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.
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.
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.
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.