Bök, Christian. “Destructive Creation: The Politicization of Violence in the Works of Michael Ondaatje.” Canadian Literature 132 (1992): 109-124.

Cohen, Steven and Linda M. Shires. Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Duffy, Dennis. “A Wrench in Time: A Sub-Sub-Librarian Looks beneath In the Skin of a Lion.Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 125-140.

Gamlin, Gordon. “Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and the Oral Narrative.” Canadian Literature 135 (1992): 68-77.

Kluger, Rivkah Scharf. The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero. Einsiedeln: Daimon Verlag, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. “Excerpts from Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: SUNY of New York, 1993. 312-32.

Kroetsch, Robert, James Bacque and Pierre Gravel. Creation. Toronto: New Press, 1970.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Moss, John, ed. Future Indicative: Literary Theory and Canadian Literature. Reappraisals, Canadian Writers 13, Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1987.

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: Penguin, 1988.

Sarris, Fotios. “In the Skin of a Lion: Michael Ondaatje's Tenebristic Narrative.” Essays on Canadian Writing 44 (1991): 183-201.

Susan Ellis (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Ellis, Susan. “Trade and Power, Money and War: Rethinking Masculinity in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.Studies in Canadian Literature 21, no. 2 (1996): 22-36.

[In the following essay, Ellis discusses Ondaatje's representation of masculinity in The English Patient, demonstrating how the novel constructs a masculine identity through personal relationships instead of traditional cultural assumptions about masculine autonomy, isolation, and individuation.]

As Almásy, the English patient, slowly reveals his story in the pages of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, he describes leaving his mortally injured lover hidden in a cave and walking out into the Libyan Desert to find help. In the course of his three-day trek he realizes that “There is God only in the desert. … Outside of this there was just trade and power, money and war. Financial and military despots shaped the world” (250). The novel depicts a world and four individual lives that are “in near ruins” from the effects of fire, war, torture, and colonialism. Within a landscape of destroyed chapels, burned libraries, drowned art, booby-trapped gardens, and literature that is a weapon of war, Ondaatje turns his focus as a writer away from the personal, internal struggles of the masculine artists of his earlier novels and poems toward an examination of the sociopolitical implications of colonialism, history, literature, and, to some extent, gender relationships. Ondaatje has further developed a trend that begins tentatively as an ambivalence in Running in the Family, and is already apparent in his earlier novel In the Skin of a Lion. Christian Bök refers to it as aphasia—manifested as either the silence of death or the silence of madness (112)—a refusal of individualism itself and the artistic retreat to privacy, in favour of an embracing of relationship. This trend arguably demonstrates a self-conscious rethinking of the volatile, individualistic masculinity so apparent in Ondaatje's earlier works.

As Bök notes, in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming through Slaughter especially, but also in much of his poetry, Ondaatje valorizes the socially irresponsible hero and romanticizes the isolated male artist caught in the drama of the chaotic intensity of his art (114). Billy the Kid as the outlaw artist-killer, Buddy Bolden as the extremist riding the cusp of the ultimate spontaneous creativity and self-annihilation, as well as numerous poet-narrators of Ondaatje's poems display these characteristics. All of them, in varying degrees, embody a form of masculinity described by Michael Kaufman as “a reaction against passivity and powerlessness” (11). Through these characters, Ondaatje's earlier writing tends to reproduce, in an unexamined manner, more general cultural notions, particularly the cultural bias noted by Nancy Chodorow in which the masculinist qualities of separateness, individualism, and distance from others are seen as both desirable and admirable (16). His work tends to support a masculinist insistence that separateness is essential to autonomy and human fulfilment. Not only does Ondaatje refuse to make explicit judgements about the underlying cultural values inherent in the individualism or the violence of these protagonists, but his work also avoids any implicit critique of it. In Running in the Family, Ondaatje's portrait of Mervyn Ondaatje as the tortured drunk sitting naked for three hours in the Kadugannawa train tunnel certainly contains strong elements of the irresponsible and agonized solitary artist figure, but for the first time the writer begins to express, as a son looking for a point of contact with his long-dead father, the beginnings of a dissatisfaction with the isolation of such figures.

A fascination with the individual that finds expression in Ondaatje's early writing reflects a cultural preoccupation with individuality which Chodorow analyzes and distinguishes from the psychoanalytic process of differentiation. Rather than a simple perception of the otherness of the other, the developing infant must recognize the other as a subject, as a self in his or her own right. This requires “a form of emotional growth” that moves the infant beyond a mere recognition of difference, and beyond an experience of the other as existing solely in terms of its own needs for gratification, toward a viewpoint that recognizes two interacting selves/subjects (7). Mature differentiation is “a particular way of being connected to others” (10-11). Conversely, Chodorow's analysis suggests that a rigid, defensive insistence on separation, or individuation, is made necessary only by the presence of a fragile and insecure sense of self.

The distinction made by Chodorow between difference, which recognizes separation and individuation, and differentiation, in which the relational self emerges, has implications for gender analysis, because the cultural preference for a model of defensive insistence on individuality reflects a cultural male bias. The male experience of separation and individuation becomes, in a culture that valorizes all things associated with maleness, the universal experience of human beings. Jessica Benjamin has also noted a cultural male bias in that “the male experience of differentiation is linked to a form of rationality which pervades our culture,” a phenomenon she terms “rational violence” (42). Chodorow shows that a pysychoanalytic approach supports the view that we are not born with perceptions of gender difference, but rather that they emerge developmentally.1 She argues that, because gender identity for males requires separating from the primary identification with the female parent in order to transfer identification to the male parent, maleness “is more conflictual and more problematic” than female gender identity (13). A boy must learn his gender identity as not-mother or not-female, and thus the male core identity must, by necessity, involve more of an insistence on a fixed separateness, a me/not-me distinction, and rigid boundaries between the masculine and the feminine. A patriarchal society that valorizes the male consequently comes to emphasize difference and individuality, not sameness or commonality or relatedness, as part of a general bias in favour of male values.

What Chodorow calls the “psychological investment in difference that women do not have” (14) is given literary voice by Ondaatje in the violent individualism of both Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden. However, the development of a concept of the differentiated self as described by Chodorow, a self that emerges relationally, can be traced in Ondaatje's later works. Running in the Family, a semi-autobiographical account of Ondaatje's return to the homeland of his own childhood in Sri Lanka, can be read as an attempt by Ondaatje to come to terms with his own separation from his ancestral and cultural connections with the past. Daniel Coleman finds a profound ambivalence in Ondaatje's literary treatment of his estrangement from his father, Mervyn, as well as from his cultural heritage, and in the writer's frustration at the impossibility of ever truly knowing who Mervyn was or in reconnecting with his past (73). Coleman identifies the model of severance of the self-from the past as a masculinist practice (66, 69), but finds evidence in Running in the Family of the beginnings of Ondaatje's uneasiness with it, in the presence in the text of an “ambivalence which arises from his awareness of, and struggle with, the masculine exclusionary position that has severed him from intimate contact with every aspect of his place of origin” (74). Similarly, Bök finds an alteration in the quality of the male protagonist's violence and isolation in Running in the Family. He observes that, although Mervyn Ondaatje deliberately flouts the established social codes and follows his literary predecessors into silence (he dies a virtual madman), the writer's approach does not so much romanticize as pity him, with the implication that Mervyn's retreat from the world may arise from an unbearably painful sensitivity to it (117).

Ondaatje's next prose works, In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, begin to demonstrate models of individuality that emphasize the connectedness of central characters with, rather than their separation from, other people. This development represents an important shift in the world view of Ondaatje's work away from the culturally determined individualistic masculinity of the cowboy figure or the tortured, isolated artist. Bök notes that the shockingly violent antisocial behavior in the earlier works gives way to a subdued revolutionary and socially committed form of violence in In the Skin of a Lion. This violence works to reclaim, rather than refuse, a social order, as Patrick breaks the pattern of individualistic heroes to join with the Macedonian immigrants (119). In giving his protagonist a social context in which silence is imposed from the outside by an oppressive ideology, Ondaatje's work abandons his fascination with aphasia, the impulse to “implode into silence” (“White Dwarfs” 71). Patrick's initial individualism is simply inadequate in this social and political circumstance. Ondaatje's rejection of the “violence of silence” and the private artistic vision that “turns its back on generalized oppression” demonstrates a growing social and political awareness in his writing (112). Within Ondaatje's emerging postcolonial world view, individualistic silence can no longer be seen as “an act of sociopolitical rebellion, but an act of sociopolitical surrender” (120).

In The English Patient, Ondaatje takes the evolution toward relational values a step further, with the elimination of the hero, a single romanticized protagonist, in favour of a quartet of balanced and strongly interrelated characters. The four main characters' “way of being connected” to each other forms the basis of the novel, demonstrating an emotional shift in Ondaatje's work that completely refuses the masculinist insistence on separateness. The figure closest to Ondaatje's early model of the romantic, socially irresponsible, isolated male artist in The English Patient is the English patient himself, Almásy, the desert wanderer, map-maker, secretive and unsocial. Almásy even performs the signature Ondaatje gesture of punching his hand through glass, a gesture that in previous works has been an image that captured the paradoxically creative and destructive, but self-involved, artistic impulse of the Ondaatje hero character. But for Almásy the gesture is one of desperation and of failure. He punches through the glass dome of his ruined airplane as the dried-out body of his beloved Katharine is sucked out of the plane, limb by limb, piece by piece. He succeeds in setting himself on fire, and he falls, burning, into the desert. Almásy is dying, and on his death-bed he comes to recognize not only the sociopolitical context of the “trade and power, money and war” in which he has lived, but also his own complicity in it: through his map-making, he has helped turn even the desert into a place of war (260). If the English patient represents the formerly valorized, insistently individualistic Ondaatje hero, then perhaps his charred and blackened body as he lies drugged and sinking into death, without identity, can be seen as Ondaatje's recognition of the failure of that particular form of literary hero and the version of masculinity that he embodies. Violent, individualistic masculinity based on isolation and separation has, quite literally, burned itself out for Ondaatje, to be replaced by a new masculinity that is hinted at in the novel's ending.

The dying English patient is not permitted to retreat into silence and isolation. The novel insists on relationship, even for Almásy as he lies semi-conscious in a morphine haze in his bed. Hana loves him as a father. He finds a friend in Kip through their mutual knowledge of weapons and bombs. He is pursued by Caravaggio who shares a morphine addiction with him. He sings, recites poetry, attends parties and dinners with the other three protagonists, shares his knowledge of literature and history, and tells stories from Herodotus's The Histories and from his life. Almásy exists literally because of his connections to others (he would die without their presence, especially Hana's) but as a literary character he also has no identity except through his relationships with Kip, Hana and Caravaggio. Through them his story, his life, and his identity are developed. The English patient, and The English Patient, represent an attempt by Ondaatje to depict the possibility of the truly differentiated self defined through particular relationships to others, rather than in isolation from them.

The English Patient is pervaded by a peculiar quality of ambiguity about the fixing of identity that may reflect this rethinking. As Lorraine York has written about Ondaatje's later novels, “Gradually, there is more awareness of issues of gender, especially as they relate to ownership—the poet's ownership of the material, the patriarch's ownership of the female, and the imperialist's ownership of the colonized” (75). In the text of The English Patient, Ondaatje links issues of ownership, a concept which arguably lies at the root of trade and power, money and war, with the power of naming. Katharine accuses Almásy of being inhuman as she says, “You slide past everything with your fear and hate of ownership, of owning, of being owned, of being named” (238). If the power to name and be named invokes ownership (but also relationship) through the “claiming of the powers of the linguistic sword” (York 89), a power always exerted by the poet and writer, Ondaatje appears to have introduced a curious reluctance, a hesitation, to wield that sword in The English Patient, as if the recognition of that power for the first time has instilled a need for caution. There is a nameless, secret wind (16), a nameless desert tribe (5, 95), a nameless songwriter (109), and a dog at the villa that is never named. The vanity of the power of naming disturbs Almásy, too, as one of a group of desert explorers who are tempted by that vanity. His colleagues, Fenelon-Barnes and Bauchan, enter a contest, naming fossil trees, tribes, and sand dunes after themselves, but Almásy wants only to “erase my name and the place I had come from” (139). When he is burned, Almásy does just that and more, erasing all features and means of identifying him. Without a name, he achieves his ambition to “not belong to anyone, to any nation” (139). His rejection of names links problematic ownership with the issues of nationalism and colonialism in the text. The novel allows Almásy his nameless, nationless state, as his identity is never conclusively determined but rather resolved as irrelevant. Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio ultimately decide within the terms of each of their relationships with him, as orphaned child, postcolonial subject, and spy, respectively, that it doesn't matter who he is (166, 251, 287).

Hana, in her shell-shocked state from watching too many soldiers she has nursed die, abandons the intimacy of names as she begins to call everyone “Buddy,” acknowledging the relational imperative created by names. As Stephen Scobie has already observed, Hana herself remains nameless, although a main protagonist, into Part II as the novel recognizes her name only when Caravaggio, who has a previous relationship with her from the past, appears to “fix” her identity (104). In her new life in the bombed-out Tuscany villa that is the setting of the novel, she has abandoned other aspects of her identity as well, by removing her nurse's uniform, leaving her nursing unit, cutting her hair, wearing the shoes of a dead soldier, removing all mirrors, and refusing to reply to letters from her stepmother in Canada. She lives like a nomad within the ruined rooms that she shares with the anonymous English patient, moving from room to room for sleeping. Caravaggio, too, is unnamed, referred to only as “the man with bandaged hands” (27) until he encounters Hana. Their connection to each other, Caravaggio as a friend of Hana's father, defines who they are, and names them. In a similar fashion, Kip and his fellow sapper, Hardy, appear anonymously in the villa as “two men” (63) who slip into the room, place their guns on the end of the piano as Hana plays it, and stand facing her. Within the relational logic of the novel, since he is not known to anyone, Kip is referred to as “the young sapper” (70, 71, 77, 79) or “the Sikh” (71, 72, 78). His name is revealed only after Caravaggio has disclosed to Kip that he and Hana had known each other before the war, in Canada. Once again, for the novel, relationship is the key to identity through names.

However, the power of naming is complex: both Kip and the English patient have two identities, two names (Kip/Kirpal Singh, and “the English patient”/Almásy, respectively). Kip's true name may be known to the other three main protagonists, but it is used in the novel to address him only after Kip's violent rejection of all things English in reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ondaatje thereby suggests that allowing oneself to be named, and the creation of a sense of self that goes with it, can be a political act of empowerment. “Words … They have power,” as the English patient tells Caravaggio (234). “Kiss me and call me by my name,” Katharine says to Almásy in the Cave of Swimmers, invoking the power of naming to reclaim their love (173). The power of names is real and has consequences for the characters in the novel, as Almásy's failure to call Katharine by the “right name,” that is, her husband's powerful name rather than his own anonymous one, results in his capture and incarceration, and her death alone in the cave when he does not return as promised (250).

The violence associated with masculinity that is a hallmark of Ondaatje's earlier work appears in The English Patient, too, but here Ondaatje's treatment of violence moves closer to refusing the romance associated with it. His earlier novels displayed violence as an aesthetic value in itself, a style that has earned him critical acclaim for both its “technical precision and its emotional detachment” (Bök 110). The lists of deaths and gory descriptions of brutalization and physical mutilation in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the depiction of the commodification of women's bodies (York 81) in the opening pages of Coming through Slaughter, and the glorification of dynamic individualism climaxing in self-destruction in both, represent an aesthetic that is at least partially rejected in the later novels. The transition is not complete or unproblematic. In The English Patient there are extremely violent scenes, such as the bloody amputation of Caravaggio's thumbs, the burning alive of Almásy and the tending of his charred, blackened body first by Bedouins and later by Hana, the mutilation of Katharine's body, and the deaths of sappers by exploding bombs. There are also examples of violence involving bondage used against women: Katharine's dream of being choked by Almásy while they are “bent over like animals” (149), a description of “those terrible leashes” (161) sold in Cairo markets that tethered a woman by her finger to “you” (presumably a male), and the Arab girl, small as a dog, tied up in Fenelon-Barnes's bed (138). Nevertheless, Ondaatje's style in The English Patient suggests a rethinking of his earlier clinically detached approach to violence. His writing now implies an emotional empathy for the victims of that violence rather than a glorification of its practitioners, as well as an accounting of the sociopolitical implications of both the violence and the former detached attitude to it. This newer style reflects the beginnings of an appreciation for the importance of relationship, both of individuals to each other and of individuals to the political events in their environment.

Other writers have noted a fading of the glory in Ondaatje's work ascribed to the charismatic, consumed artist who destroys as he creates. Lorraine York has noted that the masculinism of his earlier work is giving way, although not necessarily in a linear, progressive way, to a recognition of the politics of power, both in an analysis of colonialism and in gender relations. Ondaatje's treatment of “gender has become more complex and problematic” (80) than in his earlier works as he turns his attention to the survivors of a social destruction that is beyond their control, such as Clara and Patrick in In the Skin of a Lion and Hana, Almásy, Kip, and Caravaggio in The English Patient. Unlike earlier works, Ondaatje's attention now includes female protagonists. An analysis of the relationships among the male and female characters in Ondaatje's work can be useful in providing a sensitive measure of the changing structures of power and meaning in his work. For example, as Bök has pointed out, the women in the earlier works, such as Angela D., Nora Bolden, Robin Brewitt, and the mattress whores, remain the passive objects of the male explosive creativity, and female artists do not appear at all (116).

York analyzes the waning of Ondaatje's “woman-object jokes,” from a series of breast jokes in earlier works to more muted versions and finally the elimination of woman jokes altogether in The English Patient (79-80). She also acknowledges a development beyond Ondaatje's earliest visions of woman as “the unconscious, dreaming, art-object” witnessed by the “poet-speaker” who can take pleasure in looking at her beauty, and exclaim at it in his poem (78). Laura Mulvey analyses the determining male gaze as a sexually imbalanced ordering of the world through the split of woman as image/man as bearer of the look. Her study of visual pleasure suggests that, in “their traditional exhibitionistic role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (19). York contends that later works rethink this fairly straightforward commodification of woman. In The English Patient, Hana, Katharine, and Anna, the German officer's mistress who has taken Caravaggio's photograph, all steadfastly direct some penetrating looks of their own in a “complicated dance of gazes” (York 82) as they study the men in the novel. As York describes it, some of “the sleeping women of Ondaatje's early works have woken up to assume narrative and to direct the gaze” (82). York concludes that Ondaatje has begun the “painful process” (89) of applying the arguments of imperialism to gender relations.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has pointed out that the importance assigned to women within a continuum of male relationships with each other reflects a construction of gender relations that is socially determined (1). That is, while the pattern of social bonds between men (such as friendship, mentorship, and rivalry as well as hetero- and homosexual relationships) make up what she calls “the continuum of male homosocial desire,” no part of this can be understood outside of its relation to women and the gender system as a whole. Sedgwick argues that the large-scale structures of patriarchal heterosexuality reflect the basic paradigm of what Lévi-Strauss has termed “the male traffic in women,” which can be seen in male-male-female erotic triangles that feature the use of women as a commodity of exchange. That is, in patriarchy, the real purpose of the heterosexual triangular relationship is to forge the social bonds between men which establish their interdependence and their solidarity with each other, and that allow them to dominate women (3). A good example is the structure of marriage itself, which operates as an agreement between men regarding their property rights to the woman involved in the marriage. Analysis of the love triangle is, of course, heavily dependent on a schematization from Freud. The Oedipal triangle of the young (male) child trying to situate itself in respect to a powerful father and a beloved mother forms the basic pattern for the complicated play of desire and identification in the erotic triangle. The bonds that link the two rivals are at least as intense as the bonds of love between them and their beloved.

Sedgwick suggests that the dynamics of the relationship of women within the male homosocial continuum is historically volatile, evolving as individuals negotiate with their societies for empowerment within the play of the changing shapes of gender and class structures. An examination of both The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming through Slaughter reveals that the women in the novels exist only in their relationships to the men and the primary homosocial relationships of the men to each other. As Luce Irigaray has observed about gender relations in “Women on the Market,” “Men make commerce of [women], but they do not enter into any exchanges with them” (172). For example, Buddy Bolden's male-male-female triangle relationships with Nora, his wife, and Pickett, her former and suspected current lover, and with Jaelin, a fellow musician, and Robin, Jaelin's wife, can clearly be seen as power relationships between the men which feature the use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men. Bolden recognizes the pattern, when he says “Nora and Pickett and me. Robin and Jaelin and me. I saw an awful thing among us” (99). The women in these patterns may be seen as apt illustrations of Irigaray's words in “This Sex Which Is Not One” in which she argues that “Woman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men” (355). In particular, Buddy's wrestling match with Pickett, including the bloody shirts, a slashed nipple, broken bone, razor cuts, razor strop, smashed mirror, flying mirror shards, broken window, pouring rain, and the two men locked in a violent dance has more passion than any male-female encounter in the novel, and is the dazzling set piece of the book. In this exchange, it is the power relationship between Pickett and Bolden that is at stake, and Nora figures as the object of exchange between them, not as one of the participants. The scene exemplifies a masculinity described by David Savran as “a form of display that facilitates the exchange of women between men, a performance designed both to attract ‘the opposite sex’ and to establish masculine proprietary authority over it” (17).

It is useful to contrast the bloody Bolden/Pickett/Nora exchange with The English Patient's triangular scene of Hana, Kip and Caravaggio stalking each other through the villa, culminating in a confrontation in the dark in the ruined library. Equally as physical as Bolden and Pickett's battle, the characters of The English Patient take delight in playfully outwitting each other through stealth and skill in the dark, the bounce of sapper lights all over the room. Unlike the Bolden/Pickett battle over Nora, Hana is neither a bystander or an object of exchange between the men. She outwits them both, using Caravaggio as the trick to outmanoeuvre Kip, and wins the contest. She crows her victory—“I got you. I got you. I'm the Mohican of Danforth Avenue” (224)—while riding on Kip's back, and Caravaggio withdraws. It is not possible to fit this scene into the pattern of “male traffic in women.”

Ondaatje has narratively linked erotic triangles in The English Patient to the story of Candaules, a king of ancient Lydia. The story, read by Katharine from Herodotus's The Histories to Geoffrey and Almásy, is told within Almásy's story of his affair with Katharine, as told to Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio. In this way, the story touches all of their relationships. Almásy's telling is prompted by his awareness of the affair between Hana and Kip, and acts as a cautionary tale about the possible consequences of male traffic in women. Candaules's boastful ownership of his beautiful wife leads him, through excess vanity about her beauty, to demand that one of his spearmen, Gyges, hide in their bedchamber and look at her naked. Candaules's enjoyment of his wife's beauty does not satisfy him, and his desire is to be envied by other men. When his wife, who remains nameless in the story, sees Gyges leave the bedchamber, she realizes what her husband has done. She gives Gyges two choices: either he must slay Candaules and take his place as king and as her husband, or he will be slain himself. Gyges kills Candaules and reigns as king for twenty-eight years. According to the story, a “New Age” (234) begins.

The story is read by Katharine to her husband Geoffrey in an effort to temper his boasting possession of her beauty (“Are you listening, Geoffrey?” 232), but the English patient claims that its telling sets in motion their affair. He tells Hana and Caravaggio that through the story, “a path suddenly revealed itself in real life” (234) as he fell in love with Katharine, seeking her out at social events that normally he would not be interested in. The novel thus comments on the interrelation of story and history with the events of “real life.” “Words, Caravaggio. They have power,” the English patient says (234). The Katharine/Almásy/Geoffrey erotic triangle thus created cannot as easily fit the Oedipal prototype, nor can it be seen as an example of the trade in women. Almásy is not the young interloper but the older father figure, inserting himself between two young lovers. The affair leads to tragedy and betrayal for them all. “What do you hate most?” Almásy asks Katharine (152). She hates most a lie, and he ownership, but their affair becomes for her a living lie, and for him a sense of both possession of Katharine—“This is my shoulder, he thinks, not her husband's, this is my shoulder” (156)—and by her. Geoffrey's attempt to kill all three of them fails, killing only himself, and wounding Katharine. However, Almásy admits that he felt like a deceiver of his friend Madox, by lying about Katharine (240).

In a similar fashion, the love story of Hana and Kip is an erotic love triangle, in which the English patient is a father figure to Hana, but it confounds the pattern of commodification of women for the purpose of bonding between men. The triangular possibilities are severed from the beginning, as Kip cuts the English patient's hearing aid wire in order to cut off his ability to hear, as well as his corner of the erotic triangle. As lovers, Hana and Kip expand the usual notions of what counts as sexuality, spending a month of “formal celibacy” sleeping beside each other and rediscovering the comfort and pleasure of being scratched (225).

In terms of the novel's masculinity, it is noteworthy that the English patient recognizes Kip as his successor, as he says to Caravaggio when discussing a painting of David and Goliath, “I think when I see him at the foot of my bed that Kip is my David” (116). Ondaatje creates a rightful sense of power changing hands as a “New Age” (234) begins, by filling the novel with stories of the new man replacing the old: Gyges and Candaules, David and Goliath, Solomon son of King David, Maxentius son of Maximum and emperor of Rome, Poliziano and Savonarola, Herodotus “the father of history” supplemented by Almásy, Kip taking up the work of Lord Suffolk. Kip has his opportunity to Oedipally destroy the father figure of the English patient. Kip's explosion from his silent self-sufficiency on hearing of the dropping of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a political awakening. He turns his rifle on Almásy in his rage at the racism implicit in the act, which he attributes to all English, Europeans, and Americans. However, Kip does not embrace violence. He puts the gun down undischarged. Instead, he takes back his identity as an Indian and a Sikh, resumes his correct name, Singh, rather than the Anglicized “Kip,” and leaves the service of the English army to take up service as a doctor in his own community in India.

Kip's response perhaps corresponds with a changing vision of masculinity as described by writers such as Andrew Kimbrell: from the rigid, defensive insistence on separation, or individualist masculinity, toward the notion of “husbandry” in which the masculine is seen in terms of deep relationship, and as a form of stewardship, to family, community, and the limited resources of the earth (300). The final vision of Kip, or Kirpal as the novel now acknowledges him, is of a man involved in his community's welfare as a doctor, riding his bicycle for the four-mile journey home, in his garden and with his laughing wife and children for their evening meal. Magically, the novel's optimism allows the power of his newfound relational masculinity to transgress both time and space to include Hana. Though not unproblematic in its treatment of gender, The English Patient closes with an emphasis on masculinity achieved in relationship to others for Kirpal, the new man.


  1. Chodorow's theoretical work revises the Freudian psychoanalytic emphasis on the autonomous quality of the ego and superego. She and other feminist writers such as Dorothy Dinnerstein address, with Freud, the same sequence of symbiotic union, separating and individuation, but they reinterpret the crucial distinction that the female child's emerging gender identity is reinforced by the original symbiotic union, while the male child's emerging masculinity is threatened by it. To support her approach, Chodorow relies on the work of D. W. Winnicott, Michael Balint, Margaret S. Mahler, W. R. D. Fairbairn, and Hans Loewald. Chodorow's attention within psychoanalysis to the power differential of gender differences contrasts sharply with Freud's approach to differentiation and the emergence of the self, but links her work with the psychoanalytic accounts of Juliet Mitchell, Jessica Benjamin, Alice Balint, and Julia Kristeva.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jessica. “Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective.” The Future of Difference. Ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. Boston: G. H. Hall & Co., 1980. 41-70.

Bök, Christian. “Destructive Creation: The Politicization of Violence in the Works of Michael Ondaatje.” Canadian Literature 132 (1992): 109-124.

Coleman, Daniel. “Masculinity's Severed Self: Gender and Orientalism in Out of Egypt and Running in the Family.Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne 18.2 (1993): 62-75.

Chodorow, Nancy. “Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective.” The Future of Difference. Ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. Boston: G. H. Hall & Co., 1980. 3-19.

Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which Is Not One.” Trans. Claudia Reeder. New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York, 1981. 99-106.

———. “Women on the Market.” This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 170-191.

Kaufman, Michael. “The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men's Violence.” Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure, Power and Change. Ed. Michael Kaufman. Toronto, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 1-29.

Kimbrell, Andrew. The Masculine Mystique: The Politics of Masculinity. New York: Ballentine Books, 1995.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Toronto: Anansi, 1970.

———. Coming through Slaughter. Toronto: Anansi, 1976.

———. The English Patient. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1993.

———. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

———. Running in the Family. Toronto: New Press, 1982.

———. “White Dwarfs.” Rat Jelly. Toronto: Coach House, 1979. 70-71.

Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys and Queers: the Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1992.

Scobie, Stephen. “The Reading Lesson: Michael Ondaatje and the Patients of Desire.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (Summer 1994): 92-106.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

York, Lorraine. “Whirling Blindfolded in the House of Women: Gender Politics in the Poetry and Fiction of Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (Summer 1994): 71-91.

Bill Fledderus (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Fledderus, Bill. “‘The English Patient Reposed in His Bed Like a [Fisher?] King’: Elements of Grail Romance in Ondaatje's The English Patient.Studies in Canadian Literature 22, no. 1 (1997): 19-54.

[In the following essay, Fledderus correlates several aspects of the characters and plot of The English Patient to various character types and narrative elements that typify Arthurian romance and medieval quest literature.]

The word on the street and in newspaper commentary about Michael Ondaatje's 1992 novel The English Patient, especially since a movie version came out in 1996, is that the story marks a return to “the good old-fashioned romance.” This common quip bears a second glance, for beyond the novel's superficial connections with thirty years of mass-market, formula love-stories and with 1930s Hollywood movie plots, this novel is self-consciously rooted in a body of literature with which the term “romance” was originally used: twelfth-and thirteenth-century retellings of Arthurian legends. The characters and plot of The English Patient are in fact analogous in very significant respects to certain character types of Arthurian romance and to the earliest written narratives of quest for the holy grail.

The connection is not an obvious one, however. While The English Patient revels in a plethora of overt intertextual references, explicit references to Arthurian romances are few and far between. Nonetheless, careful examination reveals that Ondaatje's use of Arthurian elements is central and crucial to the novel. More specifically, the novel is informed by the early anthropological school of romance criticism (c. 1915), in which Dame Jessie Weston applied the ideas of Sir J. G. Frazer to make a now well-known anthropological reading of the grail quest. Weston's reading focuses on the fisher king, the wasteland and other romance elements as hold-overs from the ritual practices of ancient fertility cults. Examining the exploitation of these materials in The English Patient will help readers develop a more sensitive aesthetic and critical judgement and interpretation of this (post)modern novel.1

These various texts and authors from different eras of history have many connections. Frazer, at the turn of the century, saw that a diversity of ancient fertility myths had at their root a common attempt to explain the changing of seasons and the passing of generations. Weston discovered elements of these same myths in Arthurian romance, and focused her analysis beyond the obvious Christian symbolism in romance to the pagan (Celtic) substructure on which it had been constructed. Ondaatje sets his story in the age of Frazer and Weston, the age of the (European) world wars when the simplicity and unifying power of a mythopoeic world-view may have seemed an attractive haven from the disasters brought by purportedly Christian nations upon each other. Ondaatje's novel follows the lead of Weston's criticism and undercuts Christian uses of these myths in favor of a celebration of the possibility of new life and community amid war. Of course, the celebration is tentative and the community is temporary, but such are the characteristics of the age—call it late capitalist or postmodern if you like—which has developed since then. Ondaatje uses the myths to affirm that individual human transcendence can be found in temporary, intense human community, as well as to affirm that an even broader social transcendence can be found in a cyclical (mythological) approach to history. He is also careful to undercut the possible ethno-political appropriation of the myths (e.g., Weston's modernist exaltation of Celtic roots) in favour of an affirmation of unity amid human diversity.

Many modern novels have preceded Ondaatje in their use of Arthurian romance as a structuring device. From Bernard Malamud's The Natural to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, examples (even purely postmodern ones such as Donald Barthelme's The King) continue to appear regularly. A number of bibliographies, such as E. L. Smith's, have been compiled (see Works Cited; Smith excludes more straightforward retellings, for which see Goodman, Reimer, or Lacy). In many cases, fiction with Arthurian underpinnings follows the “mythic method” advocated by other early modernists such as T. S. Eliot: to make parallels between daily life and ancient myth in order to “give shape and significance to the immense panorama of anarchy and futility which is contemporary history” (681, and cited in Smith 51). In Eliot's own practice of this method, particularly in his 1922 poem The Waste Land, he began a tradition of incorporating Arthurian myth and legend as interpreted by Weston. Weston's book From Ritual to Romance, which relies heavily on Frazer's mammoth Golden Bough, attempted to show continuity between the ancient cults of Tammuz-Adonis-Attis and the grail-romance period in twelfth-century Britain and France. Though Weston's thesis has never been well regarded by Arthurian scholars, the cultural stature of Eliot's The Waste Land has lent her peculiar “ritual interpretation” of grail motifs a continuing literary allure.2

The mythic method as distilled in this citation from Eliot has been adopted by a number of writers involved in or dealing with war, as a way of making order in a time of wide-scale destruction (e.g., The Waste Land and David Jones's In Parenthesis). Myth crosses international boundaries and offers apparently timeless or continually reinterpretable truths, and its historical authority and unified vision seem especially attractive in times when the boundaries are being redrawn, whether as a result of international war (e.g., the historical and geographic backdrop of The English Patient), or as a result of ethno-religious infighting (e.g., the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka). Myth may also be appealing to those whose personal boundaries of identity and ethnicity are being redrawn as a result of migration, an increasingly visible population in Canada and around the world. Generally speaking, the shifting confusions and complexities of today's postmodern moment offer rough parallels to earlier eras when myth was popular, and thus it would not be inappropriate to consider the relevance of the mythic method to Ondaatje's wartime novel.

All of Ondaatje's writings have incorporated myth of one sort or another. Some of his earliest poems retold stories from the Trojan war, others were part of a more general project of constructing a Canadian mythology, and yet others played with Eliot's method by mythologizing family life. Ed Jewinski discusses Ondaatje's master of arts thesis, “Mythology in the Poetry of Edwin Muir,” as a significant example of his early preoccupation with myth (46). Although Ondaatje has distanced himself from Eliot since then, his writings have continued to resonate with the Modernists' interest in myth, even for example in his use of pop-myth figures such as Billy the Kid and jazzman Buddy Bolden.3 Scholars must also go back to an early essay to find a written Ondaatjean definition of myth, which summarizes it as being “biblical, surreal, brief, imagistic,” and rooted in “dramatic sources” (“O'Hagan's” [“O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle”] 25). George Elliott Clarke has expanded this definition to include “exotic” (i.e., baroque, grand, gaudy), “amoral” (i.e., untrue or fictitious), “violent” and “recurrent” in order to apply the definition to Ondaatje's own use of mythology (3). That all of these descriptors still prove to be accurate for The English Patient suggests an important continuity in Ondaatje's diverse oeuvre.

A more recent example in Ondaatje's writing, his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion (which features the first appearances of Hana and Caravaggio), takes its title from and patterns some of its characterization and structure on the Gilgamesh Epic, a relationship discussed at length by Gordon Gamlin and Carol Bevan (see Works Cited). The Gilgamesh narrative and the Sumerian-Babylonian culture from which it comes are interests which Ondaatje shares with Frazer, Weston and Eliot. The attraction of the Gilgamesh Epic (and its contemporary cultural manifestations such as the cult of Tammuz) is their historical age, since textual records from this period are among the oldest in existence and are evidence of a tradition which has affected many cultures. These texts suggest themselves as a potential bridge between Western culture and the cultures of the Indian subcontinent such as Sikhism, which have become prominent in Canadian cities in recent decades. Weston also sought to highlight such ancient West-East links in keeping with the drive to unity common to the anthropology of her day. Perhaps interpreting Arthurian romance as a repository of ancient lore appealed to the archeological detective in such early modernist scholars. In fact such interpretation proves central to The English Patient, set in Weston's own era.

Assuming the importance of grail romance to the novel, a question arises as to why, in a novel bursting with explicit literary references, romances are not more explicitly alluded to. Such explicit allusion is entirely unnecessary in a novel, of course, and would distract from its effectiveness if foregrounded. But many other sources are documented in detail on the acknowledgment page, and Ondaatje is known for tricky documentation. Thus taking the omission as an intentional subversion of documentation also suggests itself as a fruitful approach, especially since it bears an uncanny number of parallels to the practices of Arthurian romance writers, with whom false attribution and unacknowledged borrowing were common. In the Parzival romance, for example, the author cites a Provençal poet named Kyot as a source, though the attribution is considered a red herring. Other romances appeal to a master Bleheris, which critics also take to be untruthful. The Perlesvaus romance describes itself as a translation from a Latin book, a doubtful attribution. And the Prose Lancelot falsely claims to be written by Walter Map. The entire genre grew up as a result of the appropriation of plot elements, particularly borrowings from the writings of Chrétien (see Norris Lacy's Encyclopedia on “authorship”). Ondaatje has followed the example of romance authors in his surreptitious subversion of the documentary tradition, turning it on its head through “cavalier distortion of his sources” (Barbour 180) and in his inclusion of brazen anachronisms such as the Buddy Bolden's radio episode (Ondaatje, Coming through Slaughter 93) or, here, Hana's citation of Anne Wilkinson, “‘Love … can tear itself through the eye of a needle’” (288). Today such methods are also commonly seen as a postmodern strategy to draw attention to the untrustworthiness and essentially revisionist nature of intertextual references.

Despite the paucity of explicit romance references in The English Patient, many of its aesthetically surprising moves appear sensible in light of romance. Another introductory example is the ephemeral appearance of self-consciousness on the part of the narrator at the novel's end: “She is a woman I don't know well enough to hold in my wing, if writers have wings, to harbour for the rest of my life” (301). Admittedly, the brief foregrounding of the narrator is common in Ondaatje's endings, as Solecki has noted: “each of the longer works begins and ends more than once. The books don't so much end as dissolve suggestively back into the author … and into their successors” (338). But this practice provides an interesting comparison with the ending of Chrétien's Perceval, which calls attention to its author, since in fact Chrétien died before he could finish it. The unfinished nature of his work is important to an appreciation of the ambiguous identities of his characters and the suspense of grail romance in general. Certainly the many facets of grail character types would have been less rich if so many writers had not been inspired to attempt to write conclusions to his story.4

These introductory connections show potential and superficial links between The English Patient and Arthurian romance, but the heart of the comparison is found in character typology (and narrative structure, which will be addressed later).

