Michael Ondaatje Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(Philip) Michael Ondaatje 1943–

Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, editor, and filmmaker.

Ondaatje originally established his literary reputation as a poet, and his verse publications include The Dainty Monsters (1967), Man with Seven Toes (1969), and Rat Jelly (1973). Critics note that his subjects, which range from the violent and disturbing to the domestic and personal, are consistently presented in musical, sound-conscious language. Ondaatje's most acclaimed literary achievement to date is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), which won a Canadian Governor General's Award. Billy the Kid combines both poetry and prose in a fictionalized biography which celebrates the life and legend of the famed American outlaw.

Ondaatje has also received critical acclaim as a novelist. Coming Through Slaughter (1976), his first novel, again reflects his fascination with extraordinary personality types. In this work, Ondaatje employs what William Logan has termed "creative mythologizing" to depict the tormented life of another legendary figure, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Coming Through Slaughter is similar to Billy the Kid in its blend of poetic and prose forms, but Ondaatje also uses such quasi-factual journalistic material as interviews and documented reports.

Ondaatje's recent work, Running in the Family (1982), is set in Ceylon, where Ondaatje was born, and combines a travelogue with memoirs of his youth. In it Ondaatje attempts an imaginative reconstruction of his family history, with particular emphasis on the eccentric personalities of his maternal grandmother and his father. While some critics have remarked that in this work his prose is overly poetic and obscure in places, others have praised its innovative structure and Ondaatje's descriptive power.

(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Karyl Roosevelt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Ondaatje is a poet and even his prose [in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid] moves with rhythmic, circular precision. "Find the beginning," he writes, "the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in." And from that promising starting point he pries Billy the Kid loose from his legend and takes us inside, to his inner being; we feel as Billy feels….

[It] is through Billy's (or Mr. Ondaatje's) special sensitivity to light and color, movement and sound, that the deserts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico begin to breathe hotly in our imaginations. The slow, sensuous unravelling of these violent lives is filtered through the monochromatic desert light….

This is a good little book, carefully crafted and thoroughly literate. But it is a "little" book, a portrait in miniature, and eventually limited by Billy's own character. Its young author proves here that he is capable of moving and tragic persuasions. But a true tragedy must concern itself with a hero, and despite the efforts of movies, television and the perpetuated myth of the Old West, Billy and all the other romanticized murderers emerge as exactly the opposite, as antiheroes. Perhaps it's because our culture has given up all hope of ever seeing another real hero that we're so ready to build myths around these toxic types. (p. 49)

Karyl Roosevelt, "Original Fiction with Toxic Heroes," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1974, pp. 48-9.∗

Jon Kertzer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To his acknowledgments at the end of Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje adds this final note: "While I have used real names and characters and historical situations I have also used more personal pieces of friends and fathers. There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts that have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction." He indicates here the intricate mingling of fact, fiction, and personal reference through which he records and invents the life of another of his heroes who sail to that perfect edge: Charles "Buddy" Bolden, a part-time barber and jazz musician in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Ondaatje uses documents, quotations, and interviews combined with his own songs, poems, and narrative all in the service of the truth of fiction. By blending history and fantasy, he explores the inner life of his subject much as, in an earlier work [The Collected Works of Billy the Kid], he recorded and invented the inner life of Billy the Kid…. The legend of Buddy Bolden is blended even more richly when Ondaatje projects himself into the book. In one section, he describes his first curiosity and sympathy for Bolden who, at the age of 31 (Ondaatje's own age), went berserk while playing in a parade and then spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. In this way, Ondaatje weaves himself not only into the history, but also into the fantasy of his poetic-novelistic-biography. He...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The protagonist of Coming Through Slaughter is Buddy Bolden, known chiefly to jazz aficionados as a pioneering musician in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Bolden is a hazy, semi-mythological figure at the dawning of jazz—from the days before recordings or big money or national and international acceptance of Black music. (pp. 92-3)

From these fragments and an acquaintanceship with New Orleans and its history, Ondaatje has fashioned a prose work (his first) that is part documentary, part fiction and essentially a spiritual exegesis of a tragic personality. Upon finishing it, one no longer asks why Ondaatje chose Bolden as his principal character. He has journeyed so far into the world and mind of Bolden—or someone he imagines Bolden to have been—that Coming Through Slaughter represents an imaginative feat of a high order: a transcending of cultural and racial and historical barriers into a state of nearly total identification, on both the author's and reader's part, with the subject.

The pattern of Bolden's life is a familiar one in Black musical history, a precursor of those talents that have self-destructed in despair and heroin. Bolden's music was a search for both ecstasy and oblivion: he lived at top speed, becoming celebrated young, drinking vast quantities of alcohol, doing violence to himself and occasionally those around him, going over the edge into madness at 31. Bolden spent the last 24 years of his life in a Louisiana mental institution. It was his way of committing suicide.

