Michael Ondaatje Ondaatje, Michael - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Chelva Kanaganayakam (essay date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christian Bök (essay date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Manina Jones (essay date summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Lorraine M. York (essay date summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rod Schumacher (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan Ellis (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bill Fledderus (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rochelle Simmons (essay date summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael O'Neill (review date 5 February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Roxborough (essay date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sudeep Sen (review date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Douglas Malcolm (essay date September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sharyn Emery (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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S. Leigh Matthews (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


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Michael Gorra (review date 28 April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rachel Cusk (review date 8 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Bayley (review date 2 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Constance Merritt (review date spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Michael Ondaatje and Brian D. Johnson (interview date 9 September 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Gregory Dunne (review date February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 313 words.)