The title character of The English Patient offers perhaps the clearest connection with Arthurian legend. He shares a number of significant attributes with the fisher king figure of Arthurian romances, including the fact that both are identified by a somewhat mysterious wound. In grail romances the wound is generally located in the thigh area, resulting in a characteristically lame and bedridden fisher king. Similarly, the burned patient is unable to leave his bed, where he “reposes grandly” (90), and even “like a king” (14). And though his main wounds are head-to-foot burns, his upper legs are especially damaged: “Above the shins the burns are the worst. Beyond purple. Bone” (1).

According to Weston, “this central figure is much confused [among the different grail romances]; generally termed Le Roi Pescheur, he is sometimes … incapacitated by the effects of a wound, and is known by the title of Roi Mehaigné, or Maimed King. Sometimes he is in extreme old age” (118). As Weston would have it, his thigh wound is a euphemism for impotence, as is explicitly revealed in late romances such as Parzival and Sone de Nansai (23, 25, 44). The thigh-wound motif is common in romance, with Perceval's father and Tristam supposedly suffering similar fates. Ondaatje appears to follow this school in his depiction of the patient, whose penis is characterized as “sleeping like a seahorse” (1), an appropriately piscine expression for a fisher king. The patient's impotence or chastity is also implied in a parallel (94) between him and the aged King David of 1 Kings 1, who has no sexual relations with Abishag, the virgin sent to bed with him to help him keep warm. The parallel between the patient and David is significant in light of Arthurian romance, wherein heroic genealogies are often traced to David (see Guerin). And as becomes commonplace when consulting Frazer, one finds a link back to Tammuz: King David reportedly adopted his name in association with Tammuz, in the manner of the previous Canaanite kings of Jerusalem (v, 18-19).

In addition to the reclining fisher king, many grail romances contain a scene in which a dead knight is discovered on an altar in a candle-lit room. Wauchier and Manessier (see my Appendix and Lacy for the various romances) set such a scene in the “perilous chapel,” whereas Bleheris (Weston's name for Pseudo-Wauchier) sets its scene in the fisher king's castle (116, 175-88). In The English Patient candles are often found in the patient's presence; a particularly resonant example describes Hana's dislike of “his lying there with a candle in his hands, mocking a deathlike posture, wax falling unnoticed onto his wrist” (62). A similar comparison of the patient with the sculpture of the dead knight in Ravenna recurs several times (96, 135).5

Weston traces the motif of the reclining dying noble to the first half of ancient fertility rituals, which included a mock funeral procession. She argues for the existence of a basic ritual in which a local god-king or ruler associated with the principle of life and fertility (or, in later forms, his effigy) underwent a mock death and was carried in a public procession on a bier (53-61). Her primary examples are the ancient cults of Adonis and Attis who, like the fisher king, were wounded in the genitals (48). The funeral procession practised by these cults informs what happens to the patient after his crash: “They found my body and made me a boat of sticks and dragged me across the desert” (5) in a “palanquin” (9). The element of public religious worship discussed by Weston is also suggested in a passage which describes the patient “on an altar of hammock” imagining “in his vanity hundreds of them around him” (6).

After the death and funeral, the ancient rituals usually went on to dramatize a resurrection. Weston appropriates Frazer's concept of the “slain god” in pointing out that this resurrection reveals the motivation for the whole ritual, namely to ensure or encourage the coming of the rainy season. Frazer's Golden Bough contains four chapters on fertility rituals involving the burning to death of kings (v, 110-222). Although these chapters are not cited in From Ritual to Romance, they certainly inform Weston's thesis—and Ondaatje's burned patient. It seems unlikely that Frazer's discussion of Lydian kings (v, 182) including Candaules and Gyges, would not be connected to the citation of that story in The English Patient, 234-5 (from Herodotus i, 8-12).

Weston's interpretation suggests that the ritual may also have signified other cycles of fertility as well, such as the replacing of one human generation by the next—thus the marked stress on the fisher king's age often found in romances. Weston refers to Diû Crône, for example, in which the fisher king turns out to be in fact “really dead, and only compelled to retain the semblance of life till the task of the Quester be achieved” (115-16). In comparison the burned patient, though only about fifty years old, appears much like a shrunken old man. The intimate way he talks about historical events (e.g., his discussion of “Pico and Lorenzo and Poliziano,” 56-58) makes him seem even more ancient. The patient implies that he already considers himself dead when he quotes the line “‘Death means you are in the third person’” (247), a parallel with the animated dead of Diû Crône. The patient is also referred to elsewhere as a ghost (28, 45) and an effigy (161).

In many romances the fisher king's disability is mirrored by the wounding or wasting of his land, usually described in terms of drought but also in terms of war, as in the Peredur (Weston 18). Weston feels that her work proves “that in the Grail King we have a romantic literary version of that strange, mysterious figure whose presence hovers in the shadowy background of our Aryan race; the figure of a divine or semi-divine ruler, at once god and king, upon whose life and unimpaired vitality, the existence of his land and people directly depends” (62). This ancient concept of a sympathetic, magical tie of health between king and kingdom is clearly illustrated in ancient texts such as Herodotus (iv, 68), a major intertext for Frazer and, it turns out, an even more important one for The English Patient than is readily apparent in the descriptions of the patient's use of it as a bedside book.6 The patient's situation offers obvious parallels with Weston's wounded land scenario, since he is surrounded by a world at war, a blasted Italy, a local area where food is scarce, and a ruined villa. In the flashbacks to Almásy's explorations, the scene is one of barren desert covering ruins of once-thriving settlements.

The ruined villa brings to mind the grail castle, Corbenic, of the Vulgate Cycle. Corbenic is not a ruin per se, but is lonely, desolate and apparently abandoned, an enchanted, otherworldly place which disappears or is difficult to find even after one has been there before (see Lacy). The English Patient follows the romance model in stressing the villa's isolated nature (29, 31) and its age (33). Its many past uses as nunnery, hospital, home for the Medici and German barracks may suggest new appearances. The name Corbenic, which comes from the French words for “blessed body (of Christ),” would be entirely appropriate for the place where the patient experiences his (redemptive?) bodily suffering.

The ruined villa with its ruined library (11) is emblematic of the wasted land, as suggested by the blurring of land and building with its “doors into landscape” (13). This blurring is also suggested in a later passage: “There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth” (43). The reference here to the earth (at the end of a sentence in which the definite article is repeatedly omitted) suggests that the condition of the villa mirrors that of the entire planet, and perhaps alludes to the potential for global destruction in the nuclear age about to dawn.

The wounded patient is also connected with the political state of the land. He wonders: “This country—had I charted it and turned it into a place of war?” (260). War informs all of the grail romances, originating as they did in the First Crusade, and reflecting its us-versus-them spirit. In The English Patient the author draws explicit parallels between medieval warfare and the Allied campaign in Italy (69). Herodotus's Histories deals extensively with wars, with questions of national boundaries and citizenship, and with nomadic peoples (e.g., the Scythians in iv, 1-143, portrayed as a strange “other” compared with the settled Greeks). War runs throughout the patient's favourite book as it runs through the most crucial events of his life. His entire identity, as it is uncovered or perhaps imagined in the novel, is reshaped by war.

The patient's guilt about contributing to the North African campaign can be traced to Weston's wasteland scenario, where such guilt is both political and sexual-moral. For example, in Elucidation the blighting of the land—for a thousand years, until the coming of King Arthur—is reportedly caused by the rape of a group of generous dryads committed by King Amangons and his knights (see Weston 172). Another example of this moral aspect can be found in the decline of Camelot, which according to most accounts began in adultery, between either Lancelot and Guinevere or Arthur and Morgause. These examples of sexual transgression offer rough antecedents to Almásy's adultery with Katharine, and its tragic results, and may suggest some sort of fated judgement. As John Russell argues (regarding the 1996 film version of The English Patient), “The Count's and Katherine's [sic] fiery end is a moral allegory. … It is fitting that they should burn, in effect, in their own heat. … But the … deeper point is that it is part of being human that we find ourselves so in thrall to love that we are often powerless over it. This is an old story from Plato: love as divine madness that mortals are ill-equipped to handle” (A15). Weston notes that this kind of explanation is found in Parzival and Sone de Nansai: “the wound of the King was a punishment for sin, he had conceived a passion for a Pagan princess” (122). Even Almásy describes Katharine and himself as “sinners in a holy city” (154), and Katharine as Eve (144) who, with Adam, according to the Bible, caused humanity's fall into sin.

A final parallel between the burned patient and the fisher king exists in the uncertainty of their identities. Understanding who the fisher king is and how the quest is to be achieved are usually mysterious for most questers—and, presumably, first-time audiences—throughout individual romances. Similarly, the patient's identity is at first as mysterious as that of a preserved “bogman” from the Celtic age, to use one of the novel's expressions (96).

Further mystery is associated with the fisher king as a result of contradictions within the complex romance tradition. For example, in some romances the king is either the biblical character Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus or one of their descendants, guardians of the holy grail (Weston 115). Slight variants in the original French spellings have resulted in the word “fisher” sometimes being replaced by the word for “sinner.”

Such uncertainty is exacerbated in the realm of criticism by Weston's dismissal of the Christian associations suggested by a fisher king and her assertion that the fish imagery is essentially pre-Christian, since it symbolizes life and fertility in many non-Christian cultures (123-36). The continuous supply of holy food from the grail found in some romances can refer, in Weston's opinion, either to the Eucharist or preferably to the mystic meals of vegetation cults (129-32).

All these complexities and more, often mysterious and confusing, inform the identity of the patient—mystified in the first half of the novel (he “could have been the enemy he was fighting in the air,” 6) and tentative in the second half. Christian symbolism is used with special duplicity to characterize the patient. For example, one of the opening images describes him with an “antlered hat of fire” (6), an image which can suggest the devil's horns, the horned/antlered king of Celtic Britain and perhaps a saintly halo. He is also termed the “eternally dying man” (115) and one who has “fallen from the sky” (18), from the “war in heaven” (5)—all three being Miltonic (or Blakean or Shelleyan) images which could make him Christ coming to earth or an angel or the devil being thrown from heaven. (The “eternally dying man” also suggests the cyclicality of Frazer's slain god and Weston's fisher king.) The patient is said to have been made “inhuman by desert” (238), which may also be reminiscent of Christ or the devil at their meeting at Christ's temptation in the desert (or of the desert saint tradition of early Christianity, since he is called the “despairing saint,” 1). He is attributed the “hipbones of Christ” (1), and has been “anointed” (6) and attended by a figure that is both an archangel (6) and John the Baptist (9), the latter especially suggested by expressions such as “beheaded” and “lost its civilization.” His association with fire (his “head is on fire,” 5) and his black shrunken form may be reminiscent of traditional Christian depictions of demons or apostles. Telling of Katharine's death, he even wonders, “Had I been her demon lover? Had I been Madox's demon friend?” (260), a phrase clearly connected with Romantic inversions of traditional Christian notions of good and evil. Nonetheless Ondaatje refuses a clear uni-dimensional use of these Christian elements (whether traditional or Romantic) in favour of a characteristically postmodern, ambiguous balancing act, to the end that the patient's identity raises questions and suspense without definitively answering them.

Caravaggio may conclude that the patient is the Hungarian count, Almásy, but as Stephen Scobie has noted, this is not certain. Under the influence of morphine the patient's narrative (or as Scobie would have it, Ondaatje's narrative) “becomes complicit with Caravaggio's desire [for a spy drama]. Whether Caravaggio's version of the English patient's identity is true or not scarcely matters, but what does matter is the fact that the story he tells satisfies, precisely, the need for story” (98). While Scobie's idea of complicity makes the uncertainty of the patient's identity more acceptable, an appeal to the fisher king's uncertain identity as a precedent strengthens the argument and grounds it in an intertextual reference.

These identity questions have so far ignored the existence of a “real-life” historical Count Almásy in favour of a mythological approach, the reason being that historical elements in Ondaatje's writing have always been chosen for their indeterminacy. Since many of the details are unknown about such characters (e.g., Buddy Bolden or Almásy) Ondaatje can endow his works some of the prestige of historical scholarship while feeling free to be creative. As Ondaatje has described his approach: “Why should I hold facts sacred when they can be more valuable as clues, beginnings to truth?” (Witten 10). The technique is postmodern in the way it simultaneously validates historical texts while suggesting their unreliability.

The fact that the historical Almásy was Hungarian is nonetheless in keeping with the indeterminate identity of Ondaatje's patient. Weston's scenario, along with the languages, religions, and cultures of Hana, Caravaggio, and even Kip, can be traced back to a hypothetical single root culture dating from between 10,000 and 5,000 B.C., known as Indo-European—or, in Weston's day, as Aryan. Since the Greeks, Celts, and Indians all migrated from this source, some nineteenth-century observers began to credit this “race” as the greatest in world history, an idea that was being discredited by scholars in Weston's time, but which nonetheless was put to nefarious political use by the Nazis. But the patient, who seems the epitome of all things English (and thus in Weston's scenario, Celtic/Aryan) turns out not to be some archetype of the English folk at all, but perhaps a member of an enemy nation, Hungary. This nationality is appropriate to such a multivalent and politically ambivalent character, since the Hungary of 1944-45 was characterized by ambivalent or divided political loyalty. Being lumped into the Russian sphere of influence at Yalta in 1945 was largely against its will, as became evident in the uprising of 1956. Historically, the Magyars in culture and language have an entirely different root than Indo-European, and thus the patient is of a racial otherness that undercuts Weston's trumpeting of the fisher king scenario as the artefact of a specific cultural matrix.

In fact the patient has a strong desire to have nothing to do with ethnic or political identity (see 138-39), a revulsion not at all in keeping with the real Almásy's commitment to Naziism. The patient's anti-nationalism suggests an awareness of modernist errors, exemplified in Weston's case in the racial undertones in her apparent exaltation of the pre-Christian elements of Arthurian romance, and exemplified more broadly—and, in hindsight, more obviously—in the drastic reinterpretation of the concept of Aryan culture by the nineteenth-century commentators whose statements were soon to be used to attempt to legitimate genocidal Nazi policies. The patient's prescient position is ultimately in harmony with the postmodern fear of exalting a new but inevitably biased orthodoxy, and it resonates with the social position of postmodern Canadian immigrants such as Ondaatje who refuse labels like Ceylonese or Sri-Lankan-Canadian, and writers like Ondaatje who reject a narcissistic concept of “Canadian literature” in favour of one that consciously aims to hold its own on the stage of world literature (witness the international scope of the journal, Brick, that Ondaatje co-edits).

In the grail romances the fisher king figure is crucial to the quest but is not the central figure—that role is played by the hero, Perceval (or Galahad in later romances), to whom Ondaatje's character Kirpal (Kip) Singh corresponds. Perceval, a travelling knight, comes upon the fisher king and attempts to perform some feat that he does not fully understand, often the asking of a question. Achieving the quest usually resolves the situation by restoring the king to health or youth and improving the land, whether wasted or not (23). Variants of this pattern can be found in later romances: Weston's favourite example is Diû Crône, in which the success of the quest brings freedom to the king by allowing him to die, and Perlesvaus portrays a hero who does not succeed in time, causing the king to die without cure or restoration. In most cases, the successful hero becomes the fisher king's successor as guardian of a magical object and consort to the queen.

Tracing the scenario back to the ritual funeral, Weston suggests that the role of the quester emerged from variants in which a healer and/or priest brought in a new, younger actor (or stepped in himself) to play the role of the resurrected god (34-51). This role informs the one played by Kip, who heals the land by defusing bombs. Kip's nickname is said to relate to a type of fish (87), an appropriate name for the “knight” (273) who is to become the fisher king's successor. The patient himself suggests this succession when he says that “Kip is me younger” (116). Weston also relates the archetypal ritual resurrection in her scenario to an ancient celebration of the “freeing of the waters” observed in India to commemorate Indra's freeing of the seven rivers (26-27).7

Kip is often described in relation to saints, angels, and gods. Both the patient and Hana think of him as a “warrior saint” (209, 273), and Kip himself speaks of warrior saints, perhaps Sikh ones (217). Nonetheless, mythology concerning Christian warrior saints relates in many ways to grail romance. Consider for example three of the most prominent saints: St. George, patron saint of England and slayer of the Libyan dragon, whose legend has much the same flavour as Arthurian romance (and whose cult Frazer associates in v, 78 with the begetting of children via ritual prostitution throughout the eastern Mediterranean); St. Michael, patron saint of France and archangel-captain of heaven's armies, often portrayed as an androgynous youth (see The English Patient, 90); and St. Longinus, the soldier who pierced Christ's side with his spear, an allusion which suggests Weston's theories once again, since she associates a Celtic version of this lance with the fisher king (68). When Hana holds Kip, he is compared to “an Indian goddess … wheat and ribbons” (218), an image suggesting both virtue and his role as a renewer of fertility. This saintly quality may have roots in later grail romances which are marked by ascetic alterations, even to the point where the stainless hero Galahad is added (Weston 207).

Both Perceval and Parzival describe the young Perceval as the innocent son of an absent father, a description which could also fit Kip. Perceval's first sight of knights, whom he mistakes for angels, inspires him to leave his mother to seek King Arthur, whereas the youthful Kip goes to England, the legendary homeland of Arthur. Perceval trains under an isolated knight named Gornemant, a parallel to Kip's training under Lord Suffolk (181-92).

According to Bleheris Perceval's quest begins when a nameless knight is slain in his company and Perceval dons the dead knight's armour, an emotionally exact parallel to Kip's continuation after the death of Suffolk and his group: “He was expected to be the continuing vision” (196). Perceval fails in his first visit to the grail castle, because he follows his teacher too literally or slavishly. He fails to ask the “unspelling question” because of Gornemant's dictum that asking questions is rude—an event similar to Kip's uncritical adoption of the Western ways of his teacher.

During the learning period, the grail hero also usually has an experience in a chapel. Kip's visit to the Sistine chapel is the most remarkable analogue (78), while his sleeping in other chapels is reminiscent of Perceval's experiences in the “perilous chapel” and of other incidents of the hero falling asleep (e.g., Diû Crône and Bleheris). (Other examples of his being lowered to a bomb in a pit, or even, knight-like, into a chalk horse (171), may faintly suggest this kind of heroic episode in the underworld or the dragon's lair.)

During Perceval's visit to the castle, he notices a lamenting woman in the company of the fisher king, the role filled in The English Patient by Hana, the patient's “squire” (135). In some romances, the lamenting woman also keeps a relic that is partnered with the grail, which may perhaps be echoed in Hana's possession of the crucifix/scarecrow (14). Weston traces this adjunct figure back to the women who would have lamented (and later celebrated) at the fertility ritual (47), women whose participation may have involved ceremonial sexual unions. Hana's birthday meal (267) may also be reminiscent of the mystery meals of Attis (Weston 147), especially in the sense of community closeness it exhibits and encourages. Weston points to the “Loathly Damsel” in Perlesvaus who has lost her hair as a result of the hero's failure to ask the question (51) and offers as ritual precedents a number of examples in which fertility ceremonies involved the cutting of hair (48; and see Frazer v, 37-38, 225 and Herodotus i, 199). In the novel a contrast is made between Hana's cut hair (219) and Kip's long hair, a sign of his vitality and his religion (217), and the novel concludes mentioning Hana's restored long hair (301), her children (300, replacing the one she aborted or killed, 85) and Kip's children (302), perhaps the indirect products of their brief healing relationship (a sexual one, and thus relevant to fertility concerns).

To expand briefly on the identification of Hana, it can also be said that both Hana and her antecedents play nun-like roles. Caravaggio accuses Hana, for example, of throwing “herself out of the world to love a ghost” (45). In In the Skin of a Lion, Hana's mother Alice was formerly a nun, and here the villa is a former convent. In acting as a nun Hana also follows the lead of Guinevere, whose last days were as a nun. Hana admits her devotion to the patient can be seen as both that of a daughter to her father and that of a wife to her husband (84). The daughter-father aspect first brings to mind the idea that the patient is a replacement for her dead step-father, Patrick, who died of burns like the patient (84, 90, 296). But a father-daughter relationship is also in harmony with the nun-devotee idea, since nuns not only consider themselves married to God but also to be, like all Christians, his adopted children. (Caravaggio, who reflects elements of both the knightly and fisher-kingly role, thinks that Hana reminds him of his wife, 39.)

Like nuns to God, like daughter to father, like the fertility queen to the fisher king, Hana and Katharine are in many ways adjuncts to a symbolically more important male. Like the quest hero, Hana exists first of all to heal the fisher king, though in The English Patient she also effects healing in herself and in Kip. It may not be too far to suggest that Hana is a madonna figure: recall how the patient comments, as Hana leans over him, “‘There are not brunettes among Florentine madonnas’” (96). It is surprising that Ondaatje's portrayals of women such as Hana, often celebrated by critics as fully-dimensional, have not been the object of more feminist criticism, since at its most basic level Ondaatje's female character palette seems limited to either madonna or whore, nurturing saint or temptress. Such a reductionist view of women is no more realistic than the roles allotted for women in ancient fertility rituals or for the queens of romance. (Ondaatje's main innovation seems to be in having characters flip roles: witness Hana crawling into Kip's tent for a rendezvous “like a saint,” 128.) Such feminist criticism, which could have some valid points in light of contemporary gender standards8 would need to be tempered by an acceptance or at least understanding of the limits extant in the novelistic project Ondaatje seems to have set for himself, namely to illustrate links between the world-war era and grail romance.

In the rituals cited by Weston, the actor is often brought back to life by a priest or healer, but in some variants he is called back by a beloved goddess figure, either sister or paramour (Weston 34-51). Hana has attributes of both a priest-healer and a beloved goddess, as previously cited examples suggest (i.e., she is a nun-like nurse), and also as found in the gardening activities with which she is occupied from the opening page of the book. A related analogous character in grail romance, Elaine of Corbenic, assists the grail keeper and, to engender Galahad, tricks Lancelot into thinking she is Guenevere. Hana's waiting for the water in the fountain (92) may prefigure a more total “freeing of the waters” that lies ahead, and most likely is meant to connect her to the queen figure of Weston's ritual, who is often found by a well. The love and pity that Hana evokes from the patient seem to heal him in a psychological way, and perhaps in this action her role is analogous to that of the beloved goddess. In the patient's eyes, she seems at times a stand-in for Katharine (who would be Guinevere to the adulterous Arthur-Almásy). In this sense her switch of attachment from the patient to Kip follows the archetypal pattern. Perhaps these cases of people seeing someone else in Hana form a wry commentary to the postmodern approach that identity is not essential but constructed.

As the symbolism of Hana's and Kip's hair suggests, Kip's religion is important to the fisher king scenario. Certainly an Indian character with an Indian religion is in keeping with the interests of Weston, Frazer and their followers to draw parallels between Western and Indian traditions and continue to establish the scholarly legitimacy of the Indo-European or Aryan culture. Sikhism, founded in the late 1600s, is historically a bridge religion (the bridge-building of engineer Kip is entirely appropriate) between Islam and Hinduism, rejecting the caste system to the point that “they [newly baptized members] actually put food into the mouths of others and take it from others into their own mouths and pass a common cup of drink from lip to lip” (Archer 312). This image is often found in Ondaatje's writing, including the episodes in this novel with plums and dates (6). In the Amritsar temple of Kip's religion “all faiths and classes [are] welcomed” (272), an attribute which the anti-tribalist patient would surely appreciate. Many Sikhs avoid intoxicants (including Kip, 267) and some also avoid meat, not because of some divine revelation but out of respect for neighbouring Muslims and Hindus.

A number of other aspects of Sikhism overlap with the romance tradition. The military orientation of Sikh culture parallels chivalric culture, and both mix militancy with religion. Gobind Singh (1660-1708) and his immediate followers are remembered with much the same mythic reverence as King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Like the knights, Kip wears a number of religious talismans including his kara, the Sikh bracelet (126). In 1941 there were almost six million Sikhs, though the religion was not well known even in many parts of India—thus Hana's lack of fear and the other characters' apparent lack of curiosity about Kip's background may be anachronistic. Ondaatje's choice not to incorporate any of this sociological religious material (Archer, passim) fits with his novel's expansive religious vision that avoids specific traditional religious practices or theology in favour of a generalized spirituality.

Kip is, however, an easygoing Sikh, a sahajdari, since he does not seem to wear the Sikh dagger, the kirpan, nor let his beard grow. Thus his ethnicity is not absolutized, nor the purity of his non-Western culture exalted. Kip's appreciation of contemporary Western pop music is unmistakable. Though anthropologists could argue that Kip's Indian culture is unknowingly undergirded by the same ancient body of myth (i.e., Indo-European) as most of Western culture, a more relevant truth to his experience is the imperialist stance taken by Britain over India (another truth which he does not yet know fully). Ondaatje's avoidance of depicting or glorifying a pure ethnic culture, something Weston has done in the case of the Celtic roots of her own culture, is a significant difference between their approaches, which will inform further discussion on modernism and postmodernism.

First, however, a parallel to the grail is needed to solidify the proposed link between Kip and Perceval. One may want to argue that the preceding comparisons still seem forced, and that there are in fact no exact parallels to the grail in The English Patient. Such absences would not necessarily negate the importance of Arthurian romance to the novel, since the bulk of purported Arthurian or grail romances make only passing references to Arthur or the grail. Nonetheless, almost all are structured in a recognizable quest or picaresque/chivalric adventure format, the structure of which may indeed be discovered in The English Patient. Specifically, one finds that interiorized personal quests govern the novel's narrative structure, with the main quest in particular modelled exactly on the fisher-king scenario.

Perhaps the most obvious quest is the uncovering of the mysterious identity of the English patient. In this sense Caravaggio would be seen to share part of Kip's role as quester. Caravaggio is also a knight-like figure in the sense that he is “a lover and not a family man” (117)—indeed, he seems almost to have forgotten his family back home in Canada. He plays the role of knightly quester particularly in the episode which takes place in the “palace of war-women” (36), a phrase which echoes the common Arthurian motif of the “Castle of Maidens” (see Lacy). In the grail quest, the knight sometimes experiences the “perilous bed,” which offers a rough parallel with the danger of exposure Caravaggio finds in the woman's glance (35-39). His getting caught naked by a woman who is busy making love may echo the Arthurian motif of catching adulterers (e.g., Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristam) as well as the Gyges story from Herodotus. However, Caravaggio's quest for the patient's identity is only part of the main quest in The English Patient—the patient's identity has as precedent the characteristically mysterious identity of the fisher king, and thus the identity is not the grail itself.

In different romances the grail appears in many forms, often accompanied by other magical, sacred talismans. Most often the grail appears as a miraculous provider of food and spiritual sustenance—for example, in the episode in which a hermit tells the hero that the grail king feeds only on the host which is magically produced by the grail (72). Weston dismisses the ideas that the grail can be traced ultimately to a Celtic cauldron of plenty or to a vessel used at the Last Supper, and prefers to see it as an even older symbol of feminine fertility, matched by the masculine lance which often accompanies it (73). In The English Patient, Caravaggio and the patient feed, in a sense, by lancing themselves with morphine ampoules, and their physical wounds would seem to tie them to the (doubled) grail kings. But the best candidate for a feeding grail is the Herodotus, which like the grail may or may not be a pagan mythological item presented in a Christianized form (i.e., in its pages of pasted-in Bible passages).

More importantly, the Herodotus can be referred to as the History of Herodotus, a title which suggests that the hero's quest is in fact a quest for history, perhaps a quest to understand history or a quest for culture. This interpretation about cultural identity could bring postcolonial and postmodern thought to bear on the novel, but many pertinent “post-” issues are also addressed in Arthurian romance and even in Herodotus. For example, in Chrétien the unspelling question is “whom does the grail serve?” and the assumed answer is “the fisher king, your uncle”—thus the question implies an inquiry into the quester's own history (Cavendish 153). Kip calls the patient “Uncle” during the confrontation episode (283), and more than anything else it is his questioning of his colonized status that serves as the novel's parallel for the quester's search to understand his identity. Such an emphasis on personal enlightenment is precedented particularly in later grail romances, wherein the hero's quest is increasingly depicted as a personal instead of a national duty (e.g., in Parzival the question which must be asked is “Why do you suffer so?” which implies that the hero must learn compassion). Kip's search for self-identity more than parallels the search for the patient's identity—the two have much in common and on the psycho-mythic or archetypal level seek the same truth.

Like the naive Perceval, Kip must make a long journey before he reaches the point where it is possible to ask the unspelling question. Although his brother has reportedly pushed Kip towards questioning (201, 217), and Caravaggio asks him why he is risking his life defusing bombs in Italy (122), Kip fails at first to question his own status as a colonized subject of the British empire. The patient is also aware of this immaturity, as is evident when he says, “‘Kip and I are international bastards—born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back or to get away from our homelands all our lives. Though Kip doesn't recognize that yet’” (176). Kip has bought into English/Western prerogatives and culture without much thought, and it takes the dropping of the atomic bomb before he truly asks and begins to answer the question (287). Before the bomb Kip's complicity with the warring English empire is near total, as evident in his change of name, an Anglicization associated with kipper grease in many respects forced on him by the colonizing power (87). Descriptions of Kip as “warrior saint” may also be meant to suggest that he has been appropriated by such a power, in the same way that saints have been appropriated as national symbols (e.g., St. Michael and St. George).

This power, of which Lord Suffolk is an idiosyncratic icon and “Christian” Europe the home, is not portrayed as entirely evil; it has much to offer which Kip welcomes, such as his training and also the Christian Italian art he is working to rescue:

Because he had loved the face on the ceiling he had loved the words. As he had believed in the burned man and the meadows of civilisation he tended. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Solomon were in the burned man's bedside book, his holy book, whatever he had loved glued into his own. He had passed his book to the sapper.


Kip refuses the book, and thus the culture it represents, saying instead, “we have a Holy Book too” (294).

Kip's tentative rejection of the book is multiplied exponentially and hardened to the strength of diamond upon his hearing radio reports of the atomic bomb. His violent reaction is a climactic point in the novel, and any critical approach needs to take it into account, especially since a number of critics have come down hard on an action that even Scobie, a highly sympathetic critic, admits is “implausible” for its “full horror of a post-nuclear sensibility” (94). Craig Seligman, for example, writes: “seeing the ‘new revealed enemy’ before him, [Kip] suddenly swells up and becomes a new character—Asia. … He throws himself onto his motorbike and careens away, as hysterically disillusioned as Lana Turner howling at the wheel in The Bad and the Beautiful” (41).

In light of Weston's scenario, however, Kip's action can be understood much better. It is appropriate that Kip as the hero who replaces the fisher king should experience a crisis and a withdrawal similar to the violent crisis and social withdrawal the patient has experienced. It is never shown if Kip realizes how much his life has followed the pattern of the patient's, but the parallels are obvious to the careful reader. As seen by Caravaggio, the patient has betrayed the Allies and has finally withdrawn to become an international or post-national citizen. That this action is a twist on the loyalty theme of romance should be clear: the patient basically refuses to be manipulated by the dominant culture (a non serviam in the manner of the Romantics' reinterpretation of the one uttered by Milton's Satan). It must be remembered that loyalty and other spiritual motives in romance take such precedence over other story elements that they cause what appear to modern readers to be huge gaps in verisimilitude, but that such was the aesthetic of the time.

But Kip's rejection is also different from Almásy's, and more radical. At first reading it may seem that Kip chooses to fail the quest, that he quits it and goes home. The idea seems to be ruled out that he may somehow have achieved his quest goal and reached enlightenment. Whereas the patient has, despite his rejection and withdrawal, continued as a lover and carrier of Western history and culture, Kip tries to reject this role and chooses to return to Sikhism and his birth culture.

However, his rejection cannot eliminate the experience of being from a colonized culture or his experiences as a ranking member of that culture, which could explain why Kip has the experience of “carrying the English patient with him” (294). The patient, in his switch of political allegiance, probably also meant to turn his back on everything to do with the Allied West, only to find its history and culture part of himself. Though rejecting the patient's role as keeper of high Western culture (e.g., the patient even knows the whereabouts of all Giottos, 96), Kip carries in his head at least the “low” Western culture of popular song.

Kip's drastic action—his rejection of Western societal responsibility after a hearty initial acceptance—can be appreciated not only in relation to the patient's rejection and withdrawal from national identity; it is also paralleled (in true anthropological style) by the other characters' actions. Hana, often depicted in the library, and for whom “books are half her life” (7), still sings the Marseillaise in a rebellious way (53, 269) and “would not be ordered again or carry out duties for the greater good” (15). Caravaggio echoes a number of the patient's concerns in a speech (121-24) in which he argues, “‘The armies indoctrinate you and leave you here and they fuck off somewhere else to cause trouble. … We should all move out together.’” This conjunction of the characters' emotions with their politics is reminiscent of chivalric behaviour and typical of Ondaatje's postmodern validation of the personal in history over official impersonal or naively heroic historical narratives. These parallels between Kip and other characters contextualize Kip's rejection and suggest that it can be seen as the fulfilment of a natural human life development (which recycles with each generation).

All of these anti-establishment gestures, including Kip's, are imperfect and ineffective because of the characters' complicity with the establishment. Kip's rejection, while the most dramatic, is not unqualified, for his motorcycle accident occurs on a bridge while he is removing his goggles, a possible sign of enlightenment as to his inability to escape complicity, first in his birth culture and second with the empire. Bridges in Herodotus can also be symbolic in this way (e.g., iv, 87-93). Seligman, in calling the action a mere “snit” (41), fails to take into account the possibility that the accident suggests the immaturity and rashness of Kip's response. Ironically, these failures may be meant to imply some success in the quest (295), if one takes the parallels with the other characters as an indication of what the author proposes as truth.

To clarify the functions or purposes of Ondaatje's incorporation of grail material is no easy task. Of course his allusions to romance character types and to the grail quest enrich the reading experience of the novel by opening it onto a whole network of other texts, and the archetypal elements especially make characters whose experiences are on some level relevant to all. But surely there is more at the root of Ondaatje's grail fetish.

Admittedly, some critics refuse to see past the inclusion of so much intertextual allusion (Arthurian, ancient, Christian and other). They argue instead that the allusions overburden and ruin the story. For example, Hilary Mantel has complained that Ondaatje's characters “are wraiths, freighted with abstraction, weighted with portent,” though he does admit, “Perhaps this is not a fault” (22). Philip Marchand writes, “The characters … are not human beings but devices for registering exquisite perceptions. Ondaatje simply doesn't do character, at least in this novel. … [Moral] questions simply do not occur to the readers … who are too busy making their way through the lush greenery of Ondaatje's prose” (K10). Seligman chides Ondaatje for failing to maintain an adherence to realism, for characters

conceived completely in the abstract. … Ideally, of course, they could be both [individuals and abstractions]; as it is, now they're one, now the other. The tension … finally ends up ripping [the narrative] down the seams. … Ondaatje hasn't written a novel at all, he has written a storybook … on level with [the film] Casablanca, … and his characters are storybook characters.


Seligman argues that the book is not a novel (i.e., what he considers to be serious adult literature) based on a very narrow definition of the novel as realistic. But to take Ondaatje's novel on its own terms requires accounting for its allegiance to Arthurian romance and myth. And in many cases, characters are secondary to structure in romance.

Romance is structured not on believability but on ritual patterns, and readers of romance usually forgive “verisimilitude-shattering” elements (Seligman 40) such as Caravaggio's knowledge of Almásy's collaboration and Kip's reaction to the radio broadcasts of the atomic bomb. Kip's version of the unspelling question does undo the spell which holds the patient in life and which holds himself, the patient's double/successor. That is not to say that Ondaatje's novel has no pretensions to the status of realistic historical fiction—obviously there is enough realism to fool Seligman into judging the work exclusively by inappropriate standards. Such misunderstanding, due to political concerns blocking any appreciation of the use of romance and other non-realist traditions,9 is ironic since one of the appeals of romance, at least in the anthropological school, is that purportedly every culturally informed person is supposed to know the story at some conscious or subconscious level. Certainly the inclusions of the Candaules-Gyges-wife narrative and the King David-Abishag narrative are explicit examples, whereas the grail-quest elements are implicit, of the use of mythic structures vaguely familiar to the populace to make the difficult cut-and-paste style of the novel more readable. (Anthony Minghella's film adaptation, released November 1996, followed and emphasized these grand motifs, and reduced the cut and paste in its structure, a simplifying move which has perhaps led to the movie's broad popular success beyond critical circles.)

A search for the significance of Ondaatje's use of grail romance elements should also admit that the importance of romance to the novel is not unlimited, despite the number of characteristics shared between Arthurian romance and The English Patient. While romance illuminates some of the key turning points of the plot, its application requires the use of generalizations and loose definitions, and some comparisons require the acceptance of contradictions. Elements from romance character types are used quite loosely and often applied to more than one character. It can be argued that all the characters have war wounds, perhaps like the fisher king's, and are on personal quests for healing. This problem is inherent in Ondaatje's mythic method, which derives its strength from its allusions, its allusiveness, and the anthropological drive to discover similarities in human behaviour patterns. Ondaatje purposefully suggests similarities in various passages, such as one passage in which he writes of the “naive Catholic images from those hillside shrines. … Perhaps this villa is a similar tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). This passage suggests all four are either saints or Christ-figures.

Frazer's anthropological method, especially as developed by followers such as Weston, C. G. Jung and even Joseph Campbell, interprets selected similarities in myth as keys to understanding the human psyche, and this is the tradition that ultimately casts the most light on the reasons for Ondaatje's use of grail romance. Witness his depictions of healing in the novel, which each suggest a psychological truth embodied in the idea of a return to childhood: Hana tends the patient because he offers her a place “where she could turn away from being an adult” (52); she plays hopscotch (15) and she experiences a womb-like feeling under heavy blankets (49). The patient has a similar womb-like experience under the blankets of the Bedouin (6), and perhaps his cave of swimmers may be considered a womb image (e.g., the reference to the placenta and the parachute as a sort of amniotic sac, 248-49). Caravaggio remembers emerging from water after the bridge he is on explodes (60), and joins Hana in a dance involving steps chalked on the floor (107). Kip hides in the well (222) and recalls childhood experiences (203). These kinds of recurrent images and experiences are essential to romance and to the aesthetics of myth, anthropology, and archetype which so influence Ondaatje's own aesthetic. Another example is the use of the Candaules-Gyges-wife triangle as an archetype for other love triangles. This mythic aspect of Ondaatje's writing seems modernist in not questioning the applicability of these psychological universals to all his main characters. It exhibits a flight from the local territoriality/labelling that cause wars, into a vision of a universally similar, mutually sympathetic humanity.