All this comes very close to the romanticized...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Mark Abley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do] contains the best of two of Ondaatje's earlier collections, published in 1967 and 1973 [The Dainty Monsters and Rat Jelly], as well as 19 new poems. The 1967 pieces are precocious and sometimes good; those of 1973 are often very good; most of the new ones are a joy. Never a bad poet, Ondaatje has grown to be one of the finest in a country where reputation rarely depends on the sheer quality of work. He has always had a gift for the killing image; now there is a richness, a mellowness, an alertness to complicated truths. Though "we wear sentimentality like a curse" there is no excuse for shunning emotion. Poems about his wife, friends and children are sprinkled throughout, and recently Ondaatje has begun to face directly his vanished Asian childhood. A visit to India and Ceylon in 1978 inspired some of the keenest poems in the book. He has learned how to unsettle without resorting to the Gothic bravado and gore that occasionally stains his prose.

The trick is to appear relaxed and intense at once. Even when Ondaatje is harshly evoking pain, a sense of humor almost never deserts him. Sometimes he rambles from tale to tale, yet the endings have a cunning elegance: In the movies of my childhood the heroes / after skilled sword play and moral victories / leave with absolutely nothing / to do for the rest of their lives. This is the poetry of daily speech, a poetry of the myths by which we live. The trick is to cut away the vanities with words as haunting as memory. Ondaatje has learned what to do. (p. 63)

Mark Abley, "Bone Beneath Skin," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 92, No. 17, April 23, 1979, pp. 62-3.

Tom Marshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If [Douglas] LePan's and [Leonard] Cohen's myths have to do with an expedition or descent into darkness, horror, a mystical sensuality, fragmentation, and madness, then Michael Ondaatje's work could be said to carry this movement to a further, darker extreme. For here there is virtually no intimation of the possibility of return or reintegration, of transcendence or the possible achievement of community (or even a more than momentary communication), at least for the author's doomed heroes. Ondaatje's is, thus far, a darker and apparently more nihilistic vision than those of Watson, Klein, LePan, Cohen, MacEwen, Atwood, or Helwig, in whose work more positive human possibilities still exist even in the midst of darkness. (p. 144)

It is, no doubt, of significance here that Ondaatje is not a native Canadian. Though he began to develop his extraordinary gift after his arrival in the new world, his earliest and most profound emotions and intuitions were shaped elsewhere, in far-off Sri Lanka. But he has been familiar with much of the best Canadian writing throughout his early career and has adapted the tradition to his own ends. (pp. 144-45)

Early reviewers were correct in recognizing Ondaatje's markedly individual if eccentric talent. An obsession with violence has also contributed to his popularity in these apocalyptic times. Whence this comes remains a mystery, though it is something that he shares with Pratt and Cohen, among other Canadian writers. His interest in animals is a thing common in Canada, too, of course: but his animals seem to be descendants of Ted Hughes's animals, who are in turn descendants of D. H. Lawrence's animals. And the exoticism of treatment, while it has an obvious kinship with that of Wallace Stevens, whom Ondaatje introduces to King Kong, is presumably Ceylonese in origin. By means of these interests, the poems attempt to reveal the wonder, beauty, and horror of an inner life on which "civilized" society tries to keep the lid very tightly clamped. This is his version of the notorious Canadian garrison-and-wilderness theme. All in all, a heady mixture: the general effect is strange and intriguing to Canadians, and quite rightly. (p. 145)

Ondaatje is at his best in longer works. In the longish poems "Paris" and "Peter," which is a kind of portrait of the artist as persecuted and misunderstood monster, his characteristic extravagance is subordinated to the overall theme in a satisfying way. Ondaatje seeks out the heroic in the mythic past, as Gwendolyn MacEwen does: "Paris" has the same magic as her "Arcana" series. A longer sequence, The Man With Seven Toes, is striking as well. It concerns a woman lost in the Australian bush, and this situation is at least analogous to the encounter with Canada's very different nature. It is purer than the earlier narratives, in a sense; it cannot be construed as allegory or disguised autobiography as they could. Ondaatje's descriptions of violent events have a tactile and kinetic quality that is somewhat rare in poetry, and the absence of any meditation or apparent moral or other attitude to his materials gives the work startling immediacy and power. But it is with Billy the Kid that he finds a vehicle, albeit an American one, large enough for the fuller expression of his vision.

Reading this extraordinary work, one suspects at first that Ondaatje relishes the bizarre or the whimsical or the grotesque for its own sake; but a little reflection makes it apparent that this is how he wants the reader, at least temporarily, to perceive the world. The true story...

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Bharati Mukherjee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Ondaatje … has set himself apart from [the dogmatic certainty of much mainstream Canadian writing]. He works by suggesting the final unknowability of the world. He disrupts comforting pieties and surrounds his characters with an almost absolute darkness. His urgent interest has always been to drive the reader away from familiar settings and expected motivations. What he seems to want is to maximize our