The method has led to a common psychology among the main characters, which is both a weakness and a strength. Gary Krist, for example, disapproves of the overlapping: “There is an unfortunate sameness to the quality of consciousness displayed by all four of the characters … their interior lives are remarkably similar in texture—as if all four merely represented different quadrants of the author's own psychological map” (246). Ondaatje's intent is perhaps suggested by some of his own comments on his appreciation for a movie in which “a character falls in love four times and the director had [the same actress] play all four women. I can't think of many novels that show this psychological truth” (Bush 91). In The English Patient each parallel and similarity points to a universal significance, in the same way that mythological recurrence has been interpreted by anthropologists to suggest that universal truths about the human spirit and psychology do exist, and thus ultimately make historical appeals to an Indo-European source culture, in a sense, irrelevant.

Finding personal meaning in structures that are shared by many is perhaps suggested by the symbolic figure of death which comes to the patient (298), perhaps reminiscent of the black hand of the perilous chapel. Death comes to the patient as a composite of all the characters who have helped in his spiritual healing: his paramour Katharine (“a swimming figure”), his nurse Hana (“A man with plumes”), his confessor Caravaggio (“a night shadow”) and his successor Kip (“slight brown figure. … A poplar”). The images are personal to the patient, yet the collapsing of all the characters into a single form suggests a kind of universally shared experience.

The use of recurrence in Ondaatje's narrative is of course also common to Arthurian romance, which features multiple character typing and doubled characters such as Perceval and Gawain, Morgause and Morgan, Pelles and Pellam, Galahad and Lancelot, and the various fisher kings and their various attendants. As Weston notes, “in certain closely connected versions the two ideas [wounding and ageing] are combined, and we have a wounded Fisher King, and an aged father, or grandfather … [and] in the latest cyclic texts, we have three Kings” (118-19). Such doubling is generally accepted by non-anthropological critics to be the result of borrowed plots and conventional symbolism.

Ondaatje's reuse of characters from In the Skin of a Lion in The English Patient also has much in common with the practices of grail-romance writers. While the narrator's admission (301) to a sort of personal affection for his characters has been echoed by Ondaatje himself in several interviews, the carry-over can also be justified under the postmodern rubrics of highlighting the artifice of the novel or of the constructedness of identity. A judgement based on strict realism (e.g., that of Seligman) finds the carry-over “bewildering … unlikely … [and] jarring … requiring such a powerful fiat that you end up wondering why he bothered to use the same characters at all” (38). But a more informed and sensitive aesthetic judgement needs to see the work in the context of magic realism, romance, and imagism.

The function of Ondaatje's use of identity doubling or blurring, such as those he effects with the name David and with lion imagery, are best appreciated in these unrealistic aesthetic contexts. By comparing Hana to Abishag (94), the narrator makes the patient a King David figure. Hana is also a nurse or healer of sorts for Caravaggio, whose first name is David, while the patient identifies Kip with King David in a painting (116). The blurring between Caravaggio and the patient may function as a sign that they share the wounds of the fisher king, while the idea that Kip too is a David relates to his role as their potential successor. Another identity chain is suggested by the “sentinel” white lion statue in Pisa (40-41) associated with the death of Hana's step-father, whose association in turn with the patient could make the lion a premonitory figure of the patient. The association of a lion with the fisher king has a precedent in Perlesvaus, in which the king appears as a lion (see Cavendish, 162). In the novel, the lion may also be related to Caravaggio and the loss of his thumbs, since there is a lion in the “perilous bed” episode of Parzival and other romances which gets its hands cut off in a manner symbolizing the overcoming of greediness and passion. Ondaatje's allusive writing encourages this kind of speculation: witness also that Kip's surname Singh, a name adopted by many fervent Sikhs, means “lion.”

From a postmodern vantage point, one may note that these various linking techniques (i.e., archetypal behaviour patterns and chains of significance) are used to create a non-linear, non-chronological narrative. In an interview, Ondaatje confirms that image recurrence interests him as an organizing structure: “In one mural, [Mexican artist Diega] Rivera shows a factory worker holding a wrench in a certain way. Across the room in a linked mural, we see a foreman holding a pencil in a certain way. [Likewise] a story can be knit together by images. This seems to me a less didactic method of building a theme” (Slopen 49). The blurring of individual identities in the novel is in keeping with another postmodern concern, the decentring of the self. Hana's experience of being labelled by others is an example, though the patient is a better one, since the identity or essence assumed to be at his centre and labelled onto him, could actually be the opposite and ultimately is not pinned down. Yet another postmodern concern, the rejection of metanarratives, may be seen in the divergences from the most well-known quest plots (i.e., the grail metanarrative as summarized either in Chrétien and directly-related continuations or else, if you will, in Malory). It is also an example of a postmodern misuse of documentary sources.

Ondaatje's novel also moves further in the secularizing tradition of romance and, rejecting Weston's paganism in favour of Frazer's anthropological syncretism, avoids any “nationalistic” religious truth in favour of “universal” psychological truth. The original romances were decidedly secular for their time period, but they often used Christian and pre-Christian religious symbolism and allegory in a mystical way. Weston's entire theory opposes the obvious readings of this symbolism and attempts to minimize what she sees as the Christian gloss on the legends as a minor accretion, although it requires her to drastically rearrange the historical development of Arthurian romance to make Chrétien into a late-comer. (“[B]y Chrétien,” she writes, “the mystic elements [of the grail-romance symbols] have been forgotten,” 161.) Ondaatje's novel avoids almost entirely any spiritual or theological content in its use of religious symbols. This avoidance is perhaps why the story of Perceval is used rather than the story of the more “Christian” Galahad. Kip's description as a religious individual (he has “his own faith,” 80) is typically postmodern in that his spirituality is too private to be described or discussed. His religiosity is mainly important on the symbolic level. While the quasi-religious fertility cycle influences the novel's structure, overall the novel devotes more detailed attention to visceral depictions that insist on an immanent reality, not on transcendent religious import—even in depictions of Christian statues in churches (280, 291) and the Marian fest of Gabicce mare (78-80).10 This focus on the physical present, a focus in keeping with the materialist-sociological approach to religion of anthropology, is brought home by the idea of having bombs hidden all around (75): what can one do but look closely at everything? And the novel encourages looking, not for possible socio-historical meanings, which are contextual, but for the physicality of things and their role in the physical world and individual lives of the characters. Meaning is not inherited but imputed by individuals constructing private mythologies. The sensuality and personal meaning assembly that are the main components of this world view are typically postmodern in terms of Fredric Jameson's definition, especially in terms of “depthlessness … and consequent weakening of historicity” (6) and effecting a euphoric appreciation of the here and now as opposed to typical modernist affects such as anxiety and alienation (29).

Nonetheless, the immediacy of the physical and of the present moment are also characterized by brief human community. This focus on small, intense community can be traced back to the family and friends of Ondaatje's early lyrics. The community in the villa functions as a way of experiencing individual transcendence from the here and now, though the transcendence, like the community, is temporary.11 The use of myth to characterize and structure offers a different transcendence, into historical repetition and cyclicality, but this transcendence is not so much religious as anthropological.

The other method of transcendence Ondaatje examines using grail romance materials is heroism. Heroism is as important to romance as the god's characters were to myth, and in fact heroes tend to replace gods in the literary transition from myth to romance. Ondaatje's romance thus appropriately portrays the gods as statues (280), even blindfolded ones (291). The heroism of the novel, albeit a version of the ancient quest heroism found in the fisher-king scenario, is updated to illustrate the dominant spiritual worldview of the postmodern era. In ancient times the solace offered to heroism was the good of the community, and the tragedy of it was managed with the idea of historical cyclicality and inevitability.

More recently, in modern times, the quest has been rewritten in many ways. To take a popular example, one may think of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, in which the questing Frodo fails just in sight of his goal, only to have Gollum, the enemy he had previously spared out of compassion, appear. Gollum, in his struggle to steal the all-powerful ring, accidentally falls with it into the cracks of doom, thus achieving the goal and saving all. Tolkien's Christian version of the quest fused the theological concepts of human depravity and divine grace and sovereignty with the sense of human failure that characterized the West as a result of the world wars. (Tolkien had personal experience of trench warfare.) That 1930s and 1940s sense of failure carried into a profound sense in the 1950s, among spiritually-aware thinkers, that the world was only spared from atomic destruction through divine grace (the same grace experienced in what was then known as “the brotherhood of man”). In The English Patient the quest is updated once again, not to some Christian quest like Tolkien's, and not even to some existentialist anti-quest or postmodern un-quest, but to a quest characterized by a profound mistrust of established or imperial powers, and their manipulation of ethno-cultural differences, with a salvation or enlightenment found only in a rejection of the quests ordained by these powers in favour of personal inner quests and the fragile grace experienced by hopelessly compromised or complicit individuals in temporary, multicultural community.

Ondaatje's use of the Arthurian grail quest and the more ancient narrative structures on which it is based—and ultimately most of the novel's basic elements—set themselves between modernism and postmodernism, exhibiting elements of both (e.g., its secularity and non-linear structure are postmodern, while its use of anthropology to suggest universal truths and its direct, un-ironic ties to some of its mythological source materials are modern). In the final analysis the novel's rooting in the received character forms and narrative structures of Arthurian romance is ambiguous and can be seen from two angles. If one sees the novel as rooted in the mainstream fisher-king structure, then one can conclude that the narrative, in a characteristically postmodern action, abandons and deconstructs the modernist mythic method through Kip's action. This parallel makes sense if Arthurian romance is seen as a typical metanarrative of Western culture (in the Lyotardian sense), like the “Arthurian castles” (241) to which Madox returns. However, one may also read the novel in relation to later and more marginal grail quests, in which case the novel appears to follow existing variants of the basic plot to the end. What may at first glance appear to be a rewriting of mainstream Arthurian source material may be seen instead to be a more simple (modernist) fidelity to the marginal in a convoluted body of sources (although, admittedly, incorporation of the marginal is generally considered postmodern). Ondaatje's use of these sources as archetypes is both modern in its attempt to reveal universal psychological truths and postmodern in its blurring and recreating of identity.

Ondaatje seems to have been successful, in seeking a postmodern escape from tribalisms of various kinds, to have thrown himself part-way into the arms of a modern totalizing or universalist system, namely the early Cambridge school of anthropology, but also to have held back from a full embrace enough to avoid some of its major flaws. Regardless of debates as to the novel's aesthetic classification (further discussion about the extent to which the sources are followed, subverted, ironized, or used as a collage or a pastiche is welcome), the Arthurian metanarrative should not be overlooked in future in-depth examinations of The English Patient.


  1. Herodotus is cited by book and section number, and Frazer by book and page. Arthurian tropes are referenced to Weston's From Ritual to Romance more than to Frazer and the original romances for simplicity and because of the near certainty that From Ritual to Romance was an important early influence. Barbour, a student with Ondaatje in the sixties, admits that Weston's “was certainly one of the books we were being encouraged to read at the time” (Barbour, personal communication).

  2. See Darrah for a more respected work on the pagan roots of the romances. Weston's contemporaries A. E. Waite and W. A. Nitze, also under the influence of Frazer, came independently to similar conclusions as hers. See Lacy for more on Waite and Nitze.

  3. Ondaatje's use of pop-myth figures, and now Arthurian romance, may be seen as part of a more general trend in his and in postmodern writing to incorporate popular influences, such as detective fiction. (A comparison with Ellis Peter's medieval whodunnit An Excellent Mystery would show the importance of the fisher king scenario to this genre as well.) Ondaatje's movies (not including Minghella's adaptation) have been singled out for being “vulgar” in the sense of fitting into a pop-culture tradition that includes spaghetti westerns, Hollywood musicals, and thrillers (see Testa). Some critics (e.g., Seligman) may argue that Weston and Arthurian romance are not serious literature and that Ondaatje's use of them brings his novel down from a serious literary accomplishment to a popular one. But on the other hand Ondaatje also seems to be making the highly literary suggestion that important continuities exist between (post)modern concerns and Arthurian romance.

  4. The glimpses of what happens to the characters after the main plot ends, provided at the novel's end in a rather nineteenth-century style, suggest the existence of additional stories, though not as forcefully as the ending of In the Skin of a Lion which, Gamlin has suggested, “invites a retelling in which Ondaatje can follow previously neglected strands of the story” (70). This idea of retelling fits not only with oral narrative, but also with the great many rewritings of Arthurian legends.

  5. The reference is to Tullio Lombardo's 1531 sculpture on the tomb of Guidarello Guidarelli, one of the most popular sculptures of the Italian renaissance due to its magnificent pathos and idealism, and to a romantic aura now associated with it. The novel's candle-lit scenes are also reminiscent of the paintings of Caravaggio's Italian namesake (1570-1610).

  6. The style of Herodotus' History (c. 420 BCE) is in fact much like Ondaatje's: international, colourful, exotic, episodic (see The English Patient, 119, which quotes a description of these attributes of the Herodotus from the Everyman introduction), fragmentary, various, and vivid in its depictions. For the reference in The English Patient to Cambyses (140) see iii, 26, and for the passage on the Psylli whoa attacked the wind (17) see iv, 173. Herodotus writes in ii, 32 of five Nasamonian explorers who travel through the Siwa oasis (where Almásy was finally handed over to Europeans) and who are captured in the manner that Almásy was finally captured (in one). The chain of references in The English Patient to the Bosphorous hug and neck notch (e.g., 236) may be informed by the bridge Darius had built there, described in iv, 87. Significantly, this bridge was part of his attempt to be the first great king to cross into Europe from Asia and conquer parts of it, which relates to other East-West links employed in Weston and The English Patient.

  7. The phrase recalls Patrick's actions in In the Skin of a Lion, which in Gamlin's words is “power to free the river's flow” (70). For the worship of Adonis in India see Frazer v, 239-243.

  8. Minghella's 1996 film version highlights these simplistic female roles, as Margaret Wente has pointed out, and her comments also apply to some extent to the novel: Katharine's job “is to look ravishing, be ravished, and pay the awful price for her illicit desires. She's like Helen of Troy. All she has to do is show up, and wreak devastation on … the men's [Egyptology] club. … In terms of women's roles, The English Patient [the film] is deeply, hopelessly, irrevocably reactionary. It could have been made in 1930. … (The other main woman is a nurse—what else?. …)” (D7). Letter responses in the paper defended the portrayal of women in the film by reminding readers of Hana's valuable nurturing role.

  9. Scobie argues for another non-realist rubric, imagism: he writes that readers should find it obvious that “the logic of the imagery will take precedence over any strict adherence to the conventions of realism” (94).

  10. The emphasis on enduring cultural customs, even in time of war (e.g., the festival), is entirely in keeping with Frazer, Weston, and their followers. In fact the Gabicce ritual sounds exactly like something out of The Golden Bough in which, for example, Frazer compares a number of midsummer Mediterranean marine festivals (Sardinian, Sicilian) with ancient Babylonian and Alexandrian ones, postulating that Tammuz-Adonis has been replaced by St. John (v, 246).

  11. As Lorna Sage notes, “Isolated together, they invent for a brief while an improbable and delightful and fearful civilization of their own, a zone of fragile intimacy that can't—of course—survive, but which is offered to us, nonetheless, as a possible reality. A world without nations, for instance, one where skin colour doesn't divide people. … With Ondaatje, togetherness is a momentary, present-tense phenomenon; as soon as people start developing pasts and futures, everything becomes fissile and flies apart” (23).

Works Cited

Archer, John Clark. The Sikhs in Relation to Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and Ahmadiyyas: A Study in Comparative Religion. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1946.

Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. Twayne's World Authors Series 835. New York: Twayne, 1993.

———. Personal communication. December 8, 1993.

Bevan, Carol L. “Ex-centricity: Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising.Studies in Canadian Literature 18.1 (1993): 71-84.

Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Conjunctions 15 (1990): 87-98.

Cavendish, Richard. King Arthur & the Grail: The Arthurian Legends and their Meaning. 1978. New York: Taplinger, 1985.

Clarke, George Elliott. “Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth.” Studies in Canadian Literature 16.1 (1991): 1-21.

Darrah, John. The Real Camelot: Paganism and the Arthurian Romances. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “Ulysses, Order and Myth” 1923. The Modern Tradition. Ed. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3rd ed. 13 vols. London: Macmillan, 1911-1915.

Gamlin, Gordon. “Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and the Oral Narrative.” Canadian Literature 135 (1992): 68-71.

Goodman, Jennifer R. The Legend of Arthur in British and American Literature. Twayne English Authors Series 461. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Guerin, M. Victoria. “The King's Sin: The Origins of the David-Arthur Parallel.” The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition. Ed. Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe. New York: Garland, 1988. 15-30.

Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Ed. E. H. Blakeney. Trans. George Rawlinson. 2 vols. Everyman Library. London: Dent, 1910.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Toronto: ECW, 1994.

Krist, Gary. “Hype.” Hudson Review Spring 1993: 239-46.

Lacy, Norris J., ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland, 1991.

Mantel, Hilary. “Wraith's Progress.” New York Review of Books Jan. 14, 1993: 22-23.

Marchand, Philip. “Playing Literary Attack Games.” The Toronto Star Mar. 29, 1997: K10.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Concord: Anansi, 1970.

———. Coming through Slaughter. Concord: Anansi, 1976.

———. The Dainty Monsters. Toronto: Coach House, 1967.

———. The English Patient. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992.

———. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

———. “O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle.” Canadian Literature 61 (1974): 1-25.

Reimer, Stephen R. “The Arthurian Legends in Contemporary English Literature, 1945-1981.” Bulletin of Bibliography 38 (1981): 128-138, 149.

Russell, John. “Love's Sanctuary Is a Perilous Place.” The Globe and Mail Feb. 5, 1997: A15.

Sage, Lorna. “A Fragile Family.” Times Literary Supplement Sept. 11, 1992: 23.

Scobie, Stephen. “The Reading Lesson: Michael Ondaatje and the Patients of Desire.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 92-106.

Seligman, Craig. “Sentimental Wounds.” The New Republic Mar. 15, 1993: 38-41.

Slopen, Beverly. “Michael Ondaatje.” Publishers Weekly 239 (Oct. 5, 1992): 48-49.

Smith, E. L. “The Arthurian Underworld of Modernism: Thomas Mann, Thomas Pynchon, and Robertson Davies.” Arthurian Interpretations 4 (1990): 50-64.

Testa, Bart. “He Did Not Work Here Long: Michael Ondaatje in the Cinema.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 154-67.

Wente, Margaret. “Feminism at the Movies.” The Globe and Mail Apr. 5, 1997: D7.

Weston, Jessie L. From Ritual to Romance. 1920. Garden City: Doubleday-Anchor, 1957.

Witten, Mark. “Billy, Buddy, and Michael: The Collected Writings of Michael Ondaatje are a Composite Portrait of the Artist as a Private ‘I.’” Books in Canada June-July 1977: 9-10, 12-13.

Other Works Consulted

Bruce, James Douglas. The Evolution of Arthurian Romance from the Beginnings down to the Year 1300. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1958 [Johns Hopkins UP, 1923, 1928].

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

Appendix: The Grail Romances Discussed by Weston

I. Early Romances

  • Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes, also known as Li Contes del Graal, perhaps the earliest and most influential grail romance (c. 1170), an unfinished French metrical masterpiece telling among other things of Perceval's first (unsuccessful) visit to fisher king's castle (there are two kings, a wounded and an aged); the question which must be asked is not what the grail is, but whom it serves.
  • Wauchier continuation, which includes two episodes in which Perceval struggles with tomb-knights and his second (incomplete) visit to the fisher king's castle.
  • Menassier conclusion, which includes a conclusion of Perceval's second castle visit (unsuccessful), another black hand episode and Perceval's third visit to the castle and successful completion of the quest, which required not only the unspelling question but also the slaying of the murderer of the fisher king's brother.
  • Gerbert conclusion, which includes an alternate conclusion of Perceval's second castle visit (unsuccessful), more adventures, and final success at his third visit to the castle.
  • Bleheris continuation, more commonly known as Pseudo-Wauchier, which includes Gawain's visit to the chapel of the black hand and his first (unsuccessful) visit to the fisher king's castle (though the king is not referred to with that title here); Gawain asks about the lance, thus bringing partial restoration, but is told he should have asked about the nature of the grail.
  • Elucidation prologue, which suggests the land was blighted due to disrespect for female spirits.

II. Later Romances

  • Parzival, a German metrical version probably based on Chrétien but showing so much variation and creativity that many suspect additional sources; there are two kings, the wounded being restored to health and youth and the end of the other unreported.
  • prose-Perceval, more commonly called the Didot-Perceval, a French prose imitation of Chrétien describing a failed and a successful visit to the fisher king's castle (the plot begins as a continuation of Robert de Boron's Merlin); here there is no wasteland, merely an aged king who is finally returned to youth.
  • Perlesvaus, also known as Le Haut Livre du Graal, a French prose version in which a young boy from Arthur's court, Chaus, makes a dream visit to a cemetery chapel (which leads to his death); the story of Perceval's failure at the fisher king's castle is related by a character—it is the cause of the wounded land; Gawain visits the fisher king's castle and fails; Lancelot visits the castle and fails; Perceval learns that the fisher king is dead and his castle seized, and so lays siege to the castle and captures it.
  • Peredur, a prose grail-type story in the Welsh Mabinogion which may stem from a source other than Chrétien; in it the curse involves war, not drought.
  • Diû Crône, a German metrical version especially interesting because it was probably written based on now-disappeared French sources; it contains a great many adventures, only the last of which consists of a visit by Gawain to the fisher king's castle; though his friends fall asleep because of magic, he succeeds in witnessing the grail procession (in which the grail is carried by a crowned damsel) and asks the unspelling question, freeing the fisher king to death, since here he is a corpse condemned to life as penance for sinful strife among kinsmen.
  • La Queste del Saint Graal, part four of the French prose Vulgate Cycle (together with parts three and five it is referred to as the Prose Lancelot), depicts no wasteland; the quest is for personal advantage, though success also leads to the healing of the king's father and of a third king, Mordrains.
  • Sone de Nansai [or Nausay], a French metrical romance with little to do with the grail, although it provides some analogous plot material in the form of a grail castle in Norway.

Rochelle Simmons (essay date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Simmons, Rochelle. “In the Skin of a Lion as a Cubist Novel.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67, no. 3 (summer 1998): 699-714.

[In the following essay, Simmons analyzes the Cubist aspects of In the Skin of a Lion, exploring the visual features of the novel and examining its intertextual relationship to the Cubist criticism and fiction of John Berger.]

I'm drawn to a form that can have a … cubist or mural voice to capture the variousness of things.

‘Michael Ondaatje: An Interview,’ 248

In a 1984 interview, Michael Ondaatje declared that he would ‘pick up and read anything by John Berger’ (328). Although some critics have taken note of this interest, they have not explored the dense web of intertextual reference to Berger's writing that can be discerned in Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion.1 Yet, this text refers directly to works by Berger on a couple of occasions. One of two epigraphs is taken from Berger's novel G.: ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one’ (149). Ondaatje also weaves the title of an art criticism essay by Berger into his narrative when he describes Nicholas Temelcoff building the Prince Edward Viaduct: ‘He floats at the three hinges of the crescent-shaped steel arches. These knit the bridge together. The moment of Cubism’ (34). Berger wrote an account of Cubist painting called ‘The Moment of Cubism,’ which was published in a collection of the same name (1969). Far from being incidental to In the Skin of a Lion, I will argue that these two references form the basis for considering this a Cubist novel after Berger.2 For, just as G. could be said to translate Berger's perceptions about Cubist painting into novelistic form, echoing them verbally and conceptually, to the extent that G. becomes a literary Cubist work, so too does Ondaatje's narrative echo Berger's art critical and fictional interpretations of Cubism.

By categorizing In the Skin of a Lion as a Cubist novel, I do not wish to imply that such a classification provides an exhaustive description of the visual characteristics of Ondaatje's text. Rather, these Cubist qualities should been seen as part of an intense and unwavering fascination with the visual in Ondaatje's work in general and this novel in particular. For example, In the Skin of a Lion contains numerous biographical and pictorial references to the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio, a subject to which two articles have been devoted.3 Hence, this analysis of the Cubist aspects of In the Skin of a Lion attempts to explore Ondaatje's interest in the visual from another perspective, and, in that process, to examine Ondaatje's intertextual relationship with Berger's writing.

Together with his book The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), ‘The Moment of Cubism’ constitutes some of Berger's most trenchant and innovative art criticism. Written from a Marxist perspective, these works attempt to demystify their subjects and to situate them within a historical, social, and political context. Instead of proceeding by way of linear argument, for example, ‘The Moment of Cubism’ takes its methodological cues from Cubist painting itself: it juxtaposes blocks of material, thereby enabling Berger to mediate between different levels of experience. As I have argued at length elsewhere, Berger's novel G., which was written between 1965 and 1971, functions as both a Marxist modernist and a literary Cubist narrative.4 Besides drawing extensively upon Berger's art critical writings, G. also fulfils canonical definitions of literary Cubism.

Although Cubist writing is notoriously difficult to define, In the Skin of a Lion does display what Wendy Steiner sees as the two central aspects of the Cubist analogy in her book The Colors of Rhetoric (1982): stylistic parallelism and a comparison of ideologies. Steiner uses the term ‘stylistic parallelism’ to refer to ‘the matching of technical elements of painting with those in writing’ (179). She provides a list of features that is useful for comparing the stylistic aspects of painting with those of writing. This list includes: (i) a parallel between multiple perspectives and multiple points of view, which Steiner sees as leading to (ii) a fragmentation of form, and (iii) an analytical stance towards reality; (iv) self-reflexivity; (v) an ambiguity in terms of reference; and (vi) a tension between representational and non-representational figures. Steiner's phrase a ‘comparison of ideologies’ alludes to the way in which the Cubist painter's ‘aesthetic presuppositions’ can be compared with those of the Cubist writer (179). Likewise, John Berger's concept of the ‘Cubist moment’ deals with stylistic and ideological aspects of Cubism. (The originality of Berger's interpretation of the art movement lies chiefly in his discussion of the Cubist moment as an era of convergence, which I shall later outline.) Both stylistic parallels and ideological comparisons can be made between the painting Berger describes in ‘The Moment of Cubism’ and the writing in Ondaatje's novel. Despite the impossibility of distinguishing between form and content in an absolute sense, we might differentiate between them for the purpose of categorizing In the Skin of a Lion, on the understanding that such a division is an artificial one.

In ‘The Moment of Cubism,’ Berger writes of how Cubism instituted a revolutionary change in the history of art by overthrowing a concept of art that had existed for five centuries: it broke with the tradition of creating illusionistic, three-dimensional, pictorial space based on linear, one-point perspective. Instead of presenting an object as perceived from a single position in space, the Cubists presented the object as seen from multiple points of view. While Berger does not draw a direct analogy between perspective in Cubist painting and point of view in modernist (or postmodernist) writing in this essay, in another piece entitled ‘The Changing View of Man in the Portrait’ (1972), he writes:

We hear a lot about the crisis of the modern novel. What this involves, fundamentally, is a change in the mode of narration. It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time. And that is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the storyline laterally. …

Something similar but less direct applies to the painted portrait. We can no longer accept that the identity of a man can be adequately established by preserving and fixing what he looks like from a single viewpoint in one place.


Thus, Berger makes an indirect link between the Cubist's break with unified perspective in painting and the way the fragmented, modernist style of writing broke with nineteenth-century, classic, realist representation based on the Aristotelian tradition of unity in narrative.

This change from single to multiple points of view is alluded to in the sentence from G. that Ondaatje takes as his epigraph (‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one’). In the Skin of a Lion presents many stories told from multiple points of view. The novel begins with a description of Patrick Lewis's childhood and then shifts abruptly in the following chapter to an account of the building of the Prince Edward Viaduct, in which the characters of Caravaggio, Rowland Harris, Temelcoff, and the nun are introduced. These shifts in viewpoint can be seen as signalling changes in perspective, particularly since crucial sequences of events, such as the nun's falling off the bridge and being rescued by Temelcoff, are relayed by more than one person. Indeed, when Patrick discovers the extent to which his and other people's pasts are intertwined, he no longer sees his own life as ‘a single story’ but as ‘part of a mural’ (145). Ondaatje has indicated that Diego Rivera's murals were important to him when he was writing In the Skin of a Lion on account of their 360-degree form (‘Michael Ondaatje: An Interview,’ 245). Although Cubist and mural form are quite different from one another, they both possess a spatial complexity that could be said to convey ‘the variousness of things’ mentioned in the epigraph to this article.

While most of the parallels between the Cubist multi-perspectival method and multiple points of view concern the style of In the Skin of a Lion, they can be detected in the content of certain passages, as when Temelcoff's perception is altered by his encounter with the nun:

When he walks into the fresh air outside the Ohrida Lake Restaurant, on the morning after the accident on the bridge, he sees the landscape as something altered, no longer so familiar that it is invisible to him. Nicholas Temelcoff walks now seeing Parliament Street from the point of view of the woman. …


In this instance, Temelcoff's vision literally shifts to accommodate the nun's way of seeing. We are also told that Nicholas felt comfortable joking with Hana, ‘gathering her perspective’ (212).

In the Skin of a Lion's deployment of multiple points of view—or a multi-faceted narrative technique—can be likened to the faceting in analytic Cubist paintings. Patrick at one point even describes himself as ‘nothing but a prism that refracted [the other characters'] lives’ (157), and when Caravaggio watches Anne through her boathouse window, the scene is described in the following manner: ‘In this light, with all the small panes of glass around her, she was inside a diamond, mothlike on the edge of burning kerosene, caught in the centre of all the facets’ (198). I have already suggested that the fragmentation of form in Cubist painting is analogous to the breaking up of narrative unity. The indirectness with which In the Skin of a Lion is narrated shows Ondaatje's rejection of what Berger calls the straight story sequentially unfolding in time.’ Rather than being led through consecutive episodes, we are advised to ‘[m]eander’ if we wish to discern order in the plot (146). This apparent lack of order—or discontinuity—of events disrupts the novel's coherence. Our belated discovery that the nun is Alice Gull provides one clear instance of narrative continuity being fragmented. The gap of ninety-two pages between learning of Alice's death and discovering the manner in which she died provides another.

Disruptions to narrative coherence not only have a fragmenting effect but also cause us to question the novel's authority. In a Cubist painting, according to Berger, ‘the complexity of the forms and the “discontinuity” of space remind [the spectator] that his view from that place is bound to be only partial’ (‘The Moment of Cubism,’ 25). Berger further states that the two-dimensionality of a Cubist canvas ‘makes it impossible to confront the objects or forms in a Cubist work. Not only because of the multiplicity of viewpoints—so that, say, a view of a table from below is combined with a view of the table from above and from the side—but also because the forms portrayed never present themselves as a totality’ (21; italics in original). In the Skin of a Lion prevents us from interpreting events portrayed as a totality because of the high degree of indeterminacy in the novel. It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the order of events in certain places, particularly in the last chapter, where, for example, we cannot ascertain at what point Patrick broke his arm. The omission of this detail draws our attention to a gap in the narrative. This evidence of a ‘partial view’ serves to make us focus upon the process, or medium, of representation itself. In pictorial terms, we shift our attention from the subject to the surface of the painting. An analogy can be drawn with the anti-illusionistic treatment of space in a Cubist painting. Berger writes: ‘Before and after every sortie of our imagination into the problematic spaces and through the interconnections of a Cubist painting, we find our gaze resettled on the picture surface, aware once more of two-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional board or canvas’ (‘The Moment of Cubism,’ 21). Instead of the represented forms presenting themselves as a totality, the surface of the picture becomes the totality, ‘the origin and sum of all that one sees’ (22; italics in original).

In the Skin of a Lion employs frame-breaking devices that likewise remind us of the text's status as fictional construct. It is as if whenever we begin to immerse ourselves in the narrative, Ondaatje undercuts us with a comment that cannot quite be located, such as the inclusion of an authorial intrusion in a book from which the author is largely absent: ‘Patrick would never see the great photographs of Hine, as he would never read the letters of Joseph Conrad’ (145). Another example is provided by the following passage:

She could move like … she could sing as low as. … Why is it that I am now trying to uncover every facet of Alice's nature for myself?

He wants everything of Alice to be with him here in this room as if she is not dead.

(147-48; ellipses in original)

Here, the unprecedented, sudden shift from first to third person underlines the intrusiveness of the authorial voice. We are thereby reminded of the gulf between an illusionist world, in which a character appears to exist, and an overtly fictional world, in which the author can kill off his character in the space of one sentence.

Of course, such techniques are also self-reflexive, and In the Skin of a Lion employs self-reflexivity as another means of stressing the material, constructed nature of its narrative. The novel contains some implicitly reflexive episodes, as in the doubling between the story told during a car journey and the reader's meandering traversal of the text. Another more explicit instance is provided by Patrick's using a reading metaphor to recall aspects of life with Alice: ‘All these fragments of memory … so we can retreat from the grand story. … Those moments, those few pages in a book we can go back and forth over (148). In a related passage, Ondaatje identifies the story-within-a-story of Patrick's love affair with Alice as being separate from the main narrative: ‘He has come across a love story. This is only a love story. He does not wish for plot and all its consequences’ (160). Furthermore, the statement ‘All his life Patrick Lewis has lived beside novels’ reminds us that Patrick himself is a character within a novel (82). Such self-reflexivity serves to highlight further the narrative's status as fictional construct, and, like the gaps and ellipses, it conveys a mediated, rather than a mimetic, view of reality. By incorporating non-realist features in his writing, Ondaatje can be seen as promoting an active, critical reading of his text. Just as the Cubists left parts of some of their canvases blank, so that the observer could complete the composition her- or himself, we need to work to assemble events for them to make sense. We are therefore placed in the position of Hana, who must gather the threads of the story that Patrick narrates on their drive to Marmora. Yet, as I have suggested, Ondaatje's textual fabric is not altogether intact.

Blank sections of Cubist canvases can be compared with In the Skin of a Lion's gaps on the page. For example, in ‘The Searcher,’ we encounter the following passage:

On December 16, 1919, Ambrose Small failed to keep an appointment. A million dollars had been taken from his bank account. He had either been murdered or was missing. His body, alive or dead, was never found.

Most criminal investigations in the early part of the century were dignified and leisurely. …


In its blankness, the space Ondaatje leaves between paragraphs graphically conveys the mystery surrounding Small's disappearance; in its interruption of narrative continuity, it suggests the time that normally elapsed before criminal cases were pursued.

Typography itself takes on visual, iconic properties in ‘The Searcher,’ such as when peoples' claims to have discovered Small's whereabouts are recorded in a series of headings and italicized paragraphs that mimic the layout of a newspaper:


Star, May 27, 1921

Remains may be exhumed if further clues come to light.


The format of this excerpt resembles that of the ‘Aeolus’ chapter from James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which is set in a newspaper office. In its iconic properties, the excerpt recalls the concrete poetry of B. P. (Barrie) Nichol.5 Ondaatje responded to Nichol's poetry in a strikingly visual manner in his film Sons of Captain Poetry (1970), by assembling sequences of signs and advertising slogans that echo the playfulness and the visual-verbal puns derived from concrete poetry's typographic experimentation. For instance, he photographs a highway sign for Barrie, Ontario, and a logo for BP gasoline. Just as the spaces on the printed page are made to tell in Ondaatje's novel, the print itself is graphically charged in a way that can be likened to the Cubists' own practice of incorporating letters, words, advertisements, and even scraps of newspapers in their collages.

Gaps in Ondaatje's narrative can be approached in yet another way. If In the Skin of a Lion's indeterminacy emphasizes the lacunae in Ondaatje's text, as I argued earlier, it also creates an ambiguity of meaning. Because the confrontation with Harris is bracketed by descriptions of Patrick falling asleep and waking up, its reality status is thrown into question. (Falling asleep is often used in novels and films to signify that what follows is a dream). To confuse matters further, some of Patrick's actions and dreams anticipate his attempted terrorism at the end of the book, making us uncertain whether the late incidents are being played, replayed, or merely imagined. In the chapter entitled ‘Remorse,’ Patrick swims towards a boat after he has detonated some explosives. We are told that ‘[s]omewhere in his past he has dreamed such a moment: a criminal swimming in darkness to a lighted ship’ (171). An episode in ‘Maritime Theatre’ repeats this process in reverse, and it is scarcely more credible than any of the dreams he recounts; it may even be a dream. In this instance, the various levels of reality that I have discerned suggest this is an ambiguous text, at least in part.

Space in a Cubist painting is highly ambiguous. According to Berger, ‘[t]he space between objects is part of the same structure as the objects themselves. The forms are simply reversed so that, say, the top of a head is a convex element and the adjacent space which it does not fill is a concave element’ (‘The Moment of Cubism,’ 23). The interchangeability of form to which Berger refers describes the kind of figure-ground ambiguity that Steiner has noted in Cubism. Steiner writes: ‘The units in cubist painting, whether in analytic or synthetic phases, were made deliberately ambiguous in their reference, as if to show the semiotic nature of painting where even what reference there is is never direct and simple’ (181). Although she cites only punning, contradiction, parody, and word play as being used to create similar ambiguities in the written text, the previously cited passages in Ondaatje's novel could be said to present multiple levels of reference in their treatment of reality.

From what I have written so far, it might appear that In the Skin of a Lion is full of fragments and fissures. However, Ondaatje's main impulse seems to be more towards connection than fragmentation and any discontinuity is offset by the thematic emphasis Ondaatje places upon communication and interaction, which I shall discuss presently. One might argue that Cubist techniques are notoriously difficult to sustain in prose, on account of their heightened spatial emphasis, and that even those novels that are widely viewed as experimental and as belonging to the literary Cubist genre, such as Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), contain much conventionally linear writing. Ondaatje proposes a similar view: ‘Technically, what's happening in the other arts is much wilder than in the novel. If something unusual happens in a novel, it still gets labelled experimental. Somehow the novel demands a comfort level of realism that is quite high. The equivalent of cubism or abstract expressionism or the subliminal and fluid cutting of film still hasn't been allowed into the novel except on the periphery’ (‘Michael Ondaatje: An Interview,’ 245). It is not surprising, therefore, that although Berger's G. can be seen as a thorough-going Cubist work, it too has many traditional, non-experimental features. But not all of Steiner's canonical literary Cubist characteristics are present in Ondaatje's writing.

In the Skin of a Lion does not contain a tension between representational and non-representational elements, in that it does not deviate as far from a mimetic view of reality as does Berger's G., gaps and indeterminacies notwithstanding. For example, there is no equivalent to the description of G.'s lovers that serve to chart the move from representation to abstraction in the visual arts, thereby introducing notions of literary abstraction into Berger's text. In their physical appearance, G.'s lovers evoke Henri Matisse's Four Bronze Nudes (1910-30), and the nudes themselves enact Matisse's progress from figuration towards abstraction in their reliefs (Simmons, 125-27). Furthermore, In the Skin of a Lion does not take an analytical or objective stance towards reality. If, for Berger in ‘The Moment of Cubism,’ ‘[t]he spirit of Cubism was objective’ (15), he eschews the vagaries of subjective prose in G. in a search for clarity and accuracy that at times results in pedantry, as when he writes: ‘I do not retrospectively exaggerate either the complexity or the density of the content of that half-second’ (330). Such ambiguity as exists in G. is deployed in a deliberate and restricted manner that is nonetheless consistent with Steiner's literary Cubism.6 By contrast, In the Skin of a Lion's prose is typically subjective rather than objective, and it is far more lyrical and sensuous than that of G. If Berger's analytical approach can be seen in the novel's extensive, sustained, and systematic application of Cubist principles, then In the Skin of a Lion's inconsistent use of Cubism indicates Ondaatje's more fluid approach towards writing. Yet, inconsistencies aside, In the Skin of a Lion contains enough that can be related to Cubism's stylistic features—as they are conceived of by both Berger and Steiner—for the analogy to be valid.

Although the style of Ondaatje's novel can only be called Cubist in a qualified sense, its subject matter seems to be underpinned by Berger's idiosyncratic notion of the Cubist historical moment, which extends beyond the confines of formalist art analysis to include an ideological interpretation of the painting and its period. He defines this ‘moment’ as being a period lasting from 1907 to 1914 that was full of promise for the future. In Berger's terms, it was an era of unparalleled technological innovation and social change, in which a wide range of developments converged, to change the meaning of time and space. These include the growth of imperialist and socialist political systems, the founding of modern physics and sociology, the increased use of electricity, the invention of the radio and the cinema, the deployment of mass production and mass publishing techniques, the manufacture of industrial chemicals and synthetics, and the invention of the motor car and the aeroplane. Collectively these developments embodied the revolutionary potential of the modernist era that was cancelled out by the First World War.

Berger's notion of the Cubist moment is relevant to the setting of Ondaatje's novel. It is not difficult, to see that the Prince Edward Viaduct, which was built between 1914 and 1918, belongs to this new epoch of social promise and scientific change. We are told that ‘The bridge goes up in a dream. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. It will carry traffic, water, and electricity across the Don Valley. It will carry trains that have not even been invented yet’ (26). Ondaatje also presents what might be called a ‘moment of convergence,’7 when he makes an indirect link between historical events and literary narration:

Official histories, news stories surrounded us daily, but the events of art reach us too late, travel languorously like messages in a bottle.

Only the best art can record the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become.

Within two years of 1066, work began on the Bayeux Tapestry, Constantin the African brought Greek medicine to the western world. The chaos and tumble of events. The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.’

(146; italics in original)

In juxtaposing statements about 1066 and the plot of the novel, Ondaatje could be said to use a literary technique analogous to the collage method of synthetic Cubist painting, in which a pictorial image is constructed out of heterogeneous materials that previously had not been combined. Indeed, the idea of convergence is conveyed as much by the meaning as by the method of this passage, for the year 1066 itself is described as a convergent moment in the history of the world.

Patrick's realization that Alice had been a nun provides another ‘moment of convergence,’ since this discovery enables him to recognize the extent to which his own life intersects with the lives of others. In narrative terms, it marks the pivotal point at which seemingly disparate episodes converge. Patrick sees Alice, Temelcoff, Clara, Ambrose, and himself as representing ‘fragments of a human order’ for whom ‘the detritus and chaos of the age was realigned’ (145). Moreover, he also calls Toronto's Union Station the ‘nexus of his life’ (209). If we were to chart Patrick's journeys diagrammatically in the novel, they would converge at this geographical point in space, since he travels through the station when he comes to the city as an immigrant, when Clara leaves him, when he sets out for the Muskokas, and when he is released from prison. Hence, In the Skin of a Lion's notions of convergence can be identified in thematic, formal, temporal, and spatial terms.

For Berger, the effect of the technological and social developments that define the Cubist historical moment was philosophically far-reaching. There was an unprecedented ‘extension through time and space of human power and knowledge’ that profoundly altered our apprehension of the world (‘The Moment of Cubism,’ 6). No longer was the world as a totality a mere abstraction, but it became realizable. This change had two consequences, in Berger's view. First, ‘man was able to extend himself indefinitely beyond the immediate: he took over the territory in space and time where God had been presumed to exist’ (7; italics in original). Second, with regard to the relation of the self to the secularized world, ‘There was no longer any essential discontinuity between the individual and the general. The invisible and the multiple no longer intervened between each individual and the world’ (8).

Concerning the first consequence, both the Prince Edward Viaduct and Nicholas Temelcoff could be said to literally take over the ‘territory in space and time’ which God was thought to occupy by spanning and charting space:

He does not really need to see things, he has charted all that space, knows the pier footings, the width of all the cross-walks in terms of seconds of movement—281 feet and 6 inches make up the central span of the bridge. … He knows the precise height he is over the river. … It does not matter if it is day or night, he could be blindfolded. Black space is time. After swinging for three seconds he puts his feet up to link with the concrete edge of the next pier He knows his position in the air as if he is mercury slipping across a map.


The novel places great emphasis on the way that Temelcoff measures space in what can be read as a process of demystification. Like Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of the Vitruvian man, which epitomizes the Renaissance humanist tradition, Temelcoff makes the universe commensurate with the proportions and movements of his own body. In so doing, he renders the unknown knowable, and, hence, he displays the materialist attitude to reality that Berger associates with the Cubist moment.

Certain other aspects of the Cubists' materialist treatment of space can be related to In the Skin of a Lion. When I discussed the ambiguity of space in a Cubist painting earlier, I referred to an interchangeability of form, in which ‘[t]he space between objects is part of the same structure as the objects themselves.’ Not only is Cubism concerned with the ‘interaction between objects,’ and with the ambiguities of concave and convex (or positive and negative space), but this idea of interjacency can be carried still further (Berger, ‘The Moment of Cubism,’ 23). Berger writes that by reducing form to geometric shapes arranged on a flat surface, the Cubists created a fragmentation of form that was offset by a continuity of structure. In Berger's terms, Cubist space does not ‘dissolve’ the surface of the picture plane, but is as solid as the objects themselves, thereby emphasizing the materiality of the canvas on which the objects are painted. Hence, space is ‘part of the continuity of the events within it. It is in itself an event, comparable with other events. It is not a mere container’ (23).

Such philosophical and pictorial characteristics can be compared with In the Skin of a Lion's treatment of space, with which the novel's themes of communication and interaction are associated. Moreover, the second consequence that Berger identifies as arising out of the technological and social developments coterminous with Cubism, in which [‘t]here was no longer any essential discontinuity between the individual and the general,’ can be related to the way Patrick aligns himself with others. Ondaatje describes Patrick as an isolated, imaginative boy who is locked within an individual self. He wants to share in the sense of community he sees existing between the men, who, by skating on the lake at night carrying flaming cattails, manage to outline and inhabit the space they occupy. He also tries to converse with damsel flies, by using his ocarina ‘to give himself a voice, something to leap with over the wall of this place’ (10). Patrick travels from the country to the city as an immigrant, because this position as outsider accords with his alienated state. We are told that he was

Born in Abashed, Ontario. What did the word mean? Something that suggested there was a terrible horizon in him beyond which he couldn't leap. Something hollow, so when alone, when not aligned with another—whether it was Ambrose or Clara or Alice—he could hear the rattle within that suggested a space between him and community. A gap of love.


The reference to ‘Abashed, Ontario’ suggests that Patrick's lack of connection could be attributed to his Anglo, colonial heritage. It is only by associating with people of other ethnic origins that Patrick is able to fill in the spaces between himself and others and to define himself within a social and cultural context. It is his love for Alice and her Macedonian community that provides him with the alignment for which he longs. Like the ‘horizon in him beyond which he couldn't leap’ and the ‘space between him and the community,’ this connection is conceived of in spatial terms.

Ondaatje describes the romantic bond between Patrick and Alice in a similarly spatialized manner:

They sit in a field. They sit in the red and yellow and gold decor of the restaurant, empty in the late afternoon but for them. Hunger and desire spiriting him across the city, onto trolley after trolley, in order to reach her arm, her neck, this Chinese restaurant, that Macedonian café, this field he is now in the centre of with her. There are country houses on the periphery so they have walked to its centre, the distant point, to be alone.


The ‘field’ can be taken as both a literal reference to geographical setting and as a figurative allusion to the spatial dimension in which the lovers exist. Indeed, there is slippage between the two. The first use of ‘field’ appears to be physical and specific to a particular place, but the subsequent listing of locations suggests that the lovers also occupy a metaphorical, geometrical space, the locations charting a cartography of desire across the city. In this second sense, the city exists for the lovers as a series of meeting points, or locations where their lines of movement intersect. When Patrick and Alice walk to the centre of the field to be alone, which is described as being ‘distant’ from the houses on its periphery, their actions once again can be seen as referring to a literal, geographical and a figurative, spatial dimension. That is, besides traversing an actual field, the lovers also redefine the relationship between centre and margin relative to their own position, or point, in space. What was once peripheral becomes central, while simultaneously remaining distant from that which is anterior to their relationship (indicated in physical terms by the country houses on the edge of the field).

Metaphors of horizon and field are also used to denote the dimensions of space in a painting, a space which, in formal terms, is charged by the interaction between objects depicted within its boundaries. Thus, in the passage cited above, ‘field’ can also be read as a pictorial reference. In a painting with an illusionistic treatment of space based on linear, one-point perspective, if the lovers were to be depicted in the centre of the spatial field, they would be located at the vanishing point, that ‘distant’ point on the horizon where orthogonals converge. But, because they change their position in space, redefining the centre in relation to wherever they themselves are located, they suggest the existence of the multiple viewpoints that are the hallmark of Cubism.

The suggestion of agency in my remarks about the lovers is significant, because it is only after Patrick chooses to align himself with another that he is able to command the space around him. He subsequently learns to take possession of and to activate his own space, as the description of Patrick in Toronto's Union Station suggests:

This cathedral-like space was the nexus of his life. He had been twenty-one when he arrived in this city. Here he watched Clara leave him, walking past that sign to the left of the ramp which said HORIZON. Look up, Clara had said when she had left him for Ambrose, you know what that stone is? He had been lost in their situation, not caring. It's Missouri Zumbro. Remember that. The floors are Tennessee marble. He looked up. …

He felt like the weight on the end of a plumb-bob hanging from the very centre of the grand rotunda, the absolute focus of the building. Slowly his vision began to swing. He turned his head to the left to the right to the left, discovering the horizon.

(209-10; italics in original)

In the context of this passage, the horizon serves as a symbol of aspiration, for it is only after Patrick has literally raised his sights that he discovers the horizon and extends his vision, in both senses of the word. Also, the horizon's infinite nature could be said to evoke the boundless possibilities which which he is confronted.

Such discussion of ideals is relevant to Union Station, since its Great hall was seen as embodying the aspirations of a people. Designed by the Montreal firm of Ross and MacDonald and by the Toronto associate architect John M. Lyle in 1913, and constructed between 1915 and 1919, this monumental building was hailed as the ‘Temple of Demos’ (Richardson, 69). It was also regarded as the symbolic gateway to metropolitan Toronto, which is how it functions for Patrick, the ‘immigrant to the city’ (53). Although the sign that says ‘HORIZON,’ to which the narrative refers, is invented, the frieze inscribed above the cornice on the walls of the Great Hall is not. This frieze records the names of the cities on the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk railways from east coast to west coast. Besides suggesting limitless possibilities of travel and exploration, this list of names indicates the unifying function of a station built to connect the two major transcontinental railroads, as the name Union Station implies. Thus, the frieze also, in effect, celebrates national identity. Indeed, John Lyle's architecture is known for its inclusion of nationalist, Canadian motifs within an internationalist, Beaux Arts idiom (Boddy, 11-12). In its emphasis upon grand public buildings, the Beaux Arts tradition itself bears testimony to an aspiration for beauty and an elevation above the commonplace; hence, Lyle's use of expensive materials like Missouri Zumbro and Tennessee marble. By insisting that Patrick remember the names of these stones, Clara implicitly draws their inspirational qualities to his attention.

Ondaatje continues the building analogy by comparing Patrick with a ‘plumb-bob hanging from the very centre of the grand rotunda.’ This image probably derives from specific architectural motifs; most obviously, the shape of the plumb-bob rhymes visually with that of the pendulous light fixture hanging in the same position in Union Station. The description of the plumb-bob also recalls a city archive photograph of Thomas Pomphrey,8 the architect of the R. C. Harris Water Filtration Plant—the other grand, Beaux Arts edifice feature in Ondaatje's novel—which was conceived in the 1920s and was initially constructed between 1932 and 1941. Taken in 1935 by Arthur Goss, this photograph shows a formally attired Pomphrey standing beneath a similar light fitting which hangs from an ocular skylight in the centre of the filtration building. With one hand placed on an elegant Art Deco clock that occupies the middle of that rotunda, Pomphrey claims the space with a proprietorial air appropriate to an architect working in the heroic, modernist tradition of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.9

Of course, the notion of using a hanging object to form the symbolic and perspectival focus of a building belongs to a much older pictorial iconographic tradition, which includes Piero della Francesca's Brera Madonna (1472-74). In this painting, the Virgin is seated directly under an egg suspended on a silver cord from the centre of an apse. Not only does the egg denote her divinity, by symbolizing the immaculate conception, but it also visually directs our attention to the Madonna, who forms the architectural focus of the painting, her face constituting the point at which its orthogonals converge.10 Thus, like Patrick, she is ‘the absolute focus of the building.’

Besides recalling specific architectural motifs, the plumb-bob resonates with other images within In the Skin of a Lion's narrative. For instance, it recalls the descriptions of Nicholas Temelcoff rescuing the nun. Like the plumb-bob with which Patrick compares himself in Union Station, Temelcoff is suspended ‘in mid-air under the central arch’ of the bridge, and, when he catches her, she forms a ‘new weight’ on the end of his rope (31). Just as in narrative terms the figure of Temelcoff joins what might be called the three principal stories, or lines of action, involving Patrick, Alice, and Caravaggio, he also performs a crucial connective function in the building of the Prince Edward Viaduct: ‘He is a spinner. He links everyone. He meets them as they cling—braced by wind against the metal they are riveting of the wood sheeting they hammer into’ (34-35). Temelcoff is often portrayed as the pivotal figure in this construction, in the centre of an arch, or banging the ‘crown pin’ into position (34). As quoted at the beginning of this article, Ondaatje writes: ‘He floats at the three hinges of the crescent-shaped steel arches. These knit the bridge together. The moment of cubism' (34). The last phrase refers not only to the title of Berger's essay but also to the engineering term for the tendency of a body to rotate in space around a fixed point, which is likewise referred to as a ‘moment.’ The movement that Temelcoff's body describes in space as he rescues the nun enacts this tendency and it forms a perfect coalescence—or ‘moment of convergence’—between Ondaatje's and Berger's writing.


  1. Others have remarked on Ondaatje's intertextual method. See, for example, Acheson (107) and Duffy (135).

  2. This article is a revised and expanded version of a paper called ‘The Influence of John Berger's “The Moment of Cubism” on Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion,’ which I presented at the Canadian Comparative Literature Association conference in 1989.

  3. See Sarris and Ingelbien.

  4. These points are taken from my doctoral thesis entitled ‘John Berger's G. as a Cubist Novel’ (1994).

  5. These references are not as disparate as they seem. Steiner includes Joyce's writing in her Cubist analogy (179) and she states: ‘There is no clearer working out of a cubist ideology than concrete poetry’ (197).

  6. Steiner equates Cubist ambiguity with polyvalence. G. is not polyvalent in the way that, say, the ‘Penelope’ chapter from Joyce's Ulysses is, with its free-wheeling association and polysemous flow. However, G., which tends towards the metaphoric pole of linguistic expression, is polyvalent in the sense that David Lodge proposes. He claims that the central assertion that nothing is simply one thing is implicit in the very structure of metaphor (495). With their double meanings, Berger's tautologies and puns can also be viewed as polyvalent or ambiguous.

  7. For Berger, the Cubist historical moment qualifies as one of those rare ‘moments of convergence’ in which ‘numerous developments enter a period of similar qualitative change, before diverging into a multiplicity of new terms’ (‘The Moment of Cubism,’ 6). In this process of convergence, two or more elements are identified with one another and merge to form a totality.

  8. See Baird (22) for a reproduction of this photograph.

  9. Although Pomphrey's work belongs to the Beaux Arts tradition, the portrayal of Pomphrey the man in Ondaatje's novel invokes the image of the heroic modernist architect as visionary genius.

  10. As a point of interest, there is a visual resemblance between the coffered barrel vault in the Great Hall of Union Station, as seen from the west, and the vault of the apse in this painting.

Works Cited

Acheson, Katherine. ‘Anne Wilkinson in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion: Writing and Reading Class.’ Canadian Literature 145 (1995), 107-19

Baird, George. ‘WaterWorks: A Commentary.’ Art Views 14:2-3 (1988), 16-22

Berger, John. ‘The Moment of Cubism.’ The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1969, 1-32

———. ‘The Changing View of Man in the Portrait.’ Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things. Ed Nikos Stangos. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1972, 35-41

———. G. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1972

———. The Success and Failure of Picasso. 1965. London: Writers and Readers 1980

Boddy, Trevor. ‘Regionalism, Nationalism and Modernism: The Ideology of Decoration in the Work of John M. Lyle.’ Trace 1:1 (1981), 8-15

Duffy, Dennis. ‘A Wrench in Time: A Sub-Sub-Librarian Looks beneath In the Skin of a Lion.Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994), 125-40

Ingelbien, Raphael. ‘A Novelist's Caravaggism: Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.The Guises of Canadian Diversity: New European Perspectives/Les Masques de la diversité canadienne: Nouvelle Perspectives Européenes. Ed Serge Jaumain and Marc Mauford. Amsterdam: Rodopi 1995, 27-37

Joyce, James. Ulysses. 1922. Corrected Text. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986

Lodge, David. ‘The Language of Modernist Fiction: Metaphor and Metonymy.’ Modernism, 1890-1930. Ed Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1976, 481-96.

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1987

———. ‘An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.’ With Sam Solecki. 1984. In Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Ed Sam Solecki. Montreal: Véhicule Press 1985, 321-32

———. ‘Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.’ With Catherine Bush. 1990. Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994), 238-49

Richardson, Douglas. ‘“A Blessed Sense of Civil Excess”: The Architecture of Union Station.’ The Open Gate: Toronto Union Station. Ed Richard Bébout. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates 1972, 67-95

Sarris, Fotios. ‘In the Skin of a Lion: Michael Ondaatje's Tenebristic Narrative.’ Essays on Canadian Writing 44 (1991), 183-201

Simmons, Rochelle. ‘John Berger's G. as a Cubist Novel.’ Ph.D. dissertation. University of Toronto 1994

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Random House 1933

Steiner, Wendy. The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1982

Michael O'Neill (review date 5 February 1999)

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SOURCE: O'Neill, Michael. “Gazes in the Mirror-World.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5001 (5 February 1999): 33.

[In the following review, O'Neill assesses the technique, language, and themes of Handwriting.]

When Hana plays the piano in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient, she is described as “just chording sound, reducing melody to a skeleton”. It is a description that might be applied to Ondaatje's latest volume of poems. By contrast with his fiction, and its lust for a kinetic sensuousness, these poems seem less to flesh out than to suggest. Floating and juxtaposing phrases in the manner of Pound's Cantos or Gary Snyder's Zen-like notations, they often possess the wiry lightness of a sketch. And yet the poems in Handwriting reveal, in their return to Sri Lanka, the poet's birthplace, the sixth-sense awareness of danger which makes vivid the piano-playing episode in The English Patient, where Hana is watched by Kip, the sapper, who had been on tenterhooks in case her metronome had been booby-trapped.

It hadn't, but risk and threat are abundantly present in the novel, most keenly so, as in this instance, when an incident is replayed from another perspective. In the poems, too, Ondaatje keeps us in suspense, never settling for a single note. A much earlier poem, “King Kong Meets Wallace Stevens,” in which “the naked brain” confronts “the bellow of locked blood”, sets up poles between which many of Ondaatje's poems continue to move in Handwriting. The collection interweaves admiration for art, civility, myth and love with consciousness of morality, “old darknesses”, and the murderousness of history. Its opening poem, “A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade,” shapes a plangent, whimsical narrative of loss:

We believed in the intimate life, an inner self.
A libertine was one who made love before nightfall
or without darkening the room.

True to Ondaatje's double vision, “handwriting” in the volume is both an emblem of creativity and a sign of necessary change. In “The Distance of a Shout,” the speaker is a representative of those who lived “during the ancient age of the winds”, for whom “Handwriting occurred on waves, / on leaves, the scripts of smoke”, and then, breaking the flow of natural phenomena, as “a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River”. The “gradual acceptance of this new language” sounds less than wholehearted. Elsewhere, handwriting gives less ambivalent evidence of a rage for order. In “The Great Tree,” Ondaatje begins with an elegiac line “composed and ribboned / in cursive script” by a fourteenth-century poet (Yang Weizheim) for a painter (Zou Fulei). Here, as throughout the volume, the free verse is a supple vehicle for eddyings and distillations of feeling and theme. Phrases recur with subtle variations, while expert use is made of the emphasized pauses between each unit of utterance. Like Yang Weizheim's “great work”, Ondaatje's own poem reveals “no flamboyant movement” as it imagines a state of absorbed concentration, “A night of smoky ink in 1361 / a night without a staircase”.

Yet the collection is wary of allowing imaginative triumphs the final word. Violence, past and present, circles the edges of its poems, rendering any security precarious. When an autobiographical voice emerges in the third section, it is full of sorrow, as the poet thinks of his “ayah Rosalin”: “Who abandoned who, I wonder now”, the poem ends. Other poems allude darkly to “goon squads” or to “Those whose bodies / could not be found”.

But the metaphor of reincarnation casts a shadowy glow of solace over the poems, as in the prose piece “Death at Kataragama.” For Ondaatje, as for the Keats of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, artistic form modifies into its own likeness the restless “formlessness” of experience. In “Last Ink,” the volume's concluding poem, Ondaatje brings to a focus his concern with the representation of vision:

Years later you shared it
on a scroll or nudged
the ink onto stone
to hold the vista of a life.

The writing is balanced on a knife-edge, calculatedly so; the “vista” is at once epiphanic and at a distance from “life”. The poem celebrates “this mirror-world of art”, yet when it speaks of “lying on it as if a bed”, the implication is of a comfortless predicament. Still, in the closing lines of a tense yet fluid collection, Ondaatje guardedly renews his commitment to a mirror-world in which it is possible to see reflected the desire to “break through or leap”.

David Roxborough (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Roxborough, David. “The Gospel of Almàsy: Christian Mythology in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.Essays in Canadian Writing, no. 67 (spring 1999): 236-54.

[In the following essay, Roxborough explicates the significance of Christian imagery and alternating mythical identities of the characters in The English Patient, tracing a narrative subtext that closely parallels elements of the New Testament.]

Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?

—Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (137)

In an article on the elements of Arthurian romance in The English Patient, Bill Fledderus competently analyzes the parallels between Michael Ondaatje's novel and the themes and characters involved in the fabled quest for the holy grail. Although the “holiness” of the grail gives the retrieval process substantial religious significance, Fledderus concentrates on the ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of the quest, limiting direct discussion of Christian myth to a few relatively brief statements. While it is clear that elements of Arthurian romance exist in the novel, they function within a much larger religious framework that deserves close analysis. In order to comprehend the wealth of the “timeless or continually reinterpretable truths” (Fledderus 21) Ondaatje displays in his text, one must examine the meaningful panoply of Christian images that engage the reader and demand interpretation. Ondaatje's persistent allusiveness to the sacred myth produces a web of correlation in which his novel is exalted by appropriating the unique holy status of Christian imagery. The correlation is inevitably imperfect, however, and the resulting contrast between holy myth and impious action evolves into a subtly acerbic criticism of an increasingly debased, demythologized world.

In addition to explicit references to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and numerous Christian symbols, Ondaatje's characters adopt and exchange shifting mythical identities. The interaction of these identities and the collection of scattered images they contribute allows for the subtextual development of a narrative that culminates in an essential reenactment of the New Testament.


A discussion of Christian imagery in The English Patient may easily turn into a work of encyclopaedic proportions. The wealth of explicit reference, intimation, and imagery evoked through the process of word or image association is overpowering and must be addressed. Any relegation of pertinent religious imagery will return to haunt the reader later in the story and detract from the fruitful reading it makes possible.

Ondaatje defines his idea of myth as being “biblical, surreal, brief, imagistic” (“O'Hagan's” [“O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle”] 25), and his treatment of Christian myth in The English Patient readily conforms to this definition. The first of the four elements mentioned is especially relevant in my analysis, since the Bible is the original source of all Christian imagery and a source from which Ondaatje steadily borrows.

Much of the novel's action, pieced together from Almásy's recollections at the Villa San Girolamo, takes place in a desert atmosphere. “We were desert Europeans” (135) says Almásy, as he dictates his group's journey in search of the lost oasis of Zerzura. Deserts, sandstorms, and treks with camels across miles of uncharted “fire and sand” (139) furnish Almásy's narrative as he recounts his experience; “It was a place of faith” (139). The desert was definitely “a place of faith” if one remembers the abundant desert imagery of the Old Testament. The Israelites refer to “the Lord that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt” (Jer. 2:6).1 Considering the theme of mapmaking and orientation in the novel, Isaiah 40:3 is especially relevant: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The khamsin, one of the sandstorms listed by Almásy as “the ninth plague of Egypt” (16), is a reference to the plague of darkness as recorded in Exodus 10:21-29 (Alexander and Alexander 159). When Almásy lapses into third-person narration near the end of the novel, he refers to himself as being “lost in another Egypt” (245). When his burning plane crashes in the desert sands, members of a nomadic Bedouin tribe,2 reminiscent of the children of Israel, administer healing oils that save his life. Hana is also linked with these desert nomads: “She herself preferred to be nomadic in the house with her pallet or hammock, sleeping sometimes in the English patient's room, sometimes in the hall, depending on temperature or wind or light” (13).

Ad de Vries refers to the desert as “the place to which the prophets return,” “the place of divine revelation,” and the place “to regain purity and ascetic spiritualism” (133). Almásy links himself with “one of those mad desert prophets” (251), and states: “I am a man who fasts until I see what I want” (258). In a particularly important scene, Almásy acknowledges that “there is God only in the desert” (250). This scene hearkens back to the beginning of the novel, where the Bedouin (or Hana—the scene is deliberately ambiguous) attempt to learn the identity of the burned man:

Who are you?

I don't know. You keep asking me.

You said you were English.


At the “backside of the desert” (Exod. 3:1), Moses has a similar encounter with God, whose voice emanates from a burning bush:

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

(Exod. 3:13-14)

Viewed together, the two scenes have remarkable similarities, and Ondaatje's text resonates with significance in association with the mythical story, which contributes a sacred element to an otherwise Godless event. Ondaatje's implicit comparison of Moses, the deliverer of God's chosen people, with Almásy, a burn victim of uncertain origins, seems inexplicable, perhaps even bizarre. The implausibility of the connection is key to understanding its significance. The disparity between the mythical figure and the faceless, mythless man is symptomatic of what William C. Johnson Jr. calls “a language and culture infected by so much misplaced empiricism, agnosticism, and imaginative stagnation” (31). The mythological subtext illuminates a story—and by extension the social environment that influenced its creation—that is regrettably, but not necessarily, without a vital myth. Ondaatje's method of allowing his characters to adopt the characteristics of Christian mythological figures does more than lend them a temporary grandeur: it is a provocative statement concerning the loss of sacred origins and the diminishing potential of humanity to create or recover a dynamic, meaningful myth.

In addition to the specific desert scenes, Ondaatje echoes other elements of Christian myth from the Old Testament. The Villa San Girolamo is an Eden-like sanctuary, isolated from the horrors of the war that has mutilated the neighbouring countryside and continues to propagate destruction outside of Italy. In an interview, Ondaatje refers to the villa as “an Eden, an escape, a little cul-de-sac during the war. … Then with the news of other bombs, suddenly this became, perhaps, the last Eden” (“Interview” [“An Interview with Michael Ondaatje”] 252). In keeping with the Eden myth, the novel begins with Hana (Eve) standing up “in the garden” (3), and ends with Kip passing Caravaggio while leaving the villa: “halfway down the path to the gate, Caravaggio was waiting for him, carrying the gun. He didn't even lift it formally towards the motorbike when the boy slowed down, as Caravaggio walked into his path” (289). Compare a passage in Genesis when God expels Adam from Eden: “So he drove out the man: and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (4:24). Caravaggio adopts the role of the cherub and, substituting a rifle for the flaming sword, symbolically blocks the entrance to “the last Eden” following the completion of the atomic sin.

Associated with Eden, but not happening in the villa itself, is Almásy's identification of the guns for the Bedouin (20), which parallels Adam's naming of created things: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Gen. 2:19). Caravaggio strips himself naked (as were the innocent Adam and Eve) in order to retrieve the photographic film (37), and during this retrieval “his left hand waves to the ceiling of cherubs” (38) as if prophesying their symbolic kinship at the novel's conclusion. With his service binoculars, Kip views “a twig from the Tree of Good and Evil inserted into the mouth of the dead Adam” (70), and Almásy views Katherine “with the eye of Adam” (144).

Almásy's experience with the Bedouin evokes yet another Old Testament story. His travels into “villages … where there are no women” (21) leads to an apparently homoerotic encounter with a naked dancing boy: “there is a boy dancing, who in this light is the most desirable thing he has seen. … Then the fire is sanded over, its smoke withering around them” (22-23). The intimated idea of sexual transgression and the accompanying imagery awakens images of the “wicked cities” of Sodom and Gomorah: “[Abraham] looked toward Sodom and Gomorah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace” (Gen. 19:28). The aftermath of God's destruction is seen in miniature, with smoke rising from the extinguished fire reproducing the smouldering remains of the two destroyed cities.

Ondaatje continuously uses religious language to describe his characters' actions and appearances, effectively reinforcing the framework of biblical images he expands throughout the novel. Almásy is a “despairing saint” (3) who is “anointed” and placed on “an altar of hammock” (6). The Bedouin merchant doctor is “a baptist” (10), Caravaggio has “wings” (48), as does Kip (128), and Katherine has a “pale aureole” (158) on her arm, which, according to Webster's dictionary, may be defined “as a radiant light around the head or body of a representation of a sacred personage.” In addition, Katherine's “shroud” unfurls in the cockpit (175), and Caravaggio expresses his belief that “there is more to discover, to divine out of [Almásy's] body on the bed” (247; emphasis added). The entire novel is saturated with references to churches, monasteries, and nunneries (including the Villa San Girolamo), and chapter 8 is entitled “The Holy Forest.” Some of the many other visual allusions to the Bible, especially the New Testament, will be addressed later. The allusions satiate the reader's “melancholic or nostalgic longing for pre-apocalyptic stability,” a longing that Josef Pesch believes common in characters in postapocalyptic literature (119), by providing a cohesive clarity lacking in the novel's fragmented and ambiguous action. When Pesch asks “is it not that [Ondaatje's characters] need stories to confirm the coherence and significance of their apocalyptic experiences as antidote to complete nihilism and despair?” (Pesch 122), the same question may be asked equally of the reader. Ondaatje furnishes these needed mythological stories with a barrage of imagery and words concerning biblical scenes or characters that fall like a wave upon the unsuspecting reader, washing away any preconceptions and establishing a firm foundation in a mythologically Christian world.


The vivid image of Almásy's burning plane crashing in the desert gripped Ondaatje's imagination and acted as a catalyst for the writing of The English Patient (“Interview” 253-54). It also draws from a profound extrabiblical source of biblical imagery, John Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton's work, an extensive literary truncation and elaboration of Christian myth, is cited in Ondaatje's list of acknowledgements and preeminently supplements the Bible with its imagistic contributions to the novel.

Almásy's declaration that he “fell burning into the desert” (5) immediately recalls Milton's image of Satan “Hurld headlong flaming from th'Ethereal Skie / With hideous ruine and combustion down / To bottomless perdition …” (I.45-47). While Satan is not literally “burning” as he unwillingly descends into Hell, he soon experiences “… a fiery Deluge, fed / With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd” (I.68-69). To extend the metaphor, Almásy's desert is his Hell, and the Bedouin mimic Satan's fallen comrades. If one considers the fact that, according to Milton, the rebellious angels invented artillery (see PL [Paradise Lost] VI.482-91), Almásy's identification of the firearms (20) fits well with this metaphorical model. When Almásy adds that “it was the time of the war in heaven” (5), he evokes not only Revelations 12:7-9 but also Milton's extended treatment of the war in Heaven in Paradise Lost.

Milton's influence continues when Almásy catalogues and comments upon the different existing sandstorms (16-17) in a scene similar to Milton's extensive identification of demons (I.391-490). The Bedouin medicine man resembles “a wave of glass, an archangel” (9), such as Michael or Gabriel, who lead god's forces in the war in Heaven (VI.44-47, Milton's source being Rev. 12:7). In keeping with the Eden-like atmosphere of the Villa San Girolamo discussed above, Hana declares, “someday there would be a bower of limes, rooms of green light” (42), stimulating visions of Adam and Eve's “blissful Bower” with its “… odorous bushie shrub / Fenc'd up the verdant wall …” (IV.690, 696-97). “The Villa San Girolamo, built to protect inhabitants from the flesh of the devil” (42), is designed to be an Eden-like sanctuary, impregnable to evil. Its vulnerability is demonstrated, however, by Kip, who brings evil news with him when he announces the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (284). He infects the villa with his news just as easily as Satan enters Eden: “At one slight bound high over leap'd all bound / Of Hill or highest Wall, and sheer within / Lights on his feet …” (IV.181-83).

Within Eden, Satan continues his evil agenda by polluting Eve's dreams with his “inspiring venom,” “Assaying with his Devilish art to reach / The Organs of her Fancie, and with them forge / Illusions as he list, Phantasms and Dreams” (IV.804, 801-03). Hana relinquishes her role as Eve to Katherine as another parallel materializes. Katherine contemplates: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Towards a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams” (150). Satan (Almásy) infects Eve's (Katherine's) dreams. Katherine awakes frightened next to her husband (149) as Eve awakes “with startl'd eye” next to Adam (V.26). In a separate passage that includes a direct quote from Paradise Lost, Almásy understands himself and Katherine as mirroring Adam and Eve: “I see her still, always, with the eye of Adam” (144).

In a passage with uncanny precedence in Milton's work, Kip defuses an unexploded bomb in a Hell-like atmosphere: “Somehow, earlier on, surrounded by arc lights, and in his fury, he had withdrawn the sheared second fuze out of the booby-trap. In the sulphureous darkness under the bombing raid he witnessed the white-green flash the size of his hand” (198). The gloomy environment and sibilant language immediately arouse visions of Hell as described in Book I of Paradise Lost. Compare especially Milton's initial description:

At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd.


The echoes of Paradise Lost in Ondaatje's novel, read and envisioned in conjunction with the Old Testament allusions discussed above, establish and maintain a Christian mythological atmosphere in which Ondaatje's characters exist and interact. In his biography of William Blake, a poet and artist who admired Milton and whose work is dominated by biblical motifs, Peter Ackroyd comments upon a particular illustrated poem: “he has deliberately modelled it upon the assembly of Satan and his legions in the second book of Paradise Lost. Thus he is able to give epic cadence and dignity to current events” (166). Ondaatje's inclusion of Christian and Miltonic elements in The English Patient performs a similar function: association with distinguished works of the past allows for an appropriation of part of their glory, an “epic cadence and dignity.” Similarly, an established continuity of imagery potentially secures for the more recent work a privileged position in the mind of the reader. Its ability to trigger treasured, recognizable images is a valuable quality, in addition to whatever social, political, or spiritual significance such allusions may have. His use of a mythology fully absorbed or immediately recognizable by most readers procures for his characters “brief, imagistic” bursts of significance, qualities that are difficult or impossible to create with any other means. But Ondaatje's system of myth is “imagistic,” not allegorical, and transient connections exist only long enough for the reader to notice their significance. After the connection is made, the character is free to borrow other mythological robes, allowing previous ones to accumulate and ceaselessly resonate in the reader's mind. It is these resonating flashes of myth that supply the material for Ondaatje's complex religious framework.


Characters in The English Patient are not passive recipients of religious dogma, nor are they mere automata playing roles in a grandiose biblical theatrical presentation. In addition to mirroring biblical myth, characters engage and question the myth's ideological basis in imagery that is often startling and confrontational. Religious images are depicted ambiguously or juxtaposed with negative images that cannot but sully the faith's pretensions of purity. Apart from its obvious practical function, the constant shift and change of mythical identity—in which a single character may become both saint and Satan in the space of a few pages—presents uncertainty that is symptomatic of internal struggle.

The most significant instance of negative presentation is when Hana constructs a scarecrow out of a crucifix: “She worked in the garden and orchard. She carried the six-foot crucifix from the bombed chapel and used it to build a scarecrow above her seedbed, hanging empty sardine cans from it which clattered and clanked whenever the wind lifted” (14). Peter Angeles describes the important role of the cross in the Christian faith: “The cross is an emblem of that on which Christ died and of the church he founded. The cross is the principal instrument of the Passion of Christ and is a sign of his suffering and laying down his life in sacrifice, by means of which humans have been given redemption and salvation” (66). Hana uses the holiest of Christian symbols to scare birds. “Empty sardine cans” stand in stark contrast to the rich ornamentation with which many churches and religious artists display the cross. The poignant, perhaps even sacrilegious relegation of the cross to the position of repellent or frightening totem violates the sanctity of the image and suggests a similar resistance in the mind of Hana. Hana's father's bizarre equation of a dog's paw and a cathedral (8) similarly denigrates the holiness of the latter. Dog paws and sardine cans fail to uphold the glory of God to say the least.

Hana articulates her frustration fed by the incongruity of faith and circumstance: “Who the hell were we to be given the responsibility, expected to be as wise as old priests, to know how to lead people towards something no one wanted and make them feel comfortable. I could never believe in all those services they have for the dead. Their vulgar rhetoric. How dare they! How dare they talk like that about a human being dying” (84). Hana questions the possible coexistence of a war in which she encounters men “with just bits of their bodies” (83), where nurses “carry a severed arm down a hall, or swab at blood that never stopped” (41), and a God who is all powerful and promises a glorious life to the faithful. Hana's horrific memories seem to erase the plausibility of religious faith. As a result, she becomes desensitized to emotional suffering and closed to the idea of its alleviation through religion.

The coupling of war with religion pervades The English Patient. The Villa San Girolamo was a nunnery prior to being demolished by bombs, and wounded men were often housed in monasteries or basilicas (51). “The cross hairs shook along the biblical figures …” as Kip views religious art through the scope of a rifle, in act that he “knew was outrageous in this sanctuary” (77). The “Holy Trinity” of Miss Morden, Fred Harts, and Lord Suffolk are “blown up” by a bomb they attempt to defuse (178), and Madox commits suicide during a church service that advocates war (240). Kip recalls “naive Catholic images” as he nervously awaits the outcome of a defusing mission that may destroy him (278). Almásy's oxymoronic reference to the Bedouin as “captors and saviours” (22) underscores the ambiguous state of religion in the novel: may a liberating saviour bind one as well? Is the liberation itself binding? The incongruous image of saviour as jailer is perplexing and irreconcilable within the traditional framework of Christian mythology.

In contradistinction to the sixth commandment—“thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13)—war becomes intimately linked with religion in a manner that suggests a pattern of cause and effect. War follows religion. Religion follows war. Religion is war. All three relationships are intimated as the attributes of war and the attributes of religion become the attributes of both as a result of continual affiliation.

While war may pose difficult theodicial obstacles for Hana, and perhaps for the reader who absorbs all of the unholy juxtapositions, Almásy expresses his confrontational belief before the war begins: “When we parted for the last time, Madox used the old farewell. ‘May God make safety your companion.’ And I strode away from him saying, ‘There is no God.’ We were utterly unlike each other” (240-41). Almásy's declaration of atheism is an inappropriate response to a departing friend. In what seems a deliberate act of antagonism, he comments upon a Godless world and the idiocy of his companion for believing otherwise. Almásy's irreligious beliefs are noted earlier in the novel by Katherine, who comments upon his self-fashioned iconoclasm (173). Almásy once again appropriates the role of Satan, whose name literally means “adversary.” Accordingly, he is said to have been in a “zone of limbo between city and plateau” (246; emphasis added), a place that is, according to extrabiblical Catholicism, closer to Hell than earth.

A few pages later, Almásy modifies his belief: “there is God only in the desert, he wanted to acknowledge that now” (250). The amendment is made in the third person, as if Almásy wishes distance between his past and presents selves. He is a reluctant convert and admits his conversion only after recalling his necessary abandonment of Katherine in the Cave of Swimmers (249). In a time of extreme emotional stress, Almásy needs to believe for Katherine's sake: “it is important to die in holy places. That was one of the secrets of the desert” (260). As a result, his language becomes mystical as he contemplates the afterlife of his beloved: “a stone or found metal box or bone can become loved and turn eternal in a prayer. Such glory of this country she enters now and becomes part of” (261). The extreme nature of Almásy's religious conversion may be seen in his preparation of Katherine's body for death in a sort of primitive ritual: “herbs and stones and light and the ash of acacia to make her eternal. The body pressed against sacred colour” (260-61). Almásy's shift from professed atheism to primitive ritual is sudden and impassioned and fortified with conviction. The mounting climax of his life with Katherine is dotted with references to his own beliefs: “I do not believe I entered a cursed land, or that I was ensnared in a situation that was evil” (257); “I believe this. When we meet those we fall in love with, there is an aspect of our spirit that is historian” (259); “I have lived in the desert for years and I have come to believe such things” (259); “I believe in such cartography” (261). Almásy's multiple statements concerning his beliefs near the end of the novel are a subliminal declaration—“a concentration of hints” (8)—of his newfound faith.

The collection of images associated with religious doubt, frustration, or the explicit confrontation of religious ideology forms part of Ondaatje's religious framework in The English Patient. Although not always Christian, the characters' engagement of religious issues smoothly coalesces with the unending reproduction of Christian mythology and acts to highlight the issues in question. The characters' criticism of the novel's essential images and mythological motifs only serves to perpetuate their significance.


In a study of Ondaatje's production of myth, George Elliott Clarke writes: “it is always in motion, either becoming clearer or fading into chaos. … It is free to be—and do—whatever it desires, rendering genres irrelevant. … Composed of fragments of myths, … myth appears in art as collage” (18-19). The English Patient itself may be read as a collage of mythological images, glimpsed briefly but often throughout the novel. The allusions to the Old Testament, Paradise Lost, and Christian symbols discussed earlier occur in quick sequence, as if in a motion picture. And like a motion picture, it is the gradual accumulation of images that renders the storyline intelligible. In order to create the collage, Ondaatje's characters adopt shifting mythological identities. All images that suggest significant biblical characters or events are read together, regardless of which character contributes the image. In this manner, Ondaatje efficiently collects “brief, imagistic” moments that reproduce significant events from the New Testament.

The first allusion occurs on the first page, when Hana “wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him” (3). Christ receives similar treatment from a female “sinner” who “stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 8:38). As if to underscore the similarity, Hana refers to her patient's “hipbones of Christ” (3). Christ himself engages in a similar act: “he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciple's feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded” (John 13:5). Hana's use of water has obvious baptismal qualities that are echoed within the novel: the Bedouin merchant doctor is a “baptist” (10); Hana lies under a fountain when “suddenly there is a crash as the water arrives bursting around her” (92); “most of all she wished for a river she could swim in” (129). In a seemingly inexplicable movement, Hana pours milk over Kip—“over his brown hand and up his arm to his elbow” (123).

Events in the life of Christ are achronologically presented in miniature. Hana's references to her gardening (seeding and sowing) suggest Christ's parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-8, Mark 4:3-8). Almásy's comments support this:

Your hands are getting rough, he said.

The weeds and thistles and digging.

Be careful. I warned you about the dangers.

(8; emphasis added)

Parables are stories intended to teach righteousness and warn about the dangers of deviation. Almásy notices “the rustle of things. Palms and bridles” (6) when he is carried through the desert by the Bedouin in a scene that parallels Christ's entry into Jerusalem: “and many spread their garments in the way: and others cut down [palm] branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way” (Mark 11:8). Also in this scene, the merchant doctor administers “the most potent healer of skin” (10) in a gesture that recalls Christ's miraculous healing of the leper (Luke 5:12-13). This happens during “the day of the eclipse” (6)—an event that also occurs when Christ is crucified (Matt. 27:45). The shift of characterization is especially evident in this scene, where Almásy is both Jesus and the leper, and where the Bedouin merchant doctor is both Jesus and “the baptist.” The temporary attributes of both men function to direct the reader's attention to the biblical mythology from which they are borrowed and thus lend significant authority to the actions.

When Hana pulls off the grey sheet that covers the piano, it becomes “a winding-cloth, a net of fish” (62). Christ is wrapped in a “clean linen cloth” following the crucifixion (Matt. 28:59), and fish are prevalent in many parts of the New Testament, including Christ's offer to his future apostles: “and he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:19-20). The symbol of the fish also comes to represent the Christian faith after the death of Christ.

Caravaggio becomes obsessed with learning the identity of the English patient, hoping to uncover a secret that will dissolve Hana's special bond with a man he calls “a corpse” and “a ghost” (45). His wish to betray Almásy's identity mirrors Judas Iscariot's willingness to betray the identity of Christ “for thirty pieces of silver” (Matt. 26:15). Unlike Christ, however, Almásy suffers no more by Caravaggio's revelation due to Hana's total indifference. (Hana subscribes to the Christ-like saying, “Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous [is] a tenderness to the self” [49].) The theme of betrayal continues in the relationship of Katherine and Almásy. Almásy states that he is “not the only betrayer” when confronted with his “inhuman” behaviour, and he ponders the nature of their attachment: “what had our relationship been? A betrayal of those around us, or the desire of another life?” (238). Their mutual betrayal lies in their clandestine breakage of the seventh commandment: “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14).

In a demonstration of how two seemingly unrelated scenes coalesce to create a significant image, Caravaggio and Hana contribute the matter of the Eucharist. When the English patient shouts after encountering the dog, “Caravaggio walked into the kitchen, tore off a section of bread and followed Hana up the stairs” (56; emphasis added). Hana supplies the remaining component with “the carafe of wine” procured from generous monks (58). Although the bread and wine are not consumed in a single image, the effect is unmistakable in a novel based firmly in a framework of Christian mythology.3 The eating of bread and drinking of wine are essential elements of the “last supper”:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup [wine], and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

(Matt. 26:26-28)

Although Christ's declaration is to be read in purely symbolic terms, blood is literally consumed in the novel. Almásy states, “she once sucked blood from a cut on my hand as I had tasted and swallowed her menstrual blood” (170). The same moment is mentioned earlier: “she sees one tear and leans forward and licks it, taking it into her mouth. As she has taken the blood from his hand when he cut himself cooking for her. Blood. Tear. He feels everything is missing from his body” (157). Blood is suggested again with Almásy's “list of wounds” (153), which parallel the five wounds Christ receives on the cross.

The most fundamental belief of the Christian faith is of the Resurrection, Christ's rising from his tomb after his crucifixion. Christ's alleged triumph over death and possibility of eternal life is the cohesive of the Christian community and is vividly recounted in the New Testament. Ondaatje adopts the idea of the Resurrection and its concomitant imagery using a variety of methods and characters. The most direct representation involves Kip. Entering the villa and partially disrobing, he leans “against the corner of the vestibule like a spear” (221), in an action that in retrospect recalls the wound Christ receives on the cross from the spear-wielding soldier: “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:34). Following this image of the disrobed, crucified Christ, Kip “climbed down into the well” and “closed the lid over himself” (221), resting in a darkness that directly parallels Christ's entombment. His brief residency is ended when “He came out of the well” (222)—a phrase that is uniquely detached from the rest of the text, as if to highlight its significance. Kip symbolically rises from the tomb. Considering the religious overtones of the novel, this depiction of Resurrection cannot be overlooked.

Kip's portrayal of Christ is continued, albeit achronologically, after his successful defusion of the Esau bomb: “He heard the pulley jerk and just held tight onto the leather straps still half attached around him. He began to feel his brown legs being pulled from the grip of the mud, removed like an ancient corpse out of a bog. His small feet rising out of the water. He emerged, lifted out of the pit into the sunlight, head and then torso” (215). Kip's mechanically aided elevation suggests the Ascension of Christ: “while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The time between the Resurrection and the Ascension is said to be forty days (Acts 1:3), which is also the name of a road Almásy travels with the Bedouin (10). Gregory Shaw writes:

In the Hellenistic world the ascent of a king, prophet, hero, or holy man to the heavens, the place of the gods, was a well-known motif signifying the divine status of the one who ascended. … Christ's ascension similarly demonstrated his divinity, but more importantly … signaled the beginning of a messianic kingdom and the empowerment of Christ's followers by virtue of their identification with him through the rite of baptism.


The “empowerment” of Christ's followers lies in the belief of a transcendent, eternal life granted as a reward for faithfulness. Almásy is referred to as Hana's “eternally dying man” (115) and “has the appearance of a still hawk swaddled in sheets. The coffin of a hawk” (116). The latter phrase evokes images of the Egyptian practice of mummifying birds in order to eternalize their souls. When Caravaggio repeatedly refers to Almásy as “the bird” (120, 122), however, other possibilities are presented. The Holy Spirit is represented in the form of a dove: “the heavens were opened unto [Christ], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him” (Matt. 3:16). The reference to Almásy as an “eternally dying man” suggests the fabled phoenix, “a universal symbol of resurrection and immortality, of death and rebirth by fire. … It remains dead for three days … and rises again from its own ashes on the third day” (Cooper 129). Since Christ also rises from the tomb on the third day, and Almásy falls “burning into the desert” (5), the evocation of the phoenix is appropriate within this context. Almásy also seems to transcend his present situation, as Caravaggio frankly observes: “The Englishman left months ago, Hana, he's with the Bedouin or in some English garden with its phlox and shit. He probably can't even remember the woman he's circling around, trying to talk about. He doesn't know where the fuck he is” (122).

The culmination of Ondaatje's mythological journey is a representation of Revelation, “a fitting close to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, for its final chapters depict the consummation toward which the whole biblical message of redemption is focused” (Metzger and Murphy 364NT). Kip acts as angel of the apocalypse and participates in dramatic scenes that foreshadow Armageddon: “as he lay there the mined bridge exploded and he was flung upwards and then down as part of the end of the world. … he swam up to the surface, parts of which were on fire” (60; emphasis added). Such imagery fills the book of Revelation: “lo, there was an earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto earth” (Rev. 6:12-13).

When Kip is flown into Naples with his fellow sappers to stabilize the “booby-trapped city” (274), he participates in an event that evokes the apocalyptic Day of Judgement: “walls will crumble around him or he will walk through a city of light” (280). The two alternatives echo the assignment of the damned and the faithful to their respective Hell and Heaven, with the dying earth replaced by “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2). The heavenly Jerusalem is also the ultimate “city of light”: “and the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it … for the Lord God giveth them light” (Rev. 21:23-24, 22:5).

The sappers become “the city of twelve” (278), in a phrase that has important biblical precedence: “‘the twelve’ is an expression employed by all the Gospel writers, and once by Paul (1 Cor. 15.5) to denote an inner, more intimate circle of followers of Jesus” (Overman 783). Twelve is significant in both the Old and New Testaments and is especially evident in the description of the new Jerusalem. John writes of his vision: “[the city] had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel … and the wall of the city had twelve foundations and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:12, 14).

Kip traces his way to a damaged church where he remembers seeing a scene that depicts “a bedroom where a woman is in conversation with an angel” (279)—an artistic representation with obvious allusions to Hana and the angelic Almásy. Kip recalls the moment: “darkness replaced the brief scene and he sat in a pew waiting, but there was to be no more revelation” (279; emphasis added).

In addition to the novel's two overt depictions of apocalypse—nuclear and biblical—another may be added: the apocalypse enacted by existing in a mythologically vacant society. In his role of the modern Christ, Kip appropriately leads the way to mythological salvation by being “literally blown … into the past, back into the tradition he came from” (Pesch 129). Ironically, the direction of true progress is backward: continuing forward into an increasingly apostate future would only ossify the mythological deficit of contemporary Western society.

It may seem odd that Kip, a faithful Sikh, is a harbinger of Christian apocalypse. Fledderus writes of the “novel's expansive religious vision that avoids specific traditional religious practices or theology in favour of a generalized spirituality” (36). While Kip does not adhere to the Christian faith and comments upon the “naive Catholic images” (278), he is fascinated with Christian religious artwork, is equated with Christ in passages discussed above, and feels comfortably attracted to statues of Christian holy figures (90). He has a profound experience during the Marine Festival of the Virgin Mary, but realizes semi-reluctantly in a sort of afterthought, “he had his own faith after all” (80). Christian affinities are also understood when Almásy offers him his Herodotus, his personal bible. Kip's reply, “we have a Holy Book too” (294), demonstrates his tolerance and understanding of Christian belief. Fledderus's idea of the novel's “expansive religious vision that avoids specific traditional religious practices or theology” is eclipsed by a pre-dominant Christian mythology that only hints at the existence of other practices.

The English Patient is a rich bible of Christian myth that prevalently displays its images in the actions and interactions of its characters. Ondaatje's method of alternating mythical identity allows the efficient construction of a panoramic religious framework with widespread mythical significance. The diffuse imagery enacted by all characters in distinct and shifting biblical and extra-biblical roles, ranging from the Old and New Testaments to Milton's literary reworking of them both in Paradise Lost, produces a unique modern novel, brimming with mythological significance. Read alongside the established myth of Western civilization, the actions of Ondaatje's characters are illuminated in a unique and meaningful manner, an achievement that may be potentially duplicated by replacing contemporary spiritual vacuity with the recognition of a sacred element. Ondaatje has created his own “new testament” (269) that will continue to resonate indefinitely.


  1. This and all subsequent quotations from the Bible are taken from the Authorized King James version.

  2. It is interesting to note that members of the Bedouin are responsible for unearthing the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents that have created controversy in the Christian community since their discovery in the Judean desert in 1946 or 1947 (see Dead Sea Scrolls 4).

  3. Readers who have seen the film adaptations of both The English Patient and Nikos Kazantzaki's The Last Temptation of Christ may make further connections. Willem Dafoe, who portrays Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, is cast as Caravaggio in The English Patient.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London: Minerva, 1995.

Alexander, David, and Pat Alexander, eds. Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

Angeles, Peter A. Dictionary of Christian Theology. San Francisco: Harper, 1985.

Clarke, George Elliott. “Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth.” Studies in Canadian Literature 16.1 (1991): 1-21.

Cooper, J. C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. Lancaster: Thames, 1978.

The Dead Sea Scrolls. Trans. Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., and Edward Cook. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

de Vries, Ad. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. London: North, 1974.

Fledderus, Bill. “‘The English Patient Reposed in His Bed like a [Fisher?] King’: Elements of Grail Romance in Ondaatje's The English Patient.Studies in Canadian Literature 22.1 (1997): 19-54.

Johnson, William C., Jr. “On the Literary Uses of Myth.” The Power of Myth in Literature and Film: Selected Papers from the Second Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film. Ed. Victor Carrabino. Tallahassee: U Presses of Florida, 1980. 24-34.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford, 1993.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford, 1991.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Riverside Milton. Ed. Roy Flannagan. New York: Houghton, 1998. 297-710.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Francis Golffing. Garden City: Doubleday, 1956.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. Toronto: Vintage, 1992.

———. “O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle.” Canadian Literature 61 (1974): 1-25.

———. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” With Eleanor Wachtel. Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.

Overman, J. Andrew. “The Twelve.” Metzger and Coogan 783.

Pesch, Josef. “Post-Apocalyptic War Histories: Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.ARIEL 28.2 (1997): 117-39.

Shaw, Gregory. “Ascension of Christ.” Metzger and Coogan 61-62.

Sudeep Sen (review date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Sen, Sudeep. Review of Handwriting: Poems, by Michael Ondaatje. World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 338-39.

[In the following review, Sen offers a positive assessment of Handwriting, lauding the poetics, tone, and themes of the collection.]

Michael Ondaatje's new collection of poems, Handwriting, his first since The Cinnamon Peeler (1992), comes at a time when he has lent a whole new definition to an area of writing that resides within the undefined area of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. If we take this collection as a continuation of his memoir Running in the Family (1982), we can see the exact graph-plotting of the last fifteen years—his subtle movement and blurring of lines between different genres, in spite of respecting the integrity of each of them.

In Handwriting, as compared to Running in the Family, the writing is sparer where minimalism is enhanced by reducing the focus's measure to the precision of a razor's micron edge. There is a minimum expenditure of words, fine-tuned movement that incorporates as its primary tool suggestiveness and all that falls in that subtle space.

In the poem “The First Rule of Sinhalese Architecture” the deft use of white space, the short lines, and the absence of full-stops allow readers to breathe and interpret with maximum effect: “Never build three doors / in a straight line // A devil might rush / through them / deep into your house, / into your life.” Ondaatje, however, uses minimum effort to achieve all this, and only because his verse is highly distilled.

Handwriting takes one to Ondaatje's Sri Lankan past, a past that is very much present in his life, one that informs and colors his broader palette, scope, and vision. The fact that he can present Sri Lanka realistically and unexotically lends a believable and even magical edge to his text. His observations are sharp and wry, but at the same time considered, wise, and pragmatic. Here is the opening of the poem “To Anuradhapura”:

In the dry lands
every few miles, moving north,
another roadside Ganesh
Straw figures
on bamboo scaffolds
to advertise a family
of stilt-walkers

The volume is also a fine example of when free verse succeeds, free of all forced and encumbered prosody and poetics but containing the exactitude of breath and breathing.

Reading Ondaatje's poems is akin to going through a darkroom experience, developing a negative to a positive—slow, gentle, translucent, and evocative. But he uses a trusty, old-fashioned camera where all the manual settings of shutter speed and focal length are done with the skill and art of a seasoned calligrapher. In “The Brother Thief” we read: “Beyond this pupil of heat / all geography is burned // No mountain or star / no river noise, / nothing / to give him course. // … // Dark peace, / like a cave of water.”

Many of Ondaatje's poems are packed with sexual imagery, made even more powerful by their heightened coyness and understated suggestion: “Her sisters / who dove, lit by flares, / were lightning // Water and erotics” (from “The Siyabaslakara”) is reminiscent of a scene in his Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient. Or savor the wonderfully wrought sequence “The Nine Sentiments”: “She stands in the last daylight / of the bedroom painting her eye, / holding a small mirror // The brush of sandalwood along the collarbone // Green dark silk”: or “Desire in sunlight // … // Kissing the birthmark / on a breast, / tugging his lotus stalk.”

Among Ondaatje's many talents is the way he juxtaposes the epigrammatic and the narrative, ancient and modern, spirituality and sexual liberty, all in one grand journey, as he travels and photographs “a libertine … who made love before nightfall / … without darkening the room.” Some of my favorite poems include the prose poem “Death at Kataragama,” the montage-narrative of “A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade,” “Buried,” and “Buried 2.” Others are “The Siyabaslakara,” “House on a Red Cliff,” “Last Ink,” and of course “The Distance of a Shout,” whose concluding lines sum up much of the collection: “Handwriting occurred on waves, / on leaves, the scripts of smoke, / a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River. // A gradual acceptance of this new language.”

Michael Ondaatje's Handwriting is at the same time elliptical and careful, raw and perfectly pitched, but always beautifully conceived and delicately etched in “wild cursive scripts” with the stylized slant of a fine and practiced hand.

Douglas Malcolm (essay date September 1999)

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SOURCE: Malcolm, Douglas. “Solos and Chorus: Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Politics/Poetics.” Mosaic 32, no. 3 (September 1999): 131-49.

[In the following essay, Malcolm explores how the metaphorical and structural uses of the jazz concepts of solo and chorus inform the narrative strategies of In the Skin of a Lion.]

Given that jazz is a relatively recent musical form, it is not surprising that studies of its connection to literature are few in comparison to the discussions of the relations between literature and classical music, where indeed the proliferation of such discussion has developed to the point of occasioning some specialists to define and insist upon criteria for “valid” comparisons. Thus in the section on “Literature and Music” in the 1990 Modern Language Association manual entitled Teaching Literature and Other Arts, Robert Spaethling has emphasized the need to distinguish between literary works/studies in which music functions as a metaphor/allusion and those in which music functions as a structural device. More recently, in Performing Rites, Simon Frith clarifies the grounds for such a distinction when he explains that a musical genre consists of a “a set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules” (91). Structural comparisons draw upon the formal rules that distinguish a musical genre from other genres whereas metaphoric comparisons usually make use of non-formal rules which Frith, following the pioneering work on musical genre of Franco Fabbri, itemizes as the semiotic, the ideological, the behavioral and the commercial (91-93). To date, most of the jazz/literature connections have been of the metaphoric kind; F. Scott Fitzgerald's description of the 1920s as the “jazz Age” (Tirro 170), for example, evokes the ideology of cultural subversion and restless excitement that white audiences associated with the music and, though usually unacknowledged, with African-Americans. More cogent is Ralph Ellison's recognition in his essay on Charlie Christian in Shadow and Act (233-40) of the semiotic importance of jazz in African-American culture which is evinced by the way that he and other black writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin associate the improvised nature of such music with the thoughts and emotions of their characters. In the case of Jack Kerouac, however, there is an attempt to exploit not merely the metaphoric possibilities of jazz but also to use it as a structuring device. Not only was On the Road written on a roll of toilet paper so that the composition could, like jazz improvisation, occur “in a continuous manner without the benefit of rewrites,” as Ted Gioia observes (Art 61), but as Kerouac himself argued in his Book of Blues, these jazz poems were “limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus” (1).

If we look, in turn, for a more contemporary example of a writer who enlists both the metaphoric and structural potential of jazz few are more instructive than Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, probably best known by movie-goers for the Oscar-winning success of the recent film adaptation of his 1992 novel, The English Patient. While always interested in the cinematic, his earlier works also include several jazz-influenced pieces that utilize the postmodern technique of merging the actual and the imagined. For example, in a poem from the 1984 volume Secular Love, he has the blues singer Bessie Smith, who died in 1937, perform as an angel at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall which opened in 1982. Similarly, in his 1976 novel, Coming through Slaughter, he imagines the life of the actual jazz musician Buddy Bolden, one of the progenitors of jazz whose music was never recorded. It is, however, in his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, that Ondaatje's use of jazz is most sustained and most extends beyond the metaphoric to inform the structuring of the work.

Discussing the gestation of Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje has noted that he was influenced by three sources: Diego Rivera's “Detroit Industry” mural at the Detroit Institute of Art, cubism, and “jazz with its solos and chorus” (qtd. in Butterfield 165). While the debt that he here acknowledges most directly is to Rivera's mural, it is also possible to see, as Ondaatje does in the novel, a theoretical commonality between these three apparently disparate sources, and one could argue that the jazz element is perhaps more pervasive than he himself realizes. In the following essay, therefore, after first identifying the major characters and configuration of Skin of a Lion, I will focus attention on the seminal moment in the novel when the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, experiences an epiphany about the relationship of the individual to the larger social collective as he listens to a jazz band playing in the street, a performance which I will then locate historically and musically through a brief overview of the evolution of jazz and its formal rules and terminology. With this context in place, I will go on to discuss three areas of applicability: first, via the two epigraphs featured in the novel, how jazz principles relate to general types of story-telling and particularly the relationship of master narratives to marginalized voices; second, how Patrick's development and creation of his own voice involves both the solo improvisation and retrospection that characterizes jazz; third, how Ondaatje's reordering of historical ingredients and defeat of conventional generic expectations adheres both to the spirit and structuring rules of jazz. While Ondaatje's use of jazz has not gone unnoticed by his critics, by approaching the novel in this way I hope to demonstrate that his practice merits more than passing references to what Douglas Barbour has called the “improvisational complication” of his use of language (210).

Skin of a Lion begins roughly in 1913 when Patrick Lewis is eleven and living with his father in Bellrock, Ontario, and follows him, sometimes taking wide detours, to 1938 when he is residing in Toronto. Like many postmodern novels, Skin of a Lion blends the fictional and historical, and during the course of the novel Patrick forges relationships with characters of both types. Among these are two women: Clara Dickens, mistress of the millionaire Ambrose Small, a historical figure who disappeared without a trace from Toronto in 1919, and Clara's friend Alice Gull, Patrick's lover, who dies while carrying an anarchist's bomb that explodes prematurely, and whose daughter Hana is ultimately adopted by Patrick. As a result of his various experiences and relationships—including his befriending of the bridge-worker turned baker, Nicholas Temeloff, and Caravaggio, the neighborhood thief—Patrick comes to some understanding of himself and his place in the world; indeed, he acts out this self-knowledge by becoming a political activist which, ultimately, leads him to encounter the historical figure, Rowland Harris, who built Toronto's Bloor Street viaduct and Harris Filtration Plant. Patrick's tale is the one that links the other stories in the novel, and although his story is told in seemingly omniscient fashion, the narrator's perspective on events is by no means consistent and often mirrors the apparent discontinuity of Patrick's own development.

While in the novel occasional metaphorical reference is made to jazz musicians, Fats Waller for instance (147), and jazz tunes, such as “I Can't Get Started” (225), Patrick's most profound realization about his relationship to the outside world occurs as a direct consequence of hearing a jazz band playing on the street: “The cornet and saxophone and drum chased each other across solos and then suddenly, as Patrick drew alongside them, fell together and rose within a chorus” (144). The time is roughly 1930; his lover, Alice, has died and he is beginning to piece together her story by unearthing photographs in the library of the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct. Listening to the jazz performers in this context, Patrick comes to realize how his personal narrative, like the solos of the musicians, is at once separate and part of a broader social narrative:

The street-band had depicted perfect company, with an ending full of embraces after the solos had made everyone stronger, more delineated. His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw a wondrous night web—all of these fragments of a human order, something ungoverned by the family he was born into or the headlines of the day. … the detritus and chaos of the age was realigned.


Although this passage contains the only extended reference to jazz in the novel, the scene is not only critical in Patrick's development but also provides insight into how Ondaatje uses jazz to shape the novel's narrative structure.

What complicates such a discussion, significantly, is the extent to which jazz terminology is often apparently inconsistent, a factor related to the evolution and hence different types and period styles of such music. Moreover, as Jerry Coker explains, jazz itself, in its earliest form, was a pastiche that drew upon a number of heterogeneous musical sources: “African rhythms and ‘blue tones,’ European instruments and harmonies, marches, dance music, church music and ragtime” (Listening 3-4). Jazz language, it should also be noted, grew out of practice rather than theory and it still bears some of the ambiguity of its origins. “The language of jazz,” as Leroy Ostransky observes, “was coined, for the most part, by jazz musicians with little regard for the written word” (Anatomy 3). While much has been done to standardize the terminology, there is, as Gioia notes, still a fundamental lack of agreement over even a definition of the music itself: “Jazz writers learned long ago … that it is almost impossible to come up with a good, succinct, widely accepted definition of jazz itself” (West Coast 360).

Working definitions, however, are possible, and several of the terms used in the portrayal of the jazz musicians in Skin of a Lion—“solos,” “chorus,” and “chased” (144)—are meaningful within the jazz community. The term “solo” in music generally means to perform unaccompanied or with support from some kind of rhythm section. Solo can also refer to the performance of composed or improvised music, although in jazz the term almost universally implies improvisation. The term “chorus,” in music generally, implies collectivity such as a choir, the refrain of a song or the particular section of an orchestra (Lovelock 21). In jazz, however, chorus has a somewhat different meaning as Mark Gridley explains: “What musicians meant by the term chorus was simply that segment of a solo which used the entire thirty-two measure AABA chord progression or entire twelve measure blues progression. A soloist might take only a chorus or perhaps take ten to twenty choruses” (41). The chord progression refers to the harmonic structure which underlies a melody; for instance, the traditional twelve-bar blues typically involves harmonic movement from a tonic chord, C Major say, to chords based on the fourth and fifth scales degrees of C Major. The composed melody is based on notes derived from these chords and is usually played at the beginning and ending, the head and tail as they are known in jazz, of a performance. Between the head and tail, the musician improvises on the tune's chord progression: “The chord progression is usually retained with exactness throughout the selection, even during the improvised solos, simply by repeating the entire progression … over and over” (Coker, Listening 9). The soloist interprets the preset melody according to his or her taste, but even if the solo is melodically unrecognizable to the listener, the chord progression still orders the improvisation.

Although in Skin of a Lion Ondaatje appears to use the term “chorus” in a different way, his usage has some precedence in jazz where chorus is occasionally used to refer to the chord progression which underlies both predetermined and improvised melody. For instance, in describing the arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's “Take the ‘A’ Train” as performed by Duke Ellington's 1941 orchestra, Gridley mentions under the heading of First Chorus that “Saxes state melody … in unison” (102). A more recent example comes from New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett who describes trumpeter Tom Harrell playing “a nearly straight chorus of melody” of “Skylark” before beginning his improvisation (94). Hence, there is some precedent in jazz criticism for the term chorus being applied to the statement of a preset melody.

There is, however, a crucial distinction between preset melody and improvised melody. The former is predetermined—it may be on paper or in the musicians' heads as appears to be the case with Ondaatje's musicians who “suddenly … fell together and rose within a chorus” (144)—while the latter is entirely spontaneous; it is this feature which is the essence of jazz. In The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture Gioia remarks that “improvisation, if not restricted to jazz, is nonetheless essential to it. … Certain composed works—Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, for example—may sound ‘jazzy,’ but what we hear is not jazz until the spontaneous element of improvisation is added to the written parts” (51). Even melodies which were initially improvised become preset once they are recorded; henceforth, they can be transcribed and repeated by other performers in the same way that composed melodies are. Thus it is the improvised melody that provides jazz with its unique musical vitality: “as soon as the jazz instrumentalist begins to plan his solos in advance, he ceases, by that very act, to be a jazz soloist and becomes a type of composer” (Gioia, Art 128).

The style of jazz played by the musicians in Ondaatje's novel is most likely Pre-Swing, a transitional style between New Orleans jazz and Swing in which many of the elements of the jazz styles—for example, improvisation framed by a head and tail of notated melody—associated with Swing and bop were already in place (Ostransky, Understanding 165). Moreover, Ondaatje's musicians are “chasing” each other or alternating improvised passages of a set length. This practice, which is “Rooted in the timeless call-and-response forms of the earliest African and African-American music” (Gioia, West Coast 35), is also known as trading fours or eights. This form of improvisation further suggests that when Ondaatje's musicians play together in a chorus they are not following the New Orleans model of collective improvisation.

The instruments that Ondaatje mentions—trumpet, saxophone and drum-further support the assumption that this music is Pre-Swing rather than New Orleans jazz. While the cornet was associated with the earlier period—Louis Armstrong's switch to trumpet in the mid-1920s initiated the changeover for many cornetists—the saxophone was almost unknown in New Orleans jazz; by the end of the 1920s, however, the tenor and alto saxes had for many come to symbolize the music (Ostransky, Understanding 162). Furthermore, the fact that Ondaatje's drummer appears to be participating in the improvisation places the jazz style later rather than earlier. Indeed, percussion solos would have been quite unusual in the early 1930s since as Gridley notes it was not until much later that drummers did more than act as keepers of the beat (58).

The particular time implied by both the novel's context and the jazz allusions would place the scene at the beginning of the Depression—presumably the musicians are playing to attract monetary contributions from passers-by. There are two monophonic instruments, the sax and the cornet, and the drums, and all three are taking turns improvising and then playing together in an ensemble. Aside from the selection of instruments, the impromptu nature of the performance suggests that the sax and cornet are stating in unison a preset melody with the drums providing rhythmic accompaniment. The predetermined melody would be one that could be easily memorized and perhaps more importantly be familiar to their potential audience. Given the evidence available, it thus seems reasonable to conclude that Ondaatje uses the term solo for an improvised spontaneous melody (or rhythm in the case of the drums) that is based on the chord progression of the composed, preset melody. When he refers to chorus, unlike most writers on jazz, he suggests the performance, in unison, of a notated melody.

Skin of a Lion opens with two epigraphs each of which is suggestive of a different narrative strategy but which together function in a manner strikingly similar to jazz's chord progression. The first epigraph, from the ancient Sumerian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh, provides the novel with its title: “The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.” The second epigraph is a comment by Marxist novelist and art historian John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” The quotation from Gilgamesh features a narrative context; it introduces a speaker, implies a relationship with someone who has died, and suggests an action that will be taken. Berger's comment, in contrast, is outside narrative; it is a critical observation on the nature of all story-telling. What needs emphasis, however, is that his comment does not constitute a total rejection of narrative and its constituent elements as organizational devices; he simply argues that there are no longer any such totalist narratives as that of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Just as in jazz where both notated and improvised melody are bound together by a common chord progression, the twin epigraphs of Skin of a Lion bear a paradoxical relationship with each other. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian fertility myth from the third millennium B.C., recounts the deeds of the builder king Gilgamesh. In the epigraph, which derives from the Babylonian version of the myth, Gilgamesh expresses his sorrow and remorse after the death of his friend, Enkidu, a natural or wild man. During the quest that follows, Gilgamesh hears the story of a vast flood that destroyed most earthly life and discovers a flower of eternal life but allows it to be stolen by a snake. The similarities with the Old Testament, noted by critics like Alexander Heidel, suggest that Gilgamesh is ancient and foundational and has claims to absolute order, both characteristics of master narrative which Linda Hutcheon has described as “those systems by which we usually unify and order … any contradictions in order to make them fit” (x).

As J. Hillis Miller notes, however, it is important to distinguish between two major types of narrative, the historical and the fictional. Even though both are “closely related forms of ‘order-giving’ or ‘order-finding,’” historical narrative is thought to deal with “events that ‘really occurred’ on the stage of history” (68), while fictional narrative invents its materials. The Epic of Gilgamesh, then, can be seen as the progenitor of all narratives which claim to be truthful or real, including the historical, the religious, the scientific, and even the musical. The Berger quotation, the other epigraph used by Ondaatje, however, compromises The Epic of Gilgamesh and suggests that it is not the only narrative but just one of many. Berger's concept of story, moreover, applies equally to both historical and fictional narrative. Stories are human constructs that are necessary for ordering experience regardless of whether the materials they draw upon are invented or they “really occurred.” The Berger epigraph typifies what Hutcheon terms historiographic metafiction, the paradigm of the postmodern; such works, she writes, are “intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages. … [this] theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs … is made the grounds for [the] rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past” (5).

Characteristic of most poststructural thinking, Berger's observation frees the voices of those, women and immigrants for instance, who were marginalized by the master narratives of the past. From the perspective of the master narrative and the social elite who are its main proponents, this stance is perilous because it seems to lead inevitably to a Tower of Babel of competing voices and stories all of which are equally legitimate; such legitimacy, however, would also be at odds with the postmodernist project which “tries to problematize and, thereby, to make us question. But it does not offer answers. It cannot, without betraying its anti-totalizing ideology” (Hutcheon 231).

Jazz's “solos and chorus” reflect the narrative paradox expressed in Ondaatje's twin epigraphs. Notated melody, or chorus in Ondaatje's terminology, acts as a master narrative that has been naturalized in Western culture; from this perspective jazz improvisation, like Berger's comment, seems potentially dangerous because it questions the preset melodic structure. As the unnamed narrator of Baldwin's “Sonny Blues” says of jazz, “It sounded weird and disordered” (42). Improvisation (the solo in Skin of a Lion) subverts the hegemonic and totalizing nature of composed melody, yet at the same time improvisation itself is bound to the melody by the chord progression. The same chord progression thus binds the two forms of musical narrative, “solos and chorus,” without being committed to either one until the moment of performance. While this suggests that jazz is deeply imbued with the ironic sensibility that one associates with postmodernism, what needs to be remembered is that such music evolved many years earlier and out of a very different cultural climate. As commentators such as Lawrence Levine in Black Culture and Black Consciousness and Amiri Baraka [Leroi Jones] in Blues People have pointed out, there is a long African-American tradition of using music as a way of ironically subverting white domination that can be traced from the Antebellum period, to black minstrels and, finally, to jazz.

Ondaatje's goal in Skin of a Lion is to create a spontaneous narrative order by drawing from sources that self-reflexively include both the historical and the fictional. This technique has been present is his work as early as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in which he creates a dynamic tension by fictionalizing the historical figure. He has created the same dynamic in Coming through Slaughter and “Bessie Smith at Roy Thomson Hall” in which he takes historical jazz figures like Buddy Bolden or Bessie Smith and places them in a fictional situation. Skin of a Lion, however, reverses this technique. Instead of concentrating on a historical figure and the implicit narrative order provided by such a character, he places a fictional character—the protagonist Patrick Lewis—in a historical context in order to liberate the untold stories of those who have been silenced or marginalized in the official records. Thus he must create a new kind of order, one that is firmly indebted to the solo improvisation.

As Ostransky points out, the jazz solo may be spontaneous but it does not emerge out of nothingness:

[The improviser] modifies and adapts, to his individual conception of jazz, melodic fragments, rhythmic patterns, and even entire phrases he has heard and admired. All of these memories and impressions are assimilated and transformed into music that is fresh, and often, when it is coupled with the spirit of spontaneity, music that is new. The performer's task is to organize his material—however spontaneous his performance may seem—in such a way as to make it appear that the material is, in truth, his own.

(Understanding 60)

Ondaatje partially creates the impression of improvisation in the novel through the way that Patrick attempts to develop his own voice by self-consciously borrowing from different elements in the world around him while, at the same time, remaining part of the novel's social world or chorus. Patrick's story, in turn, is only one part of Ondaatje's own improvised solo, in which he creates for the reader/listener a larger story that is fused together from highly eclectic sources and that draws upon and alters the reader/listener's understanding of the historical narrative.

Skin of a Lion, it might be argued, is a postmodern Bildungsroman, the traditional novel of maturation such as Great Expectations or Sons and Lovers, that takes a young innocent on a chronological journey to some kind of maturity and place in society. What is particularly noteworthy about Patrick's character at the novel's beginning is the degree to which he is an outsider. He lives in a place “which did not appear on a map until 1910” (10), he has no mother and his father is taciturn and “as invisible as possible” (18). When Patrick later moves to Toronto at twenty-one in 1923, he is characterized as “an immigrant to the city” (53). Although he feels “more community” (79) after he has met Clara Dickens and Alice Gull, this feeling evaporates after Clara's disappearance. By 1930, he finds himself living in an immigrant section of Toronto, “not hearing any language he knew” (112) and working on the waterworks tunnel “where he feels banished form the world” (107). As the narrator observes: “He has always been alien, the third person in the picture. He is the one born in this country who knows nothing of the place” (156-57).

Patrick clearly is a character whose life at this point in the novel is almost as decontextualized as possible. This lack of context is similar to what Gioia in The Imperfect Art describes as the apparently arbitrary five-note phrase with which Charlie Parker begins his famous improvisation on the preset melody of “Embraceable You,” and wherein his use of the initial phrase “in a variety of ingenious contexts throughout the course of this improvisation” (60), ultimately results in a melody that is rich and complex. Gioia refers to the principle at work here as the retrospective form which governs the development of improvisation: “the improviser may be unable to look ahead at what he is going to play, but he can look behind at what he has just played; thus each new musical phrase can be shaped with relation to what has gone before” (61).

In the case of Skin of a Lion, it is through Alice Gull and her stories of her husband's work as a labor leader that Patrick becomes more engaged in his surroundings and begins to order his life retrospectively: “He knew now he was the sum of all he had been in his life since he was that boy in the snow wood” (152). Looking back, he is now able to understand, to “order and shape” (9) his childhood experience with insects and to realize that the foreign skaters with bulrushes that he saw when he was eleven were Finns: “Now in his thirties he finally had a name for that group of men he witnessed as a child” (151). His epiphany while listening to the jazz band on the street occurs while he is trying to piece Alice's past together: “he could add music by simply providing the thread of a hum. He saw the interactions, saw how each one of them was carried by the strength of something more than themselves” (144). Afterwards, like a developing solo, his character resonates with increasingly greater depth. This process is similar to the conclusion of Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues” in which the narrator realizes that his brother's improvisation has made sense of their shared past: “He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy” (50).

In this context, one should note that throughout Skin of a Lion, not only jazz but music in general is used as a device which links individuals with a broader social and cultural world. As a boy living in an isolated rural community, for example, Patrick plays “the ocarina to give himself a voice, something to leap with over the wall of the place” (10). Worth more emphasis in turn is the way that Ondaatje configures Canada as a nation of immigrants, wherein what binds each ethnic group together is its own band and music. Thus reference is made to the Russian Mission Band (114), the Anglo-Canadian Band (166) and the Finnish Brass Band which plays Chopin's “Funeral March” at a burial service—during which an eclipse occurs and the music both literally and metaphorically becomes for the mourners “a lifeline from one moment of light to another” (159). Music, then, provides a kind of historic continuity or sense of history through which characters can both assert their individuality and share in a broader cultural enterprise or social chorus.

As a political activist, Patrick goes to prison for bombing a resort hotel in the Muskokas, and later makes an abortive attempt to blow up Harris's waterworks. In his personal life, in a phone conversation with Clara about Alice's daughter Hana, he claims “I am her father” (218), and at the very end of the novel, when he drives to Marmora with Hana to rescue Clara, he promises that he will tell her Clara's story (219), a promise that means he must again explain and reorder the past. Having himself become a fully “delineated” solo, the chorus that he implicitly joins at the end of the novel is one that is made up of the stories of all the characters, both historical and fictional. The melody of the past has been made richer and more complex through their solo contributions.

By placing Clara in Marmora (derivative of the Latin marmoreus for marble) Ondaatje also returns to the beginning of Patrick's entrance into the larger group, for what had impressed him upon his arrival in Toronto as a young man was the “smooth pink marble pillars” at Union Station (54), and it is also to this “nexus of his life” that he returns after he gets out of prison fifteen years later (209). He recalls saying goodbye to Clara here when she was leaving him for Ambrose Small and how she told him to pay attention to marble: “Its Missouri Zumbro. Remember that. The floors are Tennessee marble” (209-10). Marmora thus fuses and enlarges into one story Patrick's various arrivals in Toronto, his affair with Clara and hers with Ambrose Small, his present relationship with Hana and hers with her parents; even Rowland Harris who dreams of building “marble walls” (109) in his waterworks is linked to the others through this motif. Traditionally associated with the architecture and statuary of the past, marble thus becomes less an inert memorial substance and more a part of the living chorus and historical continuity.

As a solo improvisation that builds by retrospectively ordering preceding musical phrases, the development that characterizes Patrick's life is also characterizes the novel as a whole, with Ondaatje functioning as the improviser and the reader as the listener. The reader approaches the novel with certain generic expectations about plot and character, and these are the elements that Ondaatje reshapes to form a new melody. Like Parker's apparently random five-note sequence, Skin of a Lion begins with a prologue that for the reader has no context or explanation and that does not become comprehensible until the very end of the novel. The characters are not identified, the setting (except for a reference to Marmora) is obscure and the historical time is not provided. The narrator, however, is also quite explicit about the method he is using: “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human’” (146).

A jazz solo, Richmond Browne notes, is a balance between the expected and the unexpected: “The listener is constantly making predictions; actual infinitesimal predictions as to whether the next event will be a repetition of something, or something different. The player is constantly either confirming or denying these predictions in the listener's mind” (qtd. in Coker, Improvising 15). Ondaatje both confirms and denies the reader's narrative expectations of setting, character, plot and narration. By forcing the reader retrospectively to find ways of ordering the novel, Ondaatje forges a new solo that alters the historical narrative/chorus.

The novel is set in the southern Ontario and deals with actual places such as Toronto, Huntsville, and Marmora, and historical events such as the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the construction of the Harris Filtration Plant. Historical personages, such as Rowland Harris and Ambrose Small, appear in the novel; these characters are usually from the privileged classes and it is this privilege which transforms their stories into the official historical narrative. Ondaatje, however, seamlessly combines such geographical locales and historical characters with those of his own invention. Bellrock, Patrick's home town, is a fictional place form Ondaatje's 1979 poetry collection There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, as well as an actual village located near Kingston, Ontario where Ondaatje once owned a summer property. In Skin of a Lion also “invented,” as it were, are immigrants and women whose stories have been marginalized by the so-called “official history.” Ondaatje's model here, as he presents it in the novel, is the American photographer Lewis Hine whose work depicted those—women, children, the poor, unionists—who were disenfranchised by capitalist industry: “Official histories and news stories were always soft as rhetoric. … Hine's photographs betray official history and put together another family” (145).

Like Hine, and like Berger, in Skin of a Lion Ondaatje suggests that the unrecorded stories of the men and women who built the bridge and the waterworks are equally as legitimate as those of Harris and Small. Ondaatje's solo in the novel gives their stories a voice. Alice Gull's husband, Cato, for instance, is a union organizer who is murdered by strike-breakers in northern Ontario. Patrick, although a native Ontarian, is an outsider to the real historical narrative, and must learn from it in order to construct his own narrative or solo: “Patrick had lived in this country all his life. But it was only now that he learned of the union battles up north. … The facts of the story had surrounded Hana since birth, it was a part of her” (157).

Ondaatje also occasionally provides his fictional characters with historically resonant names in order further to problematize the narrative. Cato, the unionist who opposes the logging bosses, is paralleled by the historical Cato of Utica who opposed Julius Caesar and who killed himself in protest. Similarly, the thief Caravaggio, who escapes prison by painting himself blue, bears the same name as the Italian Renaissance painter who was interested in contrasts of light and dark colors, one of the major motifs in Skin of a Lion. After his first robbery, Caravaggio hides from his pursuers in a mushroom factory: “There was darkness again and he yearned for light” (194). Even the actual place names that Ondaatje uses, such as Paris, Ontario, both confirm and deny the reader's expectations in that this town is both an actual place and a fictionalization of the French capital.

The novel's plot, like Patrick's story and the jazz solo, unfolds temporally; structurally, the narrative is divided into three “books” (which are further divided into titled chapters) that follow one another in time. However, within this structure there are also discontinuities. For example, while Patrick is the novel's central character, he does not appear in “The Bridge,” the second chapter of Book One, which takes place in 1918 and deals with the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto and introduces characters such as Alice Gull and Nicholas Temelcoff. “Caravaggio,” the title of the first chapter of Book Three, focuses on the thief from Patrick's neighborhood in Toronto whom he meets in prison. These wide digressions from the central story of Patrick's development are often cited as a weakness in the novel because they deal with characters who are either entirely new or of whom only brief mention has been made earlier.

As Gioia notes, however, improvised jazz, “by its very nature, tends towards apparent formlessness, towards a breakdown of structural coherence, towards excess” (Imperfect 92). Similarly, I would argue that these chapters are deliberately designed to thwart the reader's conventional expectations and to force him/her to create an enlarged conception of plot and character that will accommodate such shifts. Actually, moreover, in both cases the two seemingly anomalous characters become important parts of Patrick's life; indeed, Caravaggio later appears as a character in The English Patient in which Hana, Patrick's adopted daughter, is the central character. Yet even if the digressions thus eventually resolve back to Patrick, they also make it clear that his is just one of many intertwined stories.

Ondaatje also problematizes the authority of the main narrative by introducing other forms of discourse which intersect with the main plot. As critics like Gordon Gamin and Michael Greenstein have pointed out, the novel not only borrows its title from The Epic of Gilgamesh, but also, at least in part, its plot and characters. Other intersecting texts include the letters from Patrick to Clara Dickens (84-86) and newspaper reports on the disappearance of Ambrose Small (56). Ondaatje also introduces the opening passage of Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese (82), a work noted for its strict observance of the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action (Klinck 678). This inclusion not only helps to pinpoint the historical frame of events—Ostenso's novel was published in 1925—and to describe Patrick's need for order in his life but also enables Ondaatje to engage in a deliberate parody of traditional fictional narrative which encourages totalizing expectations.

Self-reflection or parody, now regarded as a defining characteristic of postmodernism, has actually been an important aspect of jazz since at least the innovation of bop in the early 1940s. Musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would improvise new melodies on the chord progressions of existing songs as a way of showing up the musical inadequacy of their elders. As Ostransky notes: “In Charlie Parker's recordings of ‘Bird Lore’ and ‘Ornithology,’ for example, both numbers have their harmonic basis in ‘How High the Moon’” (Understanding 203). Quoting, which entails playing an entirely different but familiar melody at an apt point during improvisation, is another parodic device used by a host of such greats as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and particularly Dexter Gordon: “Gordon's repeated recourse to brief excerpts from cornball pop standards, and even an occasional snatch of a classic, has been for the most part judicious in execution, and genuinely funny in impact” (Britt 126).

In the same fashion, the novel's narrator, by both confirming and denying the reader's expectations of narrative, parodies the concept of narrative unity. At times Ondaatje assumes a third-person narrative voice that resembles that of a historian. He provides, for instance, a list of the actual companies that participated in the building of the Harris waterworks (109). Later, when Patrick is released from prison in 1938, the narrator places him within the context of a historical narrative that includes movies, songs, events, and construction projects (209). Ondaatje, however, subverts the historical narrative by having the narrator make the meta-comment that the reader must trust the narrator that order exists. The diction in other sections of the novel is often oblique, as in the invented death of Ambrose Small who dies thinking of “Bitten flesh and manicures and greyhounds and sex and safe-Combinations and knowledge of suicides” (214). Sudden shifts in time are another way the narrator undermines the chronological historical narrative. After Patrick hears the street band, for example, the narrative shifts without explanation to a time when Alice is still alive (146).

Like someone listening to a jazz solo, the reader tries retrospectively to order the new melody that Ondaatje creates in the novel. Until its final pages, the reader does not know that Alice Gull was killed while accidentally carrying an anarchist's bomb or how the italicized opening lines of the novel fit the rest of the narrative: “She listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms” (1). This dislocated scene becomes comprehensible only at the end when Patrick and Hana drive to Marmora to get Clara Dickens, and where it obliges the reader to reorder his/her conception of what has gone before.

Ondaatje is well aware that once the novel has been read, like improvisations on a standard's chord progression, it becomes another preset melody. What he is trying to convey in the italicized opening is the very moment of spontaneous creation before the story has become codified, in the same way that the landscape through which Patrick and Hana travel is magical, anything is possible: “The man who is driving could say, ‘In that field is a castle,’ and it would be possible for her to believe him” (1). He takes care, therefore, to problematize the frame itself, so that in the concluding scene the driver is Hana, not Patrick who, in fact, has a broken arm at this point in the story and could not drive: “Hana sat upright, adapting the rear-view mirror to her height. He climbed in, pretending to luxuriate in the passenger seat, making animal-like noises of satisfaction” (244).

Ondaatje's goal here is to collapse the novel's complex narratives—including his improvised solo which rearranges history and obliges the reader to reconfigure his/her concept of historical narrative to include the marginal as well as the famous—into the story of a single individual, Patrick Lewis. Like a jazz musician, Patrick is passing on the tale of his life (or solo) and that of the age in which he has lived (or chorus). Like the chord progression that paradoxically joins melody and improvisation, Patrick, like Ondaatje and the reader, is both an individual and a part of his particular historical and cultural moment. The recipient of his knowledge is his adoptive daughter Hana who represents the future. Appropriately, she does not know how to drive and Patrick must coach her as they proceed into the night.

Insofar as Hana appears later as the central character of The English Patient, the conclusion leads paradoxically back to the beginning of the novel and onward to the future. Ondaatje, it should be noted, is remarkable for this kind of continuity; explosives and explosions, for instance, figure significantly in Skin of a Lion as they do in The English Patient. In commenting on the novel's final line/word, Michael Greenstein has argued that Patrick's command of “Lights” (244) refers not merely to the automobile's headlights but also suggests the moment when filming is about to commence, as in the director's order “Lights, camera, action” (118). I would argue, however, that jazz can be credited as being at least one of Ondaatje's inspirations for such a cyclic frame. Just as a jazz tune typically begins and ends with a statement of the preset melody, so it is possible to regard the novel itself as a form of improvisation which, in its return to the frame at the end, is ordered by Patrick's narration.

In The Imperfect Art Gioia remarks that there is a strong relationship between jazz improvisation and the oral tradition (130). This same orality can be seen in the way that Patrick's story or solo connects with the novel's title, which simultaneously refers back to The Epic of Gilgamesh with its vernacular provenance and within the novel to the performance that Alice puts on at the waterworks—wherein a skin becomes the narrative device that empowers individuals to tell their stories before they pass it on to the next story-teller. The telling of our individual stories, our solos, Ondaatje seems to say, at once defines us and confirms out place in the chorus of our culture.

Ondaatje's use of “solos and chorus” in Skin of a Lion thus functions as an instructive example of how the formal rules of jazz might profitably be applied not only to other literary works, but also any study that is concerned with the dynamic between the individual narrative and that of society at large. Indeed, in “Miles Davis Meets Noam Chomsky,” Alan Perlman and Daniel Greenblatt have argued that jazz improvisation provides interesting insights into the nature of linguistic practice; as they see it, the individual speaker uses his/her implicit knowledge of grammatical rules, which function much like the chord progression in jazz, to construct speech in an individualized fashion. Similarly, the improvisation and retrospective ordering that characterizes jazz might also provide helpful directives for those investigating the schema aspects of cognition or reader-response dynamics. And wider yet, jazz theory might also offer productive models for researchers in disciplines like political science, sociology and anthropology, as well as anyone concerned with understanding the dialectic between the individual and society.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny's Blues.” Norton Anthology: The Shorter Fifth. Ed. Carl Bain. New York: Norton, 1991. 28-50.

Balliett, Whitney. “Tom and Jeru.” New Yorker 15 April 1996: 93-95.

Baraka, Amiri [Leroi Jones]. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Morrow, 1963.

Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Britt, Stan. Dexter Gordon: A Musical Biography. New York: Da Capo, 1989. Rpt. of Long Tall Dexter. 1989.

Butterfield, Martha. “The One Lighted Room: In the Skin of a Lion.Canadian Literature 119 (Winter 1988): 162-67.

Coker, Jerry. Improvising Jazz. 1964. New York: Simon, 1987.

———. Listening to Jazz. New York: Prentice, 1978.

Collier, James Lincoln. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston: Houghton, 1978.

Ellison, Ralph. “The Charlie Christian Story.” Shadow and Act. London: Secker and Warburg, 1967. 233-40.

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

Gamlin, Gordon. “Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and the Oral Narrative.” Canadian Literature 135 (Winter 1992): 68-77.

Gioia, Ted. The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

———. West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Gitler, Ira. Jazz Masters of the '40s. 1966. New York: Da Capo, 1983.

Greenstein, Michael. “Ondaatje's Metamorphoses: In the Skin of a Lion.Canadian Literature 126 (Summer 1989): 116-30.

Gridley, Mark. Jazz Styles. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1963.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge. 1988.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Blues. Intro. Robert Creeley. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Klinck, Carl. ed. Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965.

Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford, 1977.

Lovelock, William. A Student's Dictionary of Music. Norwich, UK: Elkin, 1964.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Narrative.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Thomas McLaughlin and Frank Lentricchia. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 66-79.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1990.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. 1983. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Ondaatje, Michael. Coming through Slaughter. Toronto: Anansi, 1976.

———. The English Patient. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992.

———. In the Skin of a Lion. 1987. London: Penguin, 1988.

———. Secular Love. Toronto: Coach House, 1984.

———. There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978. New York: Norton, 1979.

Ostransky, Leroy. The Anatomy of Jazz. 1960. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1973.

———. Jazz City: The Impact of Our Cities on the Development of Jazz. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

———. Understanding Jazz. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Perlman, Alan, and Daniel Greenblatt. “Miles Davis Meets Noam Chomsky: Some Observations on Jazz Improvisation and Language Structure.” The Sign in Music and Literature. Ed. Wendy Steiner. Austin: U of Texas P: 1981. 169-83.

Spaethling, Robert. “Literature and Music.” Teaching Literature and Other Arts. Ed. Jean-Pierre Barricelli, Joseph Gibaldi and Estella Lauter. New York: MLA, 1990. 54-60.

Tirro, Frank. Jazz: A History. New York: Norton, 1977.

Sharyn Emery (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Emery, Sharyn. “‘Call Me by My Name’: Personal Identity and Possession in The English Patient.Literature Film Quarterly 28, no. 3 (2000): 210-13.

[In the following essay, Emery contrasts the gendered differences of attitudes toward personal identity and ownership in The English Patient and its film adaptation.]

Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient and the 1996 Anthony Minghella film that was adapted from it deal with how we as individuals identify ourselves and how we identify others. What names do we ascribe to people, and what boundaries do those names create in our lives? These contemporary themes are explored against the backdrop of the years leading up to and following the Second World War, where the wrong name could prove to be very dangerous when spoken in the wrong land. Almasy insists on naming and describing Katharine in terms of the desert, while she firmly defines herself by her “Britishness.” As Count Almasy loses Katharine by misnaming her, we see the tragic effect of his possessive love of a woman unwilling to compromise her own definition of herself.

Count Lazlo de Almasy, as the Hungarian who hungers for the British and married Katharine Clifton, dismisses all boundaries: national, societal, and patriarchal. He often speaks of his disdain for the restrictions imposed by nations and family names. “I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states” (Ondaatje 138). Almasy goes onto describe his desire to do away with his own name in the presence of the desert: “I didn't want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert” (139). Almasy loses himself in the desert, which he feels is a holy place, which can never be owned or named:

The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battled and treaties quilted Europe and the East … It was a place of faith. We disappeared into the landscape.


Despite feeling this way. Almasy is on a mapping expedition, which defines boundaries and lines of ownership. It is perhaps his inability to reconcile these two attitudes that lead to his crimes later in the novel. Almasy shifts nationalities throughout the course of the story: he is originally Hungarian, but is thought at some times to be British, at other times, German. He speaks several languages; he cares not for loyalty to country, his one desire being to map the desert that so captivates him. “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. By the time the war had arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation” (139). He had no desire to possess anything or to ally himself with anyone at this point in his life, but this changes when he meets Katharine Clifton.

Katharine Clifton first meets Count Almasy in the desert, as her husband, Geoffery, joins the exploration team. The Count and Katharine become lovers, and the love they share crosses the boundaries that constrict them: “His [Almasy's] hunger wishes to burn down all social rules, all courtesy” (155). Therefore it is no wonder that their relationship begins and ends in the desert, a place with ill-defined boundaries far away from society and its constraints.

The two lovers are quite different from one another, and both are uncompromising in their characteristics. Almasy spends most of his time and even allies himself with the desert, a place of intense heat and dryness, which are, historically, characteristics of masculinity. Katharine, however, is quite the opposite. She is constantly described as a moist, wet creature, characteristics of femininity. She loves Almasy despite these differences, and tries to understand what it means to her lover.

She was a woman who had grown up … among moistness. Her passion for the desert was temporary. She'd come to love its sternness because of him, wanting to understand his comfort in its solitude. She was always happier in rain, in bathrooms steaming with liquid air. …


The film describes Katharine's moistness through the words of her husband, Geoffery: “She's in love with the hotel plumbing. She's either in the swimming pool—she swims for hours, she's a fish, quite incredible—or she's in the bath” (Minghella 46). These differences are explored visually as Katharine washes Almasy's hair in his bathroom. Here she attempts to draw Almasy into her “moist” world, but she is unsuccessful. As the film progresses, Almasy sucks away Katharine's moisture, little by little. After an intensely passionate encounter with Almasy, Katharine pleads with her husband: “Can't we really go home? I can't breathe. [I'm] dying for green, anything green, or rain” (94). The desert (Almasy) is beginning to take its toll on her body.

Possessed lands are often referred to in terms of the female body, and The English Patient explores this practice with the central image of the desert:

There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Some old Arab poet's woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name.


Count Almasy echoes these practices when talking about Katharine saying, “How do I explain her to you? With the use of my hands? The way I can are out in the air the shape of a mesa or rock?” (235). Almasy even finds it difficult to write with Katharine on his mind: “The fear of describing her presence as I wrote caused me to burn down all sentiment, all rhetoric of love. Still, I described the desert as purely as I would have spoken of her” (241). The film translates these themes into visual imagery as Almasy discovers the Cave of Swimmers, which is surrounded by rocks “in the shape of a woman's back.” His equation of Katharine with the desert produces some of the film's most striking images. When Almasy enters the Cave of Swimmers, he examines an indentation in the rock that fits his fingers, an image repeated as he examines the hollow at the base of Katharine's neck. The desert that is so central to the novel and the film is the Libyan Desert, which has more sand dunes than any other desert on earth. Almasy refers to “the deserts of Libya” as “the loveliest phrase I know” (Ondaatje 257). The dunes are the desert's most picturesque feature, and are shown at the beginning and end of the film, clearly an image reminiscent of the hollow in Katharine's neck. It is also of interest to note that sand dunes are considered to be very dangerous to cross, and desert travel routes avoid them completely. In his affair with Katharine, Almasy even ignores the law of the desert, a place he held in the deepest respect.

Count Almasy, while disdainful of those who try to own the desert, believes he can own Katharine as their relationship progresses. In the beginning, when asked what he hates most, he says he hates ownership. Later on, he sees Katharine's body as distinctly his, saying “This is my shoulder … not her husband's, this is my shoulder” (156). In his insistence to name Katharine as his own, he contradicts his prior belief that the desert could not be owned. Now, it can be owned, but only by Almasy. In the film, this change of attitude by Almasy is concurrent with his first mention of his Hungarian nationality. The Count plays a record that has a special connection to his own ethnicity. “It's a folk song … Hungarian. My daijka sang it to me when I was a child in Budapest” (Minghella 99). At the same time Almasy recognizes his ethnicity, he begins to claim Katharine as his own. When Almasy had been in the desert, choosing to remain nationless, he believed ownership was futile. The film connects nationalism with possession, or colonialism. Nations mean boundaries, the very things Almasy had to ignore to get to Katharine, yet now he places boundaries around her. This creates the problem, as Katharine refuses to be named/owned in this way.

Katharine remains married to her husband despite her strong connection to Almasy, because she believes it is the right thing to do. It is she who ends the affair, telling Almasy she cannot go on with the deception, for her husband's sake. “I think he will go mad” (Ondaatje 157), she says, as she bids Almasy goodbye. Although he is deeply hurt by her leaving, it is her conviction he most admires. “He cannot alter what he loves most about her, her lack of compromise … Outside these qualities he knows there is no order in the world” (157). Katharine continues to define herself in terms of her British heritage and her own name, even as she lies dying in the Cave of Swimmers. “Kiss me and call me by my name” (173), she pleads, although she is alone except for Almasy.

The issue of identification comes to a head in the novel/film as Almasy attempts to get help from the English to save Katharine. Almasy identifies Katharine as his wife in asking for help, and the English arrest him because he is foreign, and therefore under suspicion of being a spy. He is taken away, and his “wife” is left to die. When Caravaggio asks why the English didn't listen to him, Almasy replies, “I didn't give them a right name … I said she was my wife … I was yelling Katharine's name. I was yelling the Gilf Kebir. Whereas the only name I should have yelled, dropped like a calling card into their hands, was Clifton's” (250-51). Katharine died because she was not identified according to her husband's last name, a patriarchal boundary the lovers had swept aside.

Referring to the deaths of Katharine and his best friend Madox, Almasy says, “It is important to die in holy places. That was one of the secrets of the desert” (260). Madox dies in a church, Almasy will eventually die in a monastery, and Katharine dies in the desert, the only place Almasy believed God existed. Specifically, Katharine dies in the Cave of Swimmers, a sort of hybrid between her moisture and Almasy's dry heat. Almasy tried to make Katharine his holy place, by naming her for his own. In death he maps her into the desert, by mentally painting her into the Cave of Swimmers: “He looks up onto one cave painting and stole the colours from it. The ochre went into her face, he daubed blue around her eyes” (248). In the film, Almasy takes the desert-colored saffron from Katharine's thimble and spreads it over her face. Eventually, Katharine's body does become part of the desert; when Almasy is flying her out, he hits a tree, and starts an oil leak that causes the plane to burst into flames. “She collapses—limbs begin disappearing in the suck of air … the woman translated into leaves and twigs” (175). Her body is now an eternal part of the desert's landscape; the body he sought to own is now part of a land he believed could never be possessed.

The English Patient shows us that while we may seek to remove boundaries from our lives, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to move beyond those traditional roles/names that define who we are. When Katharine laments “you killed almost everything in me” (257), she refers to Almasy's fierce determination to name her for his own, and his desire to strip away the things that she used to identify herself: her name, her husband, and her heritage. In a way Katharine was as elusive as the desert to Almasy; he believed he owned her body, her heart, and her name, yet he was as foolish as those he condemned for thinking they could own the desert. He could no more own his beloved Katharine than he could the desert that he also loved.


Editor's Note: This paper was originally written for Professor Kathy Howlett at Northwestern University in 1977. It is published here with thanks to Professor Howlett and Alberta Emery who read and responded to the early drafts.

Works Cited

The English Patient. Dir. Anthony Minghella. With Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, and Kristen Scott Thomas. Miramax, 1996.

Minghella, Anthony. The English Patient: A Screenplay. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

S. Leigh Matthews (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Matthews, S. Leigh. “‘The Bright Bone of a Dream’: Drama, Performativity, Ritual, and Community in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family.Biography 23, no. 2 (spring 2000): 352-71.

[In the following essay, Matthews connects the autobiographical elements of Running in the Family with conventional dramatic techniques in order to demonstrate the work's ritualized “performance” of personal, familial, and community identity.]

The part always has a tendency to reunite with its whole in order to escape from its imperfections.

—Leonardo da Vinci

I go back there a lot now and I go back to complete myself, I think.

—Michael Ondaatje, Interview with Ariel Dorfman

Given the popularity of performance theory in modern day academic circles, and the open-ended definition of the word “performance” provided by such theorists as Richard Schechner,1 it is inevitable that the long-accepted analogy of “life as theatre” would be extended to that particular literary genre known as “autobiography,” or more inclusively, as “life writing.”2 While many literary critics have made the connection between life writing and dramatic technique, Evelyn J. Hinz's 1992 essay “Mimesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography” fully articulates a “poetics” of life writing which highlights the genre's “dramatic affinities” (195). Using Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family (1992) as my example, I would like to suggest that in certain texts the type of performance is ritual in nature—a reiterative therapeutic act, before an audience, meant to aid the writer in enacting a public performance of the marginalized self as a way of reintegrating that self into its familial/communal origins. Even Ondaatje's earliest works display his preoccupation with both performance and communal identity. I am also suggesting that Ondaatje's choice of the memoir form for Running underscores this concern with reintegrating self and social context through performance, and further, that the public representation of communal selfhood in Running is in fact a “metasocial performance” that exposes the limitations of Western concepts of subjectivity and historiography.

Hinz locates the beginning of the “dramatic lineage of auto/biography” in Aristotle's Poetics, the “oldest attempt to define the generic features of drama” (198).3 Like drama, auto/biographical documents have “an element of conflict and dialogue, a sense of performance and/or spectatorship, and a mimetic or referential quality” (195). Hinz further suggests that auto/biography simulates drama's “visual immediacy or quality of actual presence” through “recourse to pictorial metaphors”—most notably, the use of the term “portrait” (196). More significantly for my purpose, Hinz also notes—although surprisingly only in terms of biographical texts—that photographs “constitute a major component” in many works of life writing, providing a sort of visual gallery whose pictures “dramatize” descriptions of people and places. Hinz then argues for the historical “sisterhood” of drama and auto/biography by giving examples of moments when the two arts come together, from the “earliest depiction of individual lives” in classical tragedy to the “epic or melodramatic nature” of the eighteenth-century novel, and on to twentieth-century works (196-97).

Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family is one of those contemporary works. Certainly the narrative contains the “conflict and dialogue” which Hinz suggests characterize the dramatic elements of auto/biographical texts. As the author searches for his father and his cultural roots, for instance, he continually encounters the vagaries and contradictions of collective memory when playing over historical “truth.” Speaking of his family, Ondaatje notes that “No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgements thrown in. In this way history is organized” (19). He dramatizes this observation in the sections entitled “Lunch Conversation,” “Dialogues,” and “Final Days: Father Tongue,” which record the imprecise and various recollections of those members of Ondaatje's family who participated in those long-past events. What drives this process is the author's attempt to make sense of the memories shared of his father, which together compose a complex, contradictory picture of a man, a time, and a place, known intimately by everyone and no one. Faced with this uncertainty, Ondaatje resorts to gathering the strands: “There is so much to know and we can only guess. Guess around him. To know him from these stray actions I am told about by those who loved him” (171).

This narrative “I,” engaged in a search for the father, provides the “mimetic or referential quality” which Hinz identifies as another dramatic feature of auto/biography. Though Running opens with an untitled and italicized section which refers to the writer-protagonist as “he,” in the rest of the text the “I” clearly meets the criteria of Philippe Lejeune's autobiographical pact—the agreement with the reader that author, narrator, and protagonist are one. The name on the cover is of course Michael Ondaatje. In the section titled “Asia,” the reader is told that the narrator “I” will be “travelling back to the family I had grown from” (16), a family identified as “Ondaatje” in the section “Jaffna Afternoons.” So close are these correspondences that having resolved to “write” his relatives—“I wanted to touch them into words” (16)—in the later section “Monsoon Notebooks (iii),” he eventually records himself engaged in that act of writing—of trying to contain all the chaos (Monsoon) of the past within the order (Notebook) of the present: “Watch the hand move. Waiting for it to say something, to stumble casually on perception, the shape of an unknown thing” (162).

To recreate his familial and cultural past in Ceylon4—that “shape of an unknown thing”—Ondaatje must rely upon his own imaginative powers. His first goal will be to reanimate his own sense of his living family: “I realised I would be travelling back to the family I had grown from—those relations from my parents' generation who stood in my memory like frozen opera” (16). Reestablishing contact with these relatives is essential to his self-performance, for as Ondaatje states, “I grew up in a family that was pretty theatrical, where stories were essentially told verbally as opposed to being written” (Bush 239). Out of his reunions with these figures emerge one by one the characters who not only dominated his childhood, but who instilled in him the need for dramatic presentation in one's personal life. Principal among them are his parents, both “hams of a very superior sort” (Running 135). According to Ondaatje, it was his mother who “instilled theatre in all of us. She was determined that we would each be as good an actor as she was” (144). And although his father's “actions were minimal and more private” (143), he too possessed a “dramatic nature.” Given these players, Ondaatje family life was often self-consciously theatrical, especially when his mother, seeking to “cure” her husband of “manic alcoholic consumption,” engages in “theatrical wars” against him: “In his moments of darkness she drew on every play she had been in or had read and used it as a weapon, knowing that when my father sobered up this essentially shy man would be appalled to hear how my mother had over-reacted” (144-45).

For the most part, however, such scenes took place in private. Ondaatje's maternal grandmother Lalla was a far more public performer—so much so that Ondaatje's father, we are told, “couldn't stand his mother-in-law, Lalla, for what he saw as her crudeness” (143). From her first entry into the world, “born outdoors, abruptly, during a picnic,” Lalla lived a life of “daily theatre” (97)—from her documented and much applauded retort to a Judge while giving evidence in court (“‘Who can say, My Lord My God, some people may find you good looking’”); to her open “ravaging” of “some of the best gardens in Colombo and Nuwara Eliya”; to her many escapades with her “false breast,” worn after her “unnecessary” mastectomy (93-104); and culminating in her “last perfect journey” (104-108), a spectacular drowning performed with bravado and humor.

Small wonder then that Ondaatje refers to Lalla as the “centre of the world she moved through” (104). Yet paradoxically, self-reference in Running seems less individually centered and more communal. While James Olney has noted that autobiography “is also (or can be and often has been) the most rarefied and self-conscious of literary performances” (4), Michael Ondaatje instead creates a public, theatrical space for performing himself in ways that do not justify his sense of independence, but rather perform the rediscovery of his personal interdependence within a specific familial and cultural community. This distinction will not be new to students of autobiography. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has described how the notion that “individualism figures as the very stuff of autobiography” (20) governs the work of such theorists as George Gusdorf, who stresses not only the autobiographer's “conscious awareness of the singularity of each life,” but also his need to “oppose himself to all others,” and even to feel “himself to exist outside of others” (29). As a result Gusdorf argues that autobiography is a “late product of a specific civilization,” what Fox-Genovese clarifies as “modern bourgeois culture” (20). In more recent theorizations, this autonomous individual, whether seen as a humanist “absolute” with a pretextual existence, or as a postmodernist “product of the act of writing” (21), has been deconstructed in favor of being “grounded in ties of community—ties of class and race, of kinship and culture” (26).5 Building on this claim, Evelyn J. Hinz argues that “perhaps the reason auto/biographical documents are so abundant in the Western tradition has to do with the extent to which they provide a sense of the communal that we lack” (208). Reestablishing the link between modern auto/biography and more “primitive societies” characterized by both ritual and communalism is therefore the next logical theoretical step.

Before exploring how Michael Ondaatje creates a communal selfhood in Running to compensate for that modern cultural “lack,” I will briefly examine how long-standing dramatic and communal preoccupations shaped his earlier work. Variously a poet, a critic, an editor, a novelist, a screenplay writer, and a film director, he cannot be narrowly categorized. The performative quality of his works, however, has been widely noted. Ondaatje himself claims that in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970), he was “trying to make the movie I couldn't afford to shoot, in the form of a book” (Solecki, “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1975)” 20). Coming through Slaughter (1976) documents the life of jazz musician Buddy Bolden, “whose famous cornet performances were never captured on records” (Jones 11). Both of these works were adapted for the stage: first performed in 1973, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid has had numerous productions, while Coming through Slaughter reached the stage rather less successfully in 1980 (Mundwiler 14-19). During the same period, Ondaatje was directing films: The Sons of Captain Poetry (1970) documents the performance poetry of B. P. Nichol and the Four Horsemen, while Carry on Crime and Punishment (1972) is performed by “family members and friends” (Finkle 173).

It is in The Clinton Special (1974), however, a film about Theatre Passe Muraille's “documentary-theatre project” The Farm Show, that we find that creative convergence of autobiographical thinking, dramatic form, and communal identity-seeking which will also appear in Running. Ondaatje's film records the theatre company's search for, and representation of, the spirit and history of the farming community of Clinton, Ontario. After living within the community for a period of time, the actors and director then “adapted stories, characters, anecdotes, and so on into a sequence of dramatic episodes” which were rehearsed and performed as The Farm Show (Testa 159). While discussing The Clinton Special in a 1974 interview with Sam Solecki, Ondaatje described how “drama,” which he had consigned to the status of “dead art,” had become vital for him: “I began to think of all the possibilities that were in the theatre; the whole of documentary drama, the possibilities of finding your own mythology in your own landscape” (15). As Derek Finkle has observed, this quest for “your own mythology in your own landscape” links Ondaatje's documentary with his family and personal memoir:

The task the theatre company confronted in creating The Farm Show is much like the one Ondaatje faced in writing Running in the Family. The actors' ability to take everyday experiences and transform them into dramatic scenes that helped to define what [TPM director Paul] Thompson hoped would be a distinctly Canadian mythology parallels Ondaatje's ability to create a sense of myth out of the collected stories, rumours, and photographs of his family. In both play and book, the scenes, acted and written, envelop a sense of community, and, in doing so, progress without the benefit of a traditional plotline or narrative.


This “envelopment” of the “sense of community” contributed to the generic difficulties Running has famously posed readers. As Smaro Kamboureli notes, the book's “generic indeterminacy” is echoed “in the reviewers' and critics' attempts to define it vis-à-vis the specifications of certain genres” (79-80). Though most critics describe the text as an autobiographical work, many also insist on its biographical content, since the reader actually learns less about the author than about certain family members—most notably his father Mervyn Ondaatje and his maternal grandmother Lalla.6 Such reactions have led other critics to call Running a “family chronicle” (Jewinski 112), or even “a brightly colored, animated family photograph album” (Sward 23). Timothy Dow Adams has argued that the theme of inheritance suggested by the book's title means that all of Ondaatje's biographical endeavors are necessarily autobiographical, for only by going back and rediscovering his familial and cultural origins can he come to understand himself better (Running 94). In this sense, biography is “an act of creation, including self-creation” (99). Some years before, in a discussion of “Generic and Other Slippages” in Ondaatje's text, Smaro Kamboureli argued that Running “is not, in fact cannot be, autobiography because the book's meaning is inscribed in the registers of its many genres which deconstruct the autobiographical privileging of self-referentiality” (81). I find it useful to think of Running as an example of memoir writing, that specific sub-genre of autobiography which “privileges” the referentiality of the individual's social and cultural community as the necessary ground for representing the autos.7

Several critics have identified context as the defining characteristic of memoir. As early as 1977, Marcus Billson notes that memoirs represent a self “being-in-the-world rather than becoming-in-the-world” (261). For Billson, the narrative “I” therefore proceeds on the assumption that “man's ontology derives from his historical context” (267). But Billson assumes that those segments of the memoirist's life “important to his identity as a social being” will be those of “extraordinary interest and importance”—”an exile, an imprisonment, the course of a career, participating in war, in politics, in an artistic coterie” (267, 261, 267). In this way, Billson relegates the person's more immediate context—the family—to the margins:

the memorialist may mention his childhood, his parents, traditions of his social class, but these facts are treated tangentially—at most, in the spirit of detailing ingredients in a recipe. Never does the author integrate these influences as dynamic forces in the evolving process of psychic growth.


Ondaatje's title counters this claim by suggesting that it is this personally specific context that provides the most important ground for self-identification. More recent theorists of the memoir have made this point repeatedly, often in relation to Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1975). Helen M. Buss argues that for “writers not usually part of establishment culture” (“Listening” 199), the memoir avoids the familiar stress upon the individual by “always maintaining a biographical and memorial concentration on the other to contextualize the self” (“Memoir” 205). Lee Quinby agrees, arguing that “by refusing the totalizing individual of the modern era,” Kingston anticipated Foucault's call to “promote new forms of subjectivity” (424, qtd. in Quinby 297).8

In addition to reflecting the communal nature of his self-conception, Ondaatje's choice of the memoir form also draws support from the ritual function of life writing in “the modern era.” Traditionally considered, “autobiography is equally a work of art and life, for no one writes such a book until he has lived out the requisite years” (Howarth 86). In opposition to this notion that autobiography records the self's progress over time to a state of miraculous wholeness, Elizabeth W. Bruss asks, “What power or principle can be invoked to determine the nature of autobiography's supreme task, or even to stipulate that there must be one and only one such task?” (2). In Ondaatje's case, any view that “the autobiographer must trace the teleology of his life” (Bruss 1) would prove virtually useless for the simple reason that the writer chose to publish an autobiographical text at the relatively early age of thirty-nine. Nor does Running conform to Billson's assertion that “the memoir as genre is closely associated with periods of crisis: both historical crises, such as wars and revolutions, and intellectual crises … such as periods of intellectual and spiritual transition” (280). What Billson has in mind here is the public life of such historical and political figures as Julius Caesar, Saint-Simon, and Winston Churchill—those for whom there is a need to “bestow upon posterity the insight and knowledge it never would otherwise have had without him” (268). Although “transition” and “crisis” are certainly terms applicable to Running, Hinz's comments on life writing as ritual act are, I believe, more useful. According to Hinz, for both the autobiographer and society, “the impetus for ritual act derives from a crisis situation or a sense of vulnerability (a feeling of diminished status/power).” Both also hold to a “belief that a return to origins is a means of recuperating lost vitality and stability” (207). For this reason, Hinz concludes that auto/biography is not “a uniquely modern phenomenon,” and further, that it is a “mistaken belief that primitive societies are totally without forms of auto/biographical expression” (207-208).

For contemporary writers, then, auto/biography as practiced in the memoir form might well represent one of the few rituals still available in a secularized Western culture. In any case the resolution of self and origins in a ritual act of “auto/biographical expression” is clearly at the heart of Ondaatje's Running in the Family. Ondaatje's “crisis situation” is described in the section “Asia”: “What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto. I was sleeping at a friend's house. I saw my father, chaotic …” (15). The dreamer awakes “weeping,” his “shoulders and face exhausted,” feeling as though he is “in a jungle, hot, sweating,” even though he is “sleeping at a friend's house” during the Canadian winter. As Winfried Siemerling suggests, such a moment “brings two worlds together that previously appeared isolated. For a moment, the image of the other appears as metaphor of an aspect of the self” (137). Or as Michel de Certeau would put it, this is a “propitious moment”: an instant when the individual—the “consumer” or “user” for de Certeau, but for this paper, more properly the autobiographical or performative subject—makes the tactical decision, seizes the opportunity, to “combine heterogeneous elements” of himself (xix).

De Certeau goes on to claim that “the space of a tactic is the space of the other” (37). This is certainly the case for the dreamer in Running, suspended between his real physical placement and the nightmare of his father in Ceylon. At this moment, the West's demand for the “cultural affirmation of a normative ‘self’” proves inadequate, as the dream contradicts a previous “evacuation of unruly heterogeneity within the individual” that the normative self requires (Smith, “Performativity” 19). The culturally assimilated, Torontonian adult academic/artist self apparently can no longer stay contained from the culturally marginalized, Ceylonese childhood self. The chaotic reappearance of the father, the chief representative of familial and cultural origins, destabilizes the author, robs him of his “comfort and order.” Running “traverses,” as Siemerling suggests, “the thetic boundary between the comfort and order' of the self's life and the space of the other associated with chaos and unreality” (138). Only a physical return can link these spaces. As Ondaatje explains, “I knew I was already running” (16).

In response to this dream, he plans his “journey back.” It is not until two months later, however, when “dancing and laughing wildly” at his farewell party—an eerie reincarnation of his father's own drunken performances—that Ondaatje becomes fully aware of the psychological space his physical journey will carry him across. No longer simply a dream image, the father and his accompanying chaos now inhabit the author's body, exhibited by his “growing wildness” while performing tricks “only possible when drunk and relaxed” (15-16). At this point, then, only in moments of extreme relaxation, such as sleeping and drinking, can Ondaatje apparently be aware of the shaping force of his familial and cultural past. Sidonie Smith suggests that this is how the unconscious functions, as a “repository of all the experiences and desires that cannot be identified with the symbolic realm and its laws of citationality, those calls to take up normative subject positions.” The unconscious in short is “the repository of surplus, or excess, of unbidden and forbidden performativity” (“Performativity” 20). Evelyn J. Hinz elaborates on this notion by suggesting that, just as the “actor/actress assumes the role of another, so autobiography involves coming to terms with another self (either earlier or hitherto unrecognized). In both cases a sacrifice of ego is involved, and the degree of pleasure is in proportion to the amount of conflict” (200). For Ondaatje, this earlier emerging self is that of his father, and his memoir is an attempt to “communicate some of the fragments,” some of the “unruly heterogeneity,” within himself (Running 16).

Since Ondaatje decides to return to the origins of his own identity-making in response to the father, it should not be surprising that King Lear becomes a symbolic script for this psychological journey. In a section called “Blind Faith,” Ondaatje uses the estrangement of Gloucester and his son Edgar as an emblem for his own separation from his father when his mother decided to leave Ceylon, almost thirty years before Ondaatje writes this memoir. “I long for the moment in the play where Edgar reveals himself to Gloucester and it never happens,” Ondaatje writes, “Look I am the son who has grown up. I am the son you have made hazardous, who still loves you” (152). Unlike Edgar, Michael Ondaatje never revealed that later self he became to his father—“Always separate until he died, away from us. The north pole” (146). And yet, though Ondaatje's claim to his patrilineal inheritance of identity comes too late biographically, in the section “Thanikama,” Mervyn Ondaatje is seen searching for a “lost” book—“not Shakespeare, not those plays of love he wept over too easily”—but rather the work written by his son:

In the bathroom ants had attacked the novel thrown on the floor by the commode. A whole battalion was carrying one page away from its source, carrying the intimate print as if rolling a tablet away from him. He knelt down on the red tile, slowly, not wishing to disturb their work. It was page 189. He had not got that far in the book yet but he surrendered it to them.


It is through literary performances like these that Ondaatje seeks to gain entry back to the world of his past, and thereby engender another self for the audience—his lost childhood self. Though he describes himself as “now part of an adult's ceremony” (152), at the beginning of Running he notes that “In my mid-thirties I realised I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood” (16). His desire to recover and reintegrate that lost childhood self into his “adult's ceremony” leads him to enact a form of ritualized reintegration of the self into its communal origins.

In The Rites of Passage, Arnold Van Gennep asserts that “the life of an individual in any society is a series of passages from one age to another and from one occupation to another” (2). Such transitions are marked by “ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined” (3). Viewed in this light, Ondaatje “slipped past” the transition from childhood to adulthood because, as he admits, the former had been “ignored and not understood”—or in Van Gennep's terms, not “well defined.” In a 1995 interview, Ondaatje discusses this “dissociation” from his past (Coleman 62):

Well I think when I left [Ceylon] at the age of eleven, in order to kind of live in England or go to school in England, I thought I had to forget my past, not out of a desire to forget it, but in order to cope with the present. And so … it wasn't until I went back to Sri Lanka at the age of something like thirty or thirty-five that I could kind of look at my past and understand myself, where I came from.


This return conforms closely to Van Gennep's three-part “complete scheme of rites of passage”: “preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation)” (11). Ondaatje's “journey back” does not only initiate the process of separation “from one sociocultural state and status to another” (Turner, “Frame” 34), but as cultural performance theorist Victor Turner notes, this separation phase typically “changes the quality of time also, or constructs a cultural realm which is defined as ‘out of time,’ i.e., beyond or outside the time which measures secular processes and routines” (From Ritual 24). Furthermore, separation “includes symbolic behaviour … which represents the detachment of the ritual subjects … from their previous social statuses.” The wild dancing at the farewell party is such behavior, initiating the spatial and temporal changes from “antecedent mundane life” (Turner, “Liminality” 21). The intended return home perfectly accords with the relationship theorists of ritual have drawn “between spatial journeys and life-phase journeys.” As Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry note, the journey ubiquitously functions “as an analogue of growing up” (23). Ondaatje feels that he has “grown from” his childhood; his physical return is a necessary step toward “growing up.” Sometimes this wish is explicit: “Look I am the son who has grown up,” he dreams of telling his father (Running 152). At other times he captures this idea in an image: “I see my own straining body which stands shaped like a star,” he dreams, “and realise gradually I am part of a human pyramid. Below me are other bodies that I am standing on and above me are several more, though I am quite near the top” (20). This image of interdependence illustrates perfectly what Victor Turner calls the “dimensions of human relatedness”: “we are for, against, with, toward, above, below, within, outside, or without one another” (“Liminality” 19).

But before he can be reincorporated into his familial and cultural pyramid, Ondaatje must undergo that second liminal phase, the “betwixt-and-between condition often involving seclusion from the everyday scene.” In this phase, “the subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence” (Turner, “Frame” 34). In this state, the writer is displaced, marginal—“ambiguity reigns” (Turner, “Liminality” 23). As he makes his plans to return, Ondaatje knows that he “was running to Asia and everything would change” (Running 16). But the transition will require more. He must enter fully the chaotic, liminal world of his father, which he equates with the jungles of Ceylon (an entrance that begins, as we have seen, while still in Toronto—he wakes from dreaming about his father, feeling that he is “in a jungle, hot, sweating” (15)). When in Ceylon, Ondaatje imagines a physical/psychological engagement with the jungle in which “thorn trees in the garden send their hard roots underground towards the house climbing through windows so they can drink sweat off his body, steal the last of the saliva off his tongue” (11). Ondaatje's fear of the jungle's chaos informs his image of his father standing in the bathroom: “and nature advanced. Tea bush became jungle, branches put their arms into the windows. If you stood still you were invaded” (160). As the novice or initiate in this liminal jungle world, Ondaatje, as he seeks to rewrite the history of his family and of Ceylonese society, is “taught that [he] did not know what [he] thought [he] knew” (Turner, From Ritual 42). When asked in a 1990 interview, “Did you go back and re-create stories that you remembered, or were you discovering a whole other world that you hadn't known,” Ondaatje answered “It was more a discovery” (Bush 239). I would suggest that it was even more an invasion, by a multiplicity of voices and versions of the past, which he gathers together into a collective production.

Particularly crucial to what could be called this self-invasion are Ondaatje's aunts, who collectively “knit the story together, each memory a wild thread in the sarong” (Running 90). His “half deaf and blind” Aunt Dolly, for instance, helps him in his performance by embodying in herself memory (autobiography), the liminal nature of the jungle (ritual), and human relatedness (community). As she recalls an old family photo, Ondaatje suggests that

it has moved tangible, palpable, into her brain, the way memory invades the present in those who are old, the way gardens invade houses here, the way her tiny body steps into mine as intimate as anything I have witnessed and I have to force myself to be gentle with this frailty in the midst of my embrace.


In seeking to represent such permeable boundaries, Ondaatje resorts to a “multiplicity of media,” striving “for a totality of information” (Pesch 111). And yet, his efforts are still creative, a fact which has led critics to label Running a “fictional memoir” (Adams, “Running” 99). In point of fact, though, invention is an important component of both ritual and the memoir genre. As Turner explains, the state of chaotic yet receptive liminality is “a phase peculiarly conducive to such ‘ludic’ invention,” for it is in this state that “elements of novelty” are introduced into the “socially inherited deposit of ritual customs” (From Ritual 31-32). In “Jaffna Afternoons,” Ondaatje describes the process this way: “we will trade anecdotes and faint memories, trying to swell them with the order of dates and asides, interlocking them all as if assembling the hull of a ship” (Running 19). This collective ordering through “swelling” is a Ceylonese cultural ritual. With reference to those family and friends thanked in his “Acknowledgements,” Ondaatje remarks, “if those listed above disapprove of the fictional air I apologize and can only say that in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts” (176).

Similar claims have been made about the memoir. Marcus Billson notes that particular places, times, and characters in memoirs are evoked through skillful telling:

Individual memoirs become literary works of art through the successful and pleasing deployment of various techniques customarily associated with artful narrative: characterization, dialogue, stream of consciousness, and landscape description. These contribute to the aesthetic appearance and impact of the memoir.


As a result, “the memoir is ever the product, the synthesis of a confrontation between the experienced past and the imagination of the memorialist” (263). Theorists of autobiography see the literary genre as itself in transition, as an earlier desire for “biographical facticity” (Smith, Poetics 4) has been replaced by the conviction that “lying” in such texts “is a highly strategic decision, especially on the part of literary autobiographers,” largely because “narrative truth and personal myth are more telling than literal fidelity” (Adams, Telling Lies x). For some critics, Ondaatje does not entirely embrace this mediation between historical and imaginative re-creation. David Coleman writes that Running “closes in profound ambivalence, certain about the need to re-establish ties with the past, but uncertain about the possibility of meeting that need; certain about the inescapable influence of the father upon the life of the son, but uncertain about how to trace or interpret that influence” (73). But Ondaatje himself has said that when writing about historical figures, he “started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (Wachtel 257).

The efficacy of Ondaatje's ritual journey is evident as he prepares to leave Sri Lanka/Ceylon, for the author can no longer be described as having “slipped past” the transition from child to man. As he writes in “Last Morning,” he has literally reincorporated his childhood experiences, his familial and cultural past. “My body must remember everything,” he insists, noting as he looks around him that “there is nothing in this view that could not be a hundred years old, that might not have been here when I left Ceylon at the age of eleven” (173). At such moments, the differences between his childhood and adulthood dissolve: “I stood like this in the long mornings of my childhood unable to bear the wait till full daylight” (174). Only now, the departing, reincorporated self is eager to begin, even if in half light, to write his memoir for an audience. Ondaatje's venture in writing Running thus aligns with ritual performance, for as Hinz suggests, “the type of mimesis that characterizes ritual” is neither “purely aesthetic exercise or ‘realistic’ reproduction” but a “combination of the re-presentational and pre-presentational.” Ritual in short corresponds to the autobiographical axiom that “in the course of articulating the self one creates the self” (207). Ondaatje journeys back to (re-presents) his past self as a means to create (pre-present) a new heterogeneous self ready to undertake the ritual act of writing a memoir. This reincorporated self announces its presence in Running's “Acknowledgements,” which opens with the declaration that “a literary work is a communal act” (175).

This community includes the reader, for as Sidonie Smith explains, since audience expectations about the nature of subjectivity vary widely, the “performative subject” must respond accordingly:

Everyday, in disparate venues, in response to sundry occasions, in front of precise audiences (even if an audience of one), people assemble, if only temporarily, a “life” to which they assign narrative coherence and meaning and through which they position themselves in historically specific identities.

(“Performativity” 17)

Each performance, then, has an implied “community of people for whom certain discourses of identity and truth make sense” (19). Ondaatje takes two different audiences into account when publishing his text: the participants in his familial and cultural past, and a larger reading audience. Running therefore operates as ritual on two separate levels, for as Victor Turner explains, within ritual there are both liminal and liminoid phenomena. The former “predominate in tribal and early agrarian societies”; the latter, being “generated by and following the industrial revolution,” include “the leisure genres of art, sport, pastimes, games, etc., practised by and for particular groups” (From Ritual 54-55). Though we cannot simply equate Sri Lanka with the liminal and Ondaatje's Western reading public with the liminoid, Turner's explanation of these two categories of ritual does seem applicable to Ondaatje's two different audience groups. Liminal phenomena have a “mass or collective character” with “symbols having a common intellectual and emotional meaning for all members of the group.”10 Ondaatje acknowledged the existence of this group through what amounted to a private performance of his text. In a 1984 interview with Sam Solecki, Ondaatje described how he sent copies of the manuscript to his brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins “to see whether it was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’” (331). Asked if anyone was “disturbed” by his version of the past, Ondaatje answered “No. My brothers and sisters would have told me if they'd been annoyed by it. In that sense it was certainly a communal book and I was voicing the feelings we as a family felt” (331).11

By then publishing Running, Ondaatje performed himself in front of that much wider audience Turner associates with liminoid phenomena. These post-Industrial Revolution/post-Enlightenment rituals “tend to be more idiosyncratic, quirky.” Even though they are “thought of at first as ludic offerings placed for sale on the ‘free’ market,” thanks to their idiosyncrasies, “their symbols are closer to the personal-psychological than to the ‘objective-social typological’ pole” (From Ritual 54). Ondaatje himself has wondered out loud about the marketability of a text which is “about people you know really well and are close to but that the reader doesn't know at all—why would anyone be interested in the story of Mervyn Ondaatje, the story of my father?” (Solecki, “An Interview (1984)” 331). To become engaged in such performances, the reader is asked to adopt what Turner calls the “‘subjunctive’ mood,” the “‘if I were you’” mood (“Liminality” 20), or what Hinz refers to as the “process of identification” which takes place in the spectator of drama and autobiography (206). But further, by entering into Ondaatje's “personal-psychological” performative act, the reader of Running becomes a part of the author's “journey back,” a part of his questing after self-reflection and “growing up.”

Now comprised of both Ondaatje's preexisting community of co-creators and his larger reading/identifying audience, the communal environment of the text becomes self-reflective in what might be called a ritual act of “metasocial performance,” that “dominant mode of public liminality” through which “a group or community seeks to portray, understand, and then act on itself” (Turner, “Frame” 33-35). Metasocial performance, like the memoir genre, is developed “along the margins” of Western culture; it exists “in the interfaces and interstices of central and servicing institutions” (Turner, From Ritual 54),12 so that, rather than serving as “ideological tools perpetuating the status quo,” such performances encompass the “potential for subversion” (Woodbridge 21) of Western cultural norms. Turner lists dominant modes of metasocial performance in specific societies: “the simpler societies have ritual or sacred corroborees as their main metasocial performances; proto-feudal and feudal societies have carnival or festival; early modern societies have carnival and theater; and electronically advanced societies, film” (35). Such performances display a “plural reflexivity.” They “stress the role of collective innovatory behaviour, of crowds generating new ways of framing and modelling the social reality which presses on them in their daily lives.” Though it “attributes to individuals the authorship of its scenarios,” stage drama is for Turner such a performance. Because a whole group of people besides the author directs and performs the play—“actors, audience, producers, stagehands”—stage dramas are “as much public as private performative modes” (“Frame” 46-47).

A similar “metasocial performance” of selfhood takes place in Running, for the single name appearing on the cover obscures the collective nature of the “I” within the pages. By enacting such a performance in his memoir, Ondaatje enlists the reader in “disassembling and interrogating the assumptions and impositions of humanism and history” (Snelling 21), including the “foundational myth of autobiographical storytelling as self-expressive of an autonomous individualism” (Smith, “Performativity” 31). As the author discovers while visiting St. Thomas' Church in Colombo, the name Ondaatje represents an inherited selfhood: “to kneel on the floors of a church built in 1650 and see your name chiseled in huge letters so that it stretches from your fingertips to your elbow in some strange way removes vanity, eliminates the personal. It makes your own story a lyric” (Running 55). Ondaatje's exploration of communal identity also deconstructs the need for “continuity and purity” in Western historicism (Snelling 21). By providing a personalized version of Ceylonese history which, as Turner suggests of liminoid phenomena, is “plural, fragmentary, and experimental” (From Ritual 54), Ondaatje questions the West's “master historical narrative of progression,” of “authority and universality” (Snelling 27, 21). One image which encapsulates this rejection of the purity of linear progression is the author's description of the region known as Nuwara Eliya “in the twenties and thirties”: “Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations. There was a large social gap between this circle and the Europeans and English who were never part of the Ceylonese community” (Running 32). There is no single universal version of Ceylonese history, and Ondaatje's memoir works to deny the authority of the “false maps,” the “old portraits of Ceylon,” drawn from the island's successive “seductions” of various European nations (53).

In this way, Ondaatje's representation of his personal, ritualized search for familial and cultural origins, for the “unruly heterogeneity” of his familial and cultural pyramid of interdependence, is an “outlaw” act (Kaplan 119) performed from the margins—or more precisely, from that “tear-shaped” island which historically acted as a “mirror” and only “pretended to reflect” (Running 54) Western “assumptions and impositions” of knowledge and power. Though “what began it all was the bright bone of a dream” experienced in private, readers of Running participate in the ritual performance of that dream which the author by himself can “hardly hold onto” (15).


  1. Schechner suggests that the notion of “performance” is “a very inclusive notion of action; theatre is only one node on a continuum that reaches from ritualization in animal behaviour (including humans) through performances in everyday life—greetings, displays of emotion, family scenes and so on—to rites, ceremonies and performances: large-scale theatrical events” (1). I am proposing that life writing texts be placed on this continuum.

  2. My understanding of “life writing” follows that of Marlene Kadar: “life writing is a way of looking at more or less autobiographical literature as long as we understand that ‘autobiographical’ is a loaded word, the ‘real’ accuracy of which cannot be proved and does not equate with either ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ truth. Instead, it is best viewed as a continuum that spreads unevenly and in combined forms from the so-called least fictive narration to the most fictive” (10).

  3. “When I am referring to both autobiography and biography,” Hinz explains, “I conjoin the two—i.e. auto/biography; when I am referring only to autobiography I omit the slash” (210). Although I prefer the term “life writing,” when discussing Hinz's article, I will follow her usage.

  4. Although Ceylon became the independent republic of Sri Lanka in 1972, Ondaatje makes clear his intention to “journey back” to the land as it was known in the time of his father, thereby invoking a peculiarly dramatic familial and cultural milieu.

  5. For a detailed treatment of the theoretical discussions and history of ideas of the self in autobiography, see Sidonie Smith's Poetics of Women's Autobiography.

  6. Whitney Balliett titled his review of Running in the Family “Lalla and Mervyn,” and Josef Pesch questioned the generic nature of the text by subtitling his article “Michael Ondaatje's (Auto?) Biography.” Running in the Family has also been categorized as “a kind of travel book” (Balliett 76), and a “historiographic metafiction” (Hutcheon 305).

  7. My thanks to fellow seminar member Janet Stucken for having pointed out that in the New Canadian Library 1993 edition, Running in the Family is listed under the heading of “memoir.”

  8. In a 1990 interview with Catherine Bush, Ondaatje refers to Hong Kingston's use of the memoir form and to Hong Kingston herself as one of a number of writers who helped him to build “a literary home” (239, 248).

  9. The point here of course is that the page Mervyn gazes at is the page that the reader is currently reading (at least in the original McClelland and Stewart edition of the work in which the fictional and real pages are appropriately aligned), making the “lost book” clearly Running in the Family.

  10. One particular “symbol” in Running which speaks to the ritual inheritance of Ceylonese society, and which would have a “common intellectual and emotional meaning,” appears in the section called “Tongue”: there is a “myth that if a child is given thalagoya tongue to eat he will become brilliantly articulate, will always speak beautifully, and in his speech be able to ‘catch’ and collect wonderful, humorous information” (61). Though supposedly nothing but a myth at this point, Ondaatje goes on to describe the very precise, ritualized manner in which the thalagoya must be eaten to be effective.

  11. Though my concern here is with Ondaatje's intentions in distributing advance copies of the text, and his beliefs about the shared base of the book's meaning, in 1992 Christopher Ondaatje published his own text, The Man-Eater of Punanai: A Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon, which at the very least suggests the brothers shared a need to reclaim the past and its ghosts. For a critical exploration of the differences between the two texts, see Adam's “Running.”

  12. Memoir's “marginalized status” (Quinby 299) stems in part from its enjoinment of two such “central and servicing institutions”: “the personalizing of history; the historicizing of the personal” (Hart 195). Billson notes that such interdisciplinarity makes memoir a suspect genre: “literary critics have faulted memoirs for being incomplete, superficial autobiographies; and, historiographers have criticized them for being inaccurate, overly personal histories” (259).

Works Cited

Adams, Timothy Dow. “Running in the Family: Photography and Autobiography in the Memoirs of Michael and Christopher Ondaatje.” Dvorak. 93-99.

———. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990.

Balliett, Whitney. Rev. of Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje. New Yorker 28 Dec. 1982: 76-77.

Billson, Marcus. “The Memoir: New Perspectives on a Forgotten Genre.” Genre 10.2 (Summer 1977): 259-82.

Bruss, Elizabeth W. Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (Summer 1994): 238-49.

Buss, Helen M. “Listening to the ‘Ground Noise’ of Canadian Women Settlers' Memoirs: A Maternal Intercourse of Discourses.” Essays on Canadian Writing 60 (Winter 1996): 199-214.

———. “Memoir with an Attitude: One Reader Reads The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts.A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 12.2 (Fall 1997): 203-224.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Coleman, Daniel. “Masculinity's Severed Self: Gender and Orientalism in Out of Egypt and Running in the Family.Studies in Canadian Literature 18.2 (1993): 62-80.

Dorfman, Ariel. “Interview with Michael Ondaatje: Part 2.” Literati. Bravo! New Style Arts Channel. Writ. and dir. Philippe Leclerc. 1995.

Dvorak, Marta, ed. La Création biographique/Biographical Creation. Rennes: PU de Rennes, 1997.

Finkle, Derek. “From Page to Screen: Michael Ondaatje as Filmmaker.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (Summer 1994): 167-85.

Foucault, Michel. Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.

Fox-Genovese, Linda. “Between Individualism and Community: Autobiographies of Southern Women.” Located Lives: Place and Idea in Southern Autobiography. Ed. J. Bill Berry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990. 20-38.

Gusdorf, George. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 28-48.

Hart, Francis Russell. “History Talking to Itself: Public Personality in Recent Memoir.” New Literary History 11.1 (Autumn 1979): 193-210.

Hinz, Evelyn J. “Mimesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography.” Essays in Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice. Ed. Marlene Kadar. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992. 195-212.

Howarth, William L. “Some Principles of Autobiography.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 84-114.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Running in the Family: The Postmodernist Challenge.” Solecki, Spider Blues. 301-314.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully, A Biography. Toronto: ECW, 1994.

Jones, Manina. “‘So Many Varieties of Murder’: Detection and Biography in Coming through Slaughter.Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (Summer 1994): 11-26.

Kadar, Marlene. “Coming to Terms: Life Writing—from Genre to Critical Practice.” Essays in Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice. Ed. Marlene Kadar. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992. 2-16.

Kamboureli, Smaro. “The Alphabet of the Self: Generic and Other Slippages in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family.Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature. Ed. K. P. Stich. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1988. 79-91.

Kaplan, Caren. “Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 115-38.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le pacte autobiographique. Nouvelle édition augmentée. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1996.

Mundwiler, Leslie. Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984.

Olney, James. “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 3-27.

Ondaatje, Christopher. The Man-Eater of Punanai: A Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1992.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. 1970. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1994.

———. Coming through Slaughter. 1976. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1993.

———. Running in the Family. 1982. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993.

Pesch, Josef. “Mediating Memories: Michael Ondaatje's (Auto?) Biography Running in the Family.” Dvorak. 111-17.

Quinby, Lee. “The Subject of Memoirs: The Woman Warrior's Technology of Ideographic Selfhood.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 297-320.

Schechner, Richard. Essays on Performance Theory: 1970-1976. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1249-1305.

Siemerling. Winfried. Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994.

Smith, Sidonie. “Performativity, Autobiographical Practice, Resistance.” A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 10.1 (Spring 1995): 17-33.

———. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Snelling, Sonia. “‘A Human Pyramid’: An (Un)Balancing Act of Ancestry and History in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 32.1 (1997): 21-33.

Solecki, Sam. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1975).” Solecki, Spider Blues. 13-27.

———. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1984).” Solecki, Spider Blues. 321-32.

———, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Vehicule, 1985.

Sward, Robert. Rev. of Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje. Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly 5.1 (1983): 23-24.

Testa, Bart. “He Did Not Work Here for Long: Michael Ondaatje in the Cinema.” Essays on Canadian Writings 53 (Summer 1994): 154-66.

Turner, Victor. “Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality.” Performance in Postmodern Culture. Ed. Michel Benamou and Charles Caramello. Madison: Coda, 1977. 33-55.

———. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1982.

———. “Liminality and the Performative Genres.” Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Ed. John J. MacAloon. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984. 19-41.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960.

Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (Summer 1994): 250-61.

Woodbridge, Linda, and Edward Berry. Introduction. True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age. Ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992. 1-43.

Michael Gorra (review date 28 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “Murder on the Island.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5065 (28 April 2000): 23.

[In the following review, Gorra outlines the plot of Anil's Ghost, calling the work “Ondaatje's most conventional novel by far.”]

For much of its length, Anil's Ghost offers a clean and compelling narrative line that suggests it may be Michael Ondaatje's most conventional novel by far—a book set not only in the Sri Lanka of his birth but also in the well-known land of the political novel, that imaginary nation mapped by Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, V. S. Naipaul and Robert Stone. It is a country that is usually hot and always troubled, a land in which the outsider through whose eyes we see it can never entirely trust anyone; and the inevitable departures from this pattern serve only to confirm it. Ondaatje's main character, for example, isn't precisely an outsider but someone returning to a homeland she has long since discarded, a fact that the novel's plot will force her to recognize. But the real variation lies in her profession; Anil Tissera is a forensic anthropologist who specializes in reading the marks of violent death.

In the establishing shot provided by the novel's brief, italicized prologue, we see her at work in a Guatamalan killing field, always aware of the relatives of the disappeared who wait expectantly by the grave site. We cut to Sri Lanka, to her arrival on a human rights mission, her passport marked with a “light blue UN bar”. It is fifteen years since she left Colombo for London and Guy's Hospital, and with her parents dead, her connections now are few; the novel mentions a brother, but he does not make an appearance. Anil's brief is to investigate the evidence of “organized campaigns of murder on the island”, campaigns conducted not only by the “antigovernment insurgents in the south and the separatist guerillas in the north”, but also by the state itself. Nobody has much hope that her seven-week project will lead to anything; the fact that the government has allowed her in at all is “only a gesture to placate trading partners in the West”.

Once on the ground, Anil is teamed with an archeologist named Sarath Diyasena, and it is in going through the equipment he has assembled that she finds a fragment of bone taken from the “burial midden” of a sixth-century monastery. Anil can tell that it “doesn't come from that time”, and when she learns that it was found at a site in a government-protected zone, her internal alarm begins to shriek. At this point, Anil's Ghost takes on a detective novel's excitement, for after gaining admission to the site, Anil and Sarath quickly find an entire skeleton, a new one, no more than four to six years old. Whose is it? More importantly who put it there, “in a place that only a government official could get into?” Their search for answers allows Ondaatje to assemble one of those teams of eccentrics, those ad hoc families, that are a feature of his work; the team includes both Sarath's now-blind and rather too Yoda-like teacher, a jungle-dwelling ascetic who lives like the monks he once studied, and his brother, Gamini, a speed-freak emergency-room doctor.

They lie low in an abandoned mansion and rescue a truck driver who has been crucified on the tarmac. And always in the background wait the informers and the terrorists, the suicide bombers and the gunmen on the roof of the hospital; a country of “continual emergency … a Hundred Year's War with modern weaponry”, in which cause and effect, innocence and blame, can no longer be parsed, and the reason for war has become war itself.

So long as Ondaatje stays close to Anil and Sarath's investigation, the novel has a satisfying—though uncharacteristic—tautness. Its plot at first appears uncluttered and its structure largely linear, with few extended flashbacks or changes in point of view; there is little trace here of the hopping in time and space, or the mixture of first-and third-person narration, that marked The English Patient. That is not necessarily good, for it also means that the book rarely attempts the earlier novel's extraordinary flourishes, those set-pieces of brilliant prose in which Ondaatje depicted his characters against a Caravaggesque play of light and dark; for example, Kip sighting down the barrel of his gun the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. It is only in its very last pages, when Ondaatje follows a minor character through a Buddhist ceremony, that Anil's Ghost achieves that sense of numinous awe. It does however provide the thrill in recondite knowledge that marks all Ondaatje's work, from his description of the Toronto water-works in In the Skin of a Lion to The English Patient's account of bomb disposal; a note in this book credits pamphlets on battlefield surgery and a scholarly paper entitled “Upper Pleistocene Fossil Hominids from Sri Lanka”.

But just over halfway through, the novel both grows more ambitious and also loses its force. Ondaatje isn't very interested in the particularities of Sri Lankan politics or history but he is concerned to fill in the personal histories of his characters. After they rather implausibly learn the skeleton's identity, Sarath leaves Anil to wait in the countryside and returns to Colombo. And at that point, Ondaatje seems simply to abandon any sense of the novel's forward thrust, and turns instead to the scene-shifting he had earlier eschewed. He develops a subplot about Gamini's long-ago love for Sarath's wife, about that wife's suicide, and Gamini's divorce; and we learn too about Anil's sometimes lover, Cullis, and her good friend, Leaf, now dying of early-onset Alzheimer's. Neither character plays a role in her Sri Lankan investigations. These pages attempt to ratchet up the novel's stakes, to increase our investment in its characters by making them seem the product of their severally complicated pasts. But none of the characters has the mystery of a figure like Almásy, and so these sections supply an explanation that has not been asked for and is not needed.

Such passages never become either free-standing narrative sequences or an integral part of the novel as a whole. The formal gamble comes too late to do anything more than sever the novel's spine. Nevertheless, the confusion of the book's latter portions does have its point. The investigation fizzles out. Anil herself, whom we now see as dangerously naive, simply disappears from the story; so too does that MacGuffin of a skeleton. Ends are not tied so much as purposely pulled loose, and a book in which the thriller form had suggested it would slice through mystery towards clarity proves instead to subvert that form, and ends in a morass that echoes that of Sri Lankan politics itself. Deliberate? Of course. But that is not enough to keep Anil's Ghost from seeming laboured.

Rachel Cusk (review date 8 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Cusk, Rachel. “Sri Lankan Skeletons.” New Statesman 129, no. 4485 (8 May 2000): 55.

[In the following review, Cusk highlights the thematic significance of war and death in Anil's Ghost.]

Even when writing of corruption, death and decay, Michael Ondaatje's prose is the very opposite of unsavoury. “He loosened a new tungsten carbide needle from its plastic container and attached it to a hand pick and began cleaning the bones of the first skeleton, drilling free the fragments of dirt. Then he turned on a slim hose and let it hover over each bone, air nestling into the evidence of the trauma as if he were blowing cool breath from a pursed mouth on to a child's burn.” The refinement of Ondaatje's expression acts as a balm on his subject, nestling into the evidence of its trauma. He has a way with hurt bodies, hurt minds, with what is fragile. The professions of archaeology, medicine and pathology with which his new novel concerns itself exert for him, one senses, a real occupational attraction.

The key to Anil's Ghost lies near its end, in a conversation about western culture's relationship with war. “‘American movies, English books—remember how they all end? The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He's going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That's enough reality for the west. It's probably the history of the last two hundred years of western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.’”

The question is of whether Ondaatje's novel of war-torn Sri Lanka entirely evades this prescription; or rather, of what demands could reasonably be made of its subtlety when its central character is a Sri Lankan-born American woman who has been sent to the country by the UN for a matter of weeks. Anil does, indeed, fly out at the novel's end, leaving the mess of it behind her. We, too, are left behind, having been spared the irony of seeing her go, with only the “ghost” of the title for company and its suggestion that Anil will continue to haunt, and be haunted by, what the novel has described.

Anil is a pathologist who lives, in the modern American sense, for her work. Her loves and leisure are patchy and part-time. Her sense of identity is riven by familial separation and cultural difference. Her return to Sri Lanka thus has all the hallmarks of “personal quest” literature: a search for roots, memory and fulfilment. The novel sets out to confound her, and our, expectations. In Sri Lanka, she quickly finds herself among people who live and die for their work, who labour in an atmosphere of political terror, bloodshed and mortal danger. Her plans to make contact with family connections fade away. Instead, she determines, following a different but equally American narrative tradition, to expose governmental corruption by proving that a skeleton she has found in an ancient burial site is in fact that of a recent victim of a political murder. In this, too, she is confounded: naive, schooled in the redemptive mythology of the west, she condemns to suppression that which she seeks to expose. In an excruciating final scene, she is to be found asking for her confiscated notebooks and equipment to be returned. Forget your notes, she is advised, and get out of here.

Anil's story intersects with that of two Sri Lankan brothers: Sarath, an archaeologist, and Gamini, a doctor. Sarath is a man trying to live by two books: the good book and the government book. He, too, wishes to see government brutality exposed by the discovery of the skeleton; but the mortal necessity for retaining, in doing so, the appearance of conformity undoes him. Anil fails to understand him, believing him to be some kind of double agent: he is too subtle. His brother, a man who has entirely relinquished his emotional and material life, is protected, conversely, by having nothing to hide. Gamini has the appearance of a tramp. He lives in the hospital, sleeping occasionally in the children's ward, propelling himself on speed and doing nothing but working to save the victims of torture, bombings and violence. These are different ways of living under a regime, ways of doing good, but in the end it is Gamini, with his utter selflessness, who survives. Anil, of course, fails to understand him, too.

This clever and complex novel is a study of death: death as a science, as a fact, as a threat, as an absence attended by a memory, as a presence deserted by life. As a boy, Sarath “would watch fishermen in catamarans travel out at dusk till they faded into the night just beyond a boy's vision. As if parting or death or disappearance were simply the elimination of sight in the onlooker.” Anil's Ghost is an attempt to describe this vanishing, to apprehend both its remoteness and its immediacy, lovingly to pick over the intangibility of its remains. Ondaatje is trying here to uproot the novel and transplant it closer to something real, in order, it seems, to make us understand.

John Bayley (review date 2 November 2000)

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SOURCE: Bayley, John. “A Passage to Colombo.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 17 (2 November 2000): 44-6.

[In the following review, Bayley contrasts the themes, characters, and style of Anil's Ghost to the works of such colonial writers of “the mysterious East” as Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and E. M. Forster.]

The art of writing about distant places, exotic places, has always been widely practiced in the novel. In the days of “the mysterious East” Kipling and Conrad and many a lesser writer made their reputations in this way. They knew about the East at first hand, but they deployed their knowledge in skillful and colorful ways which would not unduly disturb the naive images of distant places which their home-bound readers had already formed. A fine example is the climax of Conrad's novella Youth, when the crew of a ship burned at sea at last bring their boat into the safety of a small harbor. Utterly exhausted they collapse into sleep, still in the lifeboat, and “the East watched them without a sound.” Youth is a wonderful story, the title itself suggesting an innocent dream of hardship and adventure, but the East is brought on to take the part of a picturesque backdrop: its existence is entirely two-dimensional.

Things are very different today. The merger between East and West at all levels—social, spiritual, technological—now seems more and more complete. But paradoxically some of the best and most sensitive travelers and writers, such as V. S. Naipaul, continue to harbor a nostalgic feel for the magic of Awayness, although Naipaul's most haunting evocation of the mysterious inside the ordinary, The Enigma of Arrival, finds its mystery no further than a house in Wiltshire and in the surrounding countryside.

Naipaul's mystery is always pellucid, and the accurate observation of his Awayness has a quizzical air: there is nothing torrid and exotic about it. Michael Ondaatje, by contrast, achieves the mystery of Awayness by means of a series of often stunning but habitually opaque and puzzling effects. The reader has to grope his way with none of the clarity of revelation that Conrad was able to contrive in his great Oriental and African setpieces.

Anil's Ghost is a much more straight-forward book than The English Patient. Set in Ondaatje's native Sri Lanka, it takes the form of a series of sketches, left unarticulated, but so closely and delicately written that a composite picture emerges, a vista of the contemporary state and culture of the island. Naturally enough this is not a reassuring one: its outlines are grim. But there remains an impression of peace at the center of life and of an ancient and enduring civilization. By means of oblique and yet precise touches Ondaatje conveys a subtle sense of these things to the reader, showing at the end of the book the race of the great Buddha, vandalized in the political troubles, being carefully and lovingly restored by a young boy, perched high above the plain as he works with his father's chisel on the stone eye of the statue:

He could feel each current of wind, every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud. There was a girl moving in the forest. The rain miles away rolling like blue dust towards him. Grasses being burned, bamboo, the smell of petrol and grenade. The crack of noise as a layer of rock on his arm exfoliated in heat. The face open-eyed in the great rainstorms of May and June. The weather formed in the temperate forests and sea, in the thorn scrub behind him in the southeast, in the deciduous hills, and moving towards the burning savanna near Badulla, and then the coast of mangroves, lagoons and river deltas. …

In an impassively brief author's note at the beginning of the novel Ondaatje puts us in the picture, as would be said in army circles:

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Sri Lanka was in a crisis that involved three essential groups: the government, the anti-government insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north. Both the insurgents and the separatists had declared war on the government. Eventually, in response, legal and illegal government squads were known to have been sent out to hunt down the separatists and the insurgents.

With the usual sad result that the populace, caught between the warring sides, was the main body to suffer. “Today,” the author's note unhopefully concludes, “the war in Sri Lanka continues in a different form.”

Anil is a young Sri Lankan paleontologist and bone expert who has been working in rather similar situations of political upheaval in Central America. Her task as she arrives in Colombo on behalf of an international human rights organization is to identify corpses, or bits of them, and to decide how they died and when. Before her work in America she had been a student at Guy's Hospital in London, and there she met and briefly married a fellow Sri Lankan student. This London episode, typical of the way students love and live nowadays, is tersely and brilliantly described. Anil's young husband, like most of their cosmopolitan and classless kind, sees “no difference … between privacy and friendship with acquaintances.” Ondaatje writes that “later she would read that this was the central quality of a monster.” But we are not told where she read it, or why it might be true.

This tendency to be cryptic, sometimes in apparently unconsidered or unmeaningful ways, is characteristic of Ondaatje's manner, but in the brief interlude which describes Anil's marriage it can be very effective:

She was suspicious of his insights and understanding. He appeared to spend all his spare energy on empathy. When she wept, he would weep. She never trusted weepers after that.

When she gets away from her husband, Anil buries herself in her work, drawing her studies close to her, “more intimately and seriously than she had imagined possible”:

In her work Anil turned bodies into representatives of race and age and place, though for her the tenderest of all discoveries was the finding, some years earlier, of the tracks at Laetoli—almost-four-million-year-old footsteps of a pig, a hyena, a rhinoceros and a bird, this strange ensemble identified by a twentieth-century tracker. Four unrelated creatures that had walked hurriedly over a wet layer of volcanic ash. To get away from what? Historically more significant were other tracks in the vicinity, of a hominid assumed to be approximately five feet tall (one could tell by the pivoting heel impressions). But it was that quartet of animals walking from Laetoli four million years ago that she liked to think about.

Later, in Arizona, she studied “the physical and chemical changes that occur in bones not only during life but also after death and burial.” The femur becomes her bone of choice.

In this way Anil becomes familiar with the dead, both those who died last week, and violently, and those who died from unknown causes centuries ago. Back in Sri Lanka, and faced with the many victims of the violence, she finds herself traveling with parts and bones, known and unknown, as if she were taking part in their posthumous life. She wills the unknown personalities now vanished to tell her what they were like and who they were.

Anil's own life is so caught up in her work that the rest of it is necessarily perfunctory. So much so that she and the few other characters—friends from the past, including the archaeologist Sarath and a sculptor she meets—lead an existence that remains shadowy. This may be a necessary consequence of the local situation, through which Anil moves like a sleepwalker with a special expertise, carrying with her the relics of one of the victims of the government squads, whom she has called “Sailor.” Ananda, the sculptor, though frequently drunk, has made a head that represents what this victim would have looked like, and this head becomes part of the life of the characters, a symbol of the killing, open or secret, which has been going on. Ironically, art has made this head “comfortable with itself” in a way that no living person in this tormented situation can be:

In the courtyard a torch of twigs was stuck into the earth. Sailor's head was on a chair. Nothing else, only the two of them and the presence of the head.

The firelight set the face in movement. But what affected her—who felt she knew every physical aspect about Sailor, who had been alongside him now in his posthumous life as they travelled across the country, who had slept in a chair all night while he lay on the table in the Bandarawela rest house, who knew every mark of trauma from his childhood—was that this head was not just how someone possibly looked, it was a specific person. It revealed a distinct personality, as real as the head of Sarath. As if she was finally meeting a person who had been described to her in letters, or someone she had once lifted up as a child who was now an adult.

She sat on the step. Sarath was walking towards the head and then walking backwards, away from it. Then he would turn, as if to catch it unawares. She just watched it point-blank, coming to terms with it. There was a serenity in the face she did not see too often these days. There was no tension. A face comfortable with itself. This was unexpected coming from such a scattered and unreliable presence as Ananda. When she turned she saw that he had gone.

“It's so peaceful.” She spoke first.

“Yes. That's the trouble,” Sarath said.

“There's nothing wrong with that.”

“I know. It's what he wants of the dead.”

“He's younger-looking than I expected. I like the look on him. What do you mean by that? ‘What he wants of the dead’?”

“We have seen so many heads stuck on poles here, these last few years. It was at its worst a couple of years ago. You'd see them in the early mornings, somebody's night work, before the families heard about them and came and removed them and took them home. Wrapping them in their shirts or just cradling them. Someone's son. These were blows to the heart. There was only one thing worse. That was when a family member simply disappeared and there was no sighting or evidence of his existence or his death. In 1989, forty-six students attending school in Ratnapura district and some of the staff who worked there disappeared. The vehicles that picked them up had no number plates. A yellow Lancer had been seen at the army camp and was recognized during the roundup. This was at the height of the campaign to wipe out insurgent rebels and their sympathizers in the villages. Ananda's wife, Sirissa, disappeared at that time. …”

“My God.”

“He told me only recently.”

“I … I feel ashamed.”

“It's been three years. He still hasn't found her. He was not always like this. The head he has made is therefore peaceful.”

Anil rose and walked back into the dark rooms. She could no longer look at the face, saw only Ananda's wife in every aspect of it. She sat down in one of the large cane chairs in the dining room and began weeping. She could not face Sarath with this. Her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she could see the rectangular shape of a painting and beside it Ananda standing still, looking through the blackness at her.

Such scenes exhibit the dreamlike quality of Ondaatje's novels, which is very much a part of his technique. It can be overdone. But it seems to suit the Sinhalese civil war and background to it which are built up in Anil's Ghost. It suits too her ghostlike existence; at home neither in England nor America nor in her native Sri Lanka when she returns, she can feel in her proper element only in her own lab and her own researches into paleontology. And her lab itself, where she and her colleague do their work, seems fittingly situated on a ship that no longer sails, an ancient British liner now permanently berthed in Colombo harbor:

The Oronsay, a passenger liner in the old days of the Orient Line, had been gutted of all valuable machinery and luxury furnishings. It had once travelled between Asia and England—from Colombo to Port Said, sliding through the narrow-gauge waters of the Suez Canal and journeying on to Tilbury Docks. By the 1970s it made just local trips. The rooms of tourist class were broken apart to become a cargo hold. Tea, fresh water, rubber products and rice replaced difficult passengers, save for a few souls, such as nephews of shareholders of the shipping line looking for work and adventure. It remained a ship of the Orient, a vessel that could survive the heat of Asia, that still contained the smells of salt water, rust and oil, and the waft of tea in cargo.

The quality of such writing, holding the attention of the eye and the mind with every object and detail it touches, indicates that Ondaatje's real forte is as a prose-poet, a worker in successive scenes and pictures that, as Conrad once put it, are intended to “make us see,” rather than to create a coherent fictional world within its own artificial frame of convention. A plotted story here would be pointless. Or rather, perhaps, Ondaatje's own kind of ghost story comes into being inside the words and scenes which we are shown. Anil's friend Sarath tells her of an “episode” he once witnessed:

“I was in the south. … It was almost evening, the markets closed. Two men, insurgents I suppose, had caught a man. I don't know what he had done. Maybe he had betrayed them, maybe he had killed someone, or disobeyed an order, or not agreed quickly enough. In those days the justice of death came in at any level. I don't know if he was to be executed, or harassed and lectured at, or in the most unlikely scenario, forgiven. He was wearing a sarong, a white shirt, the long sleeves rolled up. His shirt hung outside the sarong. He had no shoes on. And he was blindfolded. They propped him up, made him sit awkwardly on the crossbar of a bicycle. One of the captors sat on the saddle, the one with the rifle stood by his side. When I saw them they were about to leave. The man could see nothing that was going on around him or where he would be going.

“When they took off, the blindfolded man had to somehow hang on. One hand on the handlebars, but the other he had to put around the neck of his captor. It was this necessary intimacy that was disturbing. They wobbled off, the man with the rifle following on another bike.

“It would have been easier if they had all walked. But this felt in an odd way ceremonial. Perhaps a bike was a form of status for them and they wished to use it. Why transport a blindfolded victim on a bicycle? It made all life seem precarious. It made all of them more equal. Like drunk university students. The blindfolded man had to balance his body in tune with his possible killer. They cycled off and at the far end of the street, beyond the market buildings, they turned and disappeared. Of course the reason they did it that way was so none of us would forget it.”

“What did you do?”


There is no more for anyone, let alone for a novel, to say. And it is the same when experience is of a very different kind, although the writer's prose patterns have the effect of causing all experience to blend, as if in some Buddhist exercise:

Once she and Sarath had entered the forest monastery in Arankale and spent a few hours there. A corrugated overhang was nailed into the rock of a cave entrance to keep out sun and rain. Beyond was a curved road of sand to a bathing pool. A monk swept his way along the path for two hours each morning and removed a thousand leaves. By late afternoon another thousand leaves and light twigs had fallen upon it. But at noon its surface was as clear and yellow as a river. To walk this sand path was itself an act of meditation.

The forest was so still that Anil heard no sounds until she thought of listening for them. Then she located the noisemakers in the landscape, as if using a sieve in water, catching the calls of orioles and parrots. “Those who cannot love make places like this. One needs to be in a stage beyond passion.” It was practically the only thing Sarath had said that day in Arankale. Most of the time he walked and slept in his own thoughts.

They had wandered within the forest, discovering remnants of sites. A dog followed them and she remembered Tibetans believed that monks who hadn't meditated properly became dogs in the next life. They circled back to the clearing, a clearing like a kamatha, the threshing circle in a paddy field. On a ledge of stone a small statue of the Buddha rested, a cut plantain leaf protected him from glare and rain. The forest towering over them so they felt they were within a deep green well.

It is not without interest that Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard, a member of the Ceylon Civil Service before the First World War, wrote a short novel about his experiences called The Village in the Jungle. Although long out of print and forgotten, it conveys a sense of place and time with something of the same feeling and atmosphere as Ondaatje's book, just as it looks forward in its own way to the novels Woolf's wife would have been writing. Clearly Ceylon/Sri Lanka was, at it chanced, a potent field or incubator for an imaginative mind, although the classical and traditional novel was still very much on top. A Passage to India, published during the same period as Jacob's Room and To the Lighthouse, shows cunning old E. M. Forster's remarkable talent for fellow-traveling with pioneering Bloomsbury while making use of every hoary old fictional device known to Trollope, Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett.

Ondaatje is very much a state-of-the-art writer who has created his own combination of experimental techniques (he observes in passing that only guns and other weapons are “state-of-the-art” in contemporary Sri Lanka); but at the same time his prose-poetry is well ballasted with sober and factual reference and on-the-spot data. Living as he does in Toronto, he is clearly obsessed not only with memories, but with visits to his native island, and his book is in its own way a memorial, as well as a labor of love, for a place. Among the entries in his concluding page of acknowledgments he mentions his close study of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, with its account of the “eye ceremonies,” which celebrated the life created by the sculptor in the eye of the Buddha. But also acknowledged are works on reconstructing life and age from bones, to say nothing of pamphlets on war surgery, and the nature of injuries inflicted by antipersonnel landmines. It is a relief to hear from another quoted source that historic Sri Lanka possessed its own version of a health service three centuries before Christ.

For this reader at least it was something of a disappointment that Anil—her friends too—could, in the nature of Ondaatje's specification, remain little more than ghosts. I wanted to know more about their feelings and their ongoing private lives. But every novel has its own way of conducting its business. Sri Lanka itself, its landscape and tradition, certainly remains in the mind after Anil has completed her intricate and expert job, and departed into the limbo inhabited by the nonpersons of Ondaatje's fictions.

Constance Merritt (review date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Merritt, Constance. Review of Handwriting: Poems, by Michael Ondaatje. Prairie Schooner 75, no. 1 (spring 2001): 182-84.

[In the following review, Merritt compares the historical themes and narrative elements of Handwriting with those of Running in the Family.]

As in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family, the subject and setting of Handwriting, Michael Ondaatje's latest book of poems, is Sri Lanka, the author's birthplace and childhood home; here comparisons end. Contrasts, however, abound. Whereas the memoir is a diffuse, meandering affair, cobbled out of anecdote, inference and rumor; Handwriting—spare, imagistic, lyrical—is a deep spell woven of history, imagination, and the chiaroscuro of fairy tale. While the memoir recites seemingly endless accounts of the shenanigans and social rounds of the prominent, European-influenced families of “Ceylon”—horse racing, tennis tournaments, flirtations and affairs, dress balls, drunks—, Handwriting focuses on the “Buried” culture of the island, turning its treasures to light and peering into “Wells” in search of “the deeper levels of the self.” Finally, as its title might suggest, Running in the Family concerns itself with inheritance: remembering (reinventing, really) a father largely lost to his son even in memory or discovering one's patronymic “chiseled in large letters” on the stone floor of a seventeenth-century church—an experience which, according to Ondaatje, “in some strange way removes vanity, eliminates the personal.” Handwriting, dedicated to Ondaatje's ayah or nurse and redolent of the fluid and mesmeric language and lore common to poet, prayer house, and nursery, lacks vanity and is a genuinely transpersonal book. As society is to culture, as surface is to depth, as patronymic is to mother tongue: thus is the relation of Michael Ondaatje's 1982 memoir Running in the Family to Handwriting, his present collection of poems.

Sri Lanka (25,332 square miles) is located in the Indian Ocean to the southeast of India. Consulting a concise reference work, one learns, among other things, that the Sinhalese, from Northern India, conquered the island's aboriginal inhabitants in the sixth century B.C.E., establishing their capital at Anuradhapura. After the introduction of Buddhism during the third century C.E., the island became one of the world centers of that religion. In subsequent centuries the island came under the rule of Europeans—Portuguese, Dutch, British—drawn by the spice trade. The crown colony of Ceylon (established by the British in 1798) was granted independence in 1948. In more recent times, the island has been plagued by economic crises and social unrest, including ethnic conflicts between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. It is against this history that the poems in the first section of Handwriting unfold. In “Buried,” for instance, Ondaatje juxtaposes—ultimately merging—Buddhist monks, in face of war, secreting the statues of their deity with modern insurgent soldiers hiding themselves in the jungle:

Men carrying recumbent Buddhas
or men carrying mortars
burning the enemy, disappearing
into pits when they hear helicopters.
… … … … … …
The statue the weight
of a cannon barrel,
bruising the naked shoulder as they run,
… … … … … …
Burying the Buddha in stone.
Covered with soft earth
then the corpse of an animal,
Planting a seed there.

In “Buried 2” we learn of those who “smuggled the tooth of the Buddha / from temple to temple for five hundred years,” of the drowning and, presumably, the arrival of Persian ships from the eighth century, engendering in the Sinhalese king dreams of water gardens, and of the lives and deaths of poets “hunted / for composing the arts of love and science / while there was war to celebrate.” There is also a wonderful catalogue of the flora commonly found “in the forest of kings,” a harrowing catalogue of the ravages of modern war, and a moving litany of “what we lost”:

The art of the drum. The art of eye-painting.
How to cut an arrow. Gestures between lovers.
The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin
drawn by a monk from memory.
The limits of betrayal. The five ways
a lover could mock an ex-lover.

Make no mistake though, Handwriting is not yet another record to be entered into the already teeming late-twentieth-century annals of victimization; on the contrary, Ondaatje's vision is redemptive in the sense that it refuses the lure of powerlessness, insisting instead on a human agency that, whatever the odds and the external pressures, always allows for the possibility of our choosing or of our having chosen otherwise. After the litany of losses, he writes: “All this we burned or traded for power and wealth / from the eight compass points of vengeance // from the two levels of envy.”

The second section of Handwriting is given over to a sequence of eleven chiefly undistinguished love poems, but the third section alone is worth the price of admission. The poems in this section celebrate scenes of devotion and desire: “On the morning of a full moon / in a forest monastery / thirty women in white / meditate on the precepts of the day / until darkness”; “In the high plum-surrounded library / where Yang Weizhem studied as a boy / a movable staircase was pulled away / to insure his solitary concentration.” This last quote is from the lovely poem of art and friendship “The Great Tree”; also memorable are “The Story,” “Wells,” “Step,” “Last Ink,” and the prose poem “Death at Kataragama,” an eloquent and compelling articulation of the ethos of the imagination:

There is a woodpecker I am enamored of I saw this morning through my binoculars. A red thatch roof to his head more modest than crimson, deeper than blood. Distance is always clearer. … I bend too close to the page to get nearer to what is being understood. What I write will drift away. I will be able to understand the world only at arm's length. …

We depart into worlds that have nothing to do with those we love. This woman whose arm I would hold and comfort, that book I wanted to make and shape tight as a stone—I would give everything away for this sound of mud and water, hooves, great wings

Much of what we love is bound up, one way or another, with the ego, that most fragile sense of who we are, and many of the stories that we choose to tell, casting them more or less well in the guises of art, are held to be significant precisely because they are ours. But true art—really the only art there is—that has the power to nourish or to heal, to hold accountable or to change the heart or mind, like the richest cultures, springs up at the crossroads where we are required to encounter what is not us and is not ours. In “Last Ink,” Handwriting's closing poem, Ondaatje speaks of “the moment in the heart / where I roam restless, searching / for the thin border of the fence / to break through or leap. // Leaping and bowing.” In his latest book of poems, he has found that place; we applaud his graceful leaps; we return the bow.

Michael Ondaatje and Brian D. Johnson (interview date 9 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Ondaatje, Michael, and Brian D. Johnson. “‘A Sort of Improvisation Happens.’” Maclean's 115, no. 36 (9 September 2002): 40-1.

[In the following interview, Ondaatje discusses his decision to profile film editor Walter Murch in The Conversations, drawing comparisons between the processes of film editing and fiction writing.]

Canadian Author Michael Ondaatje is an avid film buff. And as he watched his novel The English Patient being adapted for the screen, he became fascinated with the mind of the movie's Oscar-winning editor. Walter Murch has edited sound or images for directors such as George Lucas (American Graffiti), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather I-III,The Conversation,Apocalpyse Now) and Orson Welles (the posthumous director's cut of Touch of Evil). Ondaatje's new book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, is a dialogue between an author and an editor about the creative process. In this conversation about The Conversations, Ondaatje talks to Maclean's Senior Writer Brian D. Johnson.

[Johnson]: Why have you followed your novel Anil's Ghost with a work of non-fiction?

[Ondaatje]: I find it very difficult to go from one work of fiction to another one. I feel like I've used up everything in me, excavated everything, and I feel quite wordless. After my first long book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I needed to do something that was nothing to do with words, so I did this documentary film on the poet B. P. Nicol. After that, I did a documentary on Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille and their play The Farm Show. In a way, The Conversations is another documentary.

You're curious about people's jobs: bomb disposal, surgery … film editing.

Yes, how things work. How a film is made, how concrete poetry works, how a play is gathered together. My novels are about jazz in New Orleans, or war in Sri Lanka, or in Italy. But they're also about me asking how would I behave in that situation? How would people I know behave? Saul Bellow says, “We write to discover the next room of our fate.” With all writers, there's an element of self-investigation and self-portrait, even in their fiction that's supposedly not about them at all.

You say that editing is the stage of filmmaking closest to the art of writing. Why?

It's the only place where you're on your own. Where you can be one person and govern it. The only time you control making a movie is in the editing stage.

There's something almost cabalistic about Murch's approach to editing. He's always looking for hidden patterns in the material. Is that how you write fiction?

I'm very loose when I'm writing. I allow bad jokes into the manuscript, but then I go back and chop it down. Then a sort of improvisation happens. One can discover lines and connections which can startle you and the reader, eventually.

Murch talks about juxtaposing control and randomness in the creative process. He says he tries to get just “the right amount of turbulence in the system.”

That's essential. When I was writing poetry, I'd test a draft erratically. Backwards, sideways, or without the first half.

Murch is unusual—a lot of artists can't or don't like to explain their own work.

Walter is sort of the other side to Coppola. In fact, when you hear Coppola talk about film, although he's very smart, he's not as articulate as Walter is about what Coppola is doing. And Walter was there. The scene where he talks about mixing The Godfather when he was in his 20s—it's remarkable. He is so articulate and succinct. It's more interesting to talk about it from the viewpoint of the guy in a corner doing the sound than having Coppola giving a philosophical essay about what The Godfather really means.

In writing a novel, you start with a lot of research and end with a lot of editing. Is it a process of refining fiction out of non-fiction?

That's an interesting way of seeing it, except that at some point in the mix, you have to have a leap of invention. For instance, I'm working on something about the Macedonians in Toronto [In the Skin of a Lion]. But you need then to have a fictional vehicle—the invention of Patrick, who joins them. The non-fiction is the content in a way, and the shaping or form is the fiction. I find that if I try to sit down and write fiction off the top, I run out after a page. Every section of a book I write begins in the non-fiction world. And then you bring in a character, something like Kip defusing a bomb in The English Patient. All the technical stuff was there, but it's his state of mind, his irritation, his sadness that decides what gets picked up and what gets left out of a story.

At one point, you ask Murch if success and failure can distort the lessons an artist is able to learn. I'll throw the same question back at you.

To create, you have to black out your career. The great problem is being self-conscious and aware of an audience—you can go crazy that way. You feel less private if you are successful. You should live in Bhutan and be successful in North America. That's probably the answer.

Will we ever see movies of In the Skin of a Lion or Anil's Ghost?

People have been interested in both those books, and Coming through Slaughter. I had such a lucky experience with The English Patient I don't want to ruin my average! One of the problems of working in film is that you are dependent on everybody else's taste, and sometimes their taste is stupid. You have to be a politician. You have to be able to hustle and argue and be devious—like Brecht—otherwise you storm off and leave it to the wolves.

Are your novels influenced by film?

I don't think they are that much except in the way I edit them. I began to be aware when I was working on a documentary that the art of editing is much more sophisticated in film than in literature. I was so aware of how microscopically active the editor is in a film. This frame, the seventh frame—that's 1/8th of a second—that's going to influence how we watch something. I would spend hours and hours editing a poem, and then writing novels I'd do the same thing. That's why novels take two years to edit.

Is writing a book about film editing as close as you'll come to analyzing your own creative process as a novelist?

I think so. I would never want to write a book about being a novelist. So it does become metaphor. It was also an opportunity for me to bring out that aspect of myself. I'm not a very theoretical person, but there are elements of that here.

Did Murch “edit” your portrait of him?

It got to be like a four-ring circus: two editors, and Walter and myself. It wasn't just my book, it was my book with Walter. I interviewed him for hours and hours and had it cut down from 1,200 pages to 300 pages of conversation. At some point, we both threw in ideas and wrote some stuff, but then it sounded too written.

You rewrote it to make it less “written”?

Yes. All of this is a forgery! Honestly, I wouldn't want to read a 300-page book of conversations between two people unless they worked on it. Nothing is more boring than a raw feed of two guys in conversation at a bar. You have to kind of jack it up, and give it humour, or put something that happens at the end in the beginning.

Same thing with this Q&A. I'll cut that bit from the middle and put it at the end.

John Gregory Dunne (review date February 2003)

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SOURCE: Dunne, John Gregory. “Guys Who Worked on the Movie.” Harper's 306, no. 1833 (February 2003): 69-75.

[In the following excerpt, Dunne examines Ondaatje's discussions with Walter Murch in The Conversations, detailing the contributions of Murch and other film and sound editors to the movie industry.]

What F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “private grammar” of film is so private and so little understood that it might just as well be written in Urdu. At the end of every movie there is an endless crawl of credits that sometimes seems longer (and more interesting) than the picture just seen—often 200-plus names. Outside the business, no one really knows what most of these people do; after more than three decades of writing scripts, I am still not certain whether the best boy works for the gaffer or the grip. Critics talk a good game about film as a collaborative art, but generally they buy into the cult of the director, which suits directors just fine. Even though Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, and Ridley Scott have mined the Hannibal Lecter franchise with great skill, enormous success, and, in Demme's case, many awards, the latest Lecter incarnation, Red Dragon, becomes “A Brett Ratner Film.” This is Ratner's best credit since his bio entry on The Internet Movie Database: “Ratner grew up in Miami Beach, the only child of a famous Jewish socialite mother. … He lives in a $3.6 M house in Beverly Hills, and has four assistants.”

A director is seen as Napoleon, the Sri Lankan novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje writes in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a figure who is “sweepingly credited with responsibility for story, design, dramatic tension, taste, and even weather.” But, Ondaatje adds slyly, “Even Napoleon needed his marshals.” Many of these marshals of film—the editors, the cameramen, the production designers, the sound editors, the costume designers, the composers—are legends within the business, however little known outside it, and are in no small way responsible for the look, sound, and texture of the pictures on which they work. Any director would be well served marching into a shoot with Walter Murch as one of his marshals, as he would be with the cameraman Conrad L. Hall, and would have been with Richard Sylbert, the production designer, who died last spring at seventy-three, still too young. Among them they won seven Academy Awards (three for Murch, two each for Hall and Sylbert), and they worked with most of the signature directors of the last half-century—John Huston, John Frankenheimer, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Anthony Minghella, George Lucas, Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty, John Schlesinger. And on and on. Their astonishing list of credits could be a history of the movies since the 1950s: Fat City,The Manchurian Candidate,Chinatown, the Godfather trilogy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,The Pawnbroker,The Graduate,Shampoo,The English Patient,American Graffiti,Baby Doll,In Cold Blood,Reds,The Day of the Locust, among others.

The questions remain: How does a film editor edit or a sound editor (which is how Murch began in the business and what he now does in conjunction with his film editing) create and mix sound? How does a cameraman light to get the best visual effect? What exactly constitutes production design, and how is it achieved? Perhaps most importantly, what is the relationship between the marshals and their emperor directors, many of whom do not remove their epaulets even in their sleep?

Ondaatje, who has lived in Canada for forty years, met Murch during the shooting of his novel The English Patient, and Murch became not just his instructor in movie grammar but his friend as well, one who is, in Ondaatje's words, “a true oddity in the world of film,” “a genuine Renaissance man.” Murch is the son of a painter. He has translated the Italian prose of Curzio Malaparte into English poetry, has a collection of odd facts at the tip of his tongue (the moon is 238,713 miles away from Earth), and has campaigned to revive discredited theories of eighteenth-century astronomy. He plays “the music of the spheres” on the piano, based on the distance of the planets from one another and translated by him into musical chords. It is Murch's editing of film that most absorbs Ondaatje: “How to eliminate that slightly superior tone that has emerged in the central character, how to avoid a series of plot bottlenecks later, how to influence or ‘save’ a scene in the fifty-third minute of the film by doing something very small in the seventh. … How, even, to disguise the fact that an essential scene was never shot.”

What Murch does, Ondaatje writes, is to move “the bones or arteries of a scene, relocating them so they will alter the look of the features above the skin.” In The English Patient, a major in German intelligence threatens to amputate the thumbs of a prisoner played by Willem Dafoe if he does not give up the information the officer is seeking. “Don't cut me,” Dafoe says casually. Murch found a later take in which Dafoe's voice quavers with fright when he says, “Don't cut me.” He kept the first matter-of-fact line reading, cut away for a moment, then dropped in the second and eliminated all the sound. When the line is repeated, as it was not in the script, followed by the bleed into silence, the viewer feels the immediacy of Dafoe's overpowering terror.

The silence in this scene is a hugely powerful sound effect. At USC film school, sound was Murch's field, and he has built on that academic knowledge ever since. A director who has never worked with him told me recently that what Murch has done with sound is like the jump from Newtonian physics to quantum physics. Murch remembers Roman Polanski talking passionately to a class about “celebrating the authenticity of the sound itself.” The example Polanski used, Murch recalls, “was the drip of a faucet and what that tells you about a person, about the apartment they live in, about their relationship to many other things.” In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone murders the two men in an Italian restaurant in the Bronx, the background noise is the earsplitting screech of an elevated subway. Neither the train nor the tracks are ever established, but the noise is accepted because the scene takes place in a neighborhood where subways run. It is also abnormally loud, as if the camera were lying on the track itself, so that it becomes a metaphorical counterpoint to the murders happening on-screen. At the end of The Godfather, one of Michael Corleone's soldiers closes the office door on Michael's wife, Kay. Other than the score, the door closing is the last sound in the movie, and Murch tested a number of doors to get the proper ka-lunk that would signify that the closing door effectively shut Kay out of her husband's life.

Editing—sound and film—used to be much more primitive, like surgery without anesthesia. Years ago, an old studio cutter told me that in World War II movies, the Japs (never the Japanese) always flew from the left side of the screen to the right, while the Americans shot at them from right to left. “We've got to be careful to make that guy in Chicago know that whenever he sees a plane flying from left to right, he's seeing a Jap plane,” the cutter said. In the first movie Murch edited, Francis Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation, he discovered that good actors, in this case Gene Hackman, instinctively blink where the cutter would naturally make his cut. “Blinks,” he says, “are the equivalent of mental punctuation marks—commas, periods, semi-colons.” Lesser actors, on the other hand, tend to blink at the wrong time; they are worried about camera placement or what the director thinks, or they are trying to remember a line. Murch has since refined this theory. When he was editing The Talented Mr. Ripley for Minghella, he found that “statistically, a blink will most often happen when the actor is speaking a nonvocalized consonant. I think they're called fricative consonants: an s or an f, th, but not d(uh)—d has a vocal component to it.” Murch picks up unconscious signals from actors that are as important to him as a broken twig in the forest is to a hunter. “Some actors might turn their head to the left before they say the word ‘but,’” Murch says, “or blink seven times a minute when they're thinking hard.” A bad line reading is often useful. “There are a number of times that I've used shots of actors trying to remember their lines,” he told Ondaatje. “They are embarrassed, they're confused, they hope they remember the line, and you can see all of this on their face. In a certain context, that's absolutely the wrong thing to use. But placed in a different context, it can be wonderful and magical.”

As a learning experience, working on Coppola's The Conversation (the title of Ondaatje's book is, of course, a play on the movie title) could not be improved on. Because Coppola ran out of money, some fifteen pages of script material (or about ten minutes of screen time) were never filmed—connective establishment shots in the San Francisco locations, some scenes, camera angles, a chase sequence on electric buses. One way that Murch was able to compensate for the unshot film was by capitalizing on Coppola's belief that characters in movies tend to change their clothes more often than people do in real life. “In film there's a costume department interested in showing what it can do,” Murch says, “so on the smallest pretext characters will change clothes.” The problem, in many movies, is that frequent wardrobe changes lock filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. In The Conversation, Harry Caul, the character played by Hackman, is rarely out of a cheap transparent plastic raincoat, which allowed Murch to move scenes around out of sequence. Invention was the order of the day. In the script, the electric-bus chase led directly to a realistic dialogue and plot scene in a park. The way Murch and Coppola saved the park scene without its lead-in was to make it a dream of Caul's. “When you have restricted material,” Murch says, “you're going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.”

Every film presents a unique set of problems. On Apocalypse Now, one of the biggest problems (figuratively and realistically) was Marlon Brando. He had a mammoth deal that stipulated a rigid two-week time frame, and he refused to give Coppola a break on either the money or the time. After his arrival on the Philippines location, Brando spent his first week arguing with the director about the script; the production was shut down, which meant that his scenes had to be done in half the time allotted. “He was heavier than he said he would be,” Murch says discreetly, “and therefore couldn't reasonably do what his part called for.” Not only was Brando the size of a tank but he seemed not to have read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now is loosely based. He hated the name Kurtz and had insisted that his character's name be changed to Colonel Leighley, since it was his contention that army officers had flowery southern names. (The southern officer he played in the film made from Carson McCullers's Reflections in a Golden Eye was Major Weldon Penderton.) Coppola had acquiesced to the name change, and shot a number of scenes in which other characters referred to Kurtz as Colonel Leighley. Then, in the Philippines, Brando read Conrad's novel and demanded that his character be called Kurtz, as it was in the book. This meant that it was necessary to rerecord all the previous scenes in which characters talked about Colonel Leighley and the reasons it was necessary to terminate him with extreme prejudice. “The actors' mouths are saying ‘Colonel Leighley,’” Murch says, “but in fact we hear them saying ‘Colonel Kurtz.’”

Murch rarely visits a set during shooting because there are too many extraneous factors: “How cold it was when the scene was shot; who was mad at whom; who is in love with whom; how quickly something was done; what was standing just to the left of the frame.” He wishes to have as little interplay with actors as possible. “I try never … to see the actors out of costume or out of character,” he says. “I only want to see what there is on the screen. Ultimately, that's all the audience is ever going to see. … You are studying them the way a sculptor studies a piece of marble before deciding to chisel it—here. So I have to know all the hidden veins and strengths and weaknesses of the rock that I'm working with, in order to know where best to put the chisel.” He watches actors over and over in take after take, forward and backward, at twenty-four frames a second and forty-eight frames a second, yet meeting them in the flesh, after the end of a shoot, is disconcerting. “For the most part, they have no idea who I am,” he says. “I'm just a person who worked on the film. … On the other hand, I know them better than anyone!”


Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael (Vol. 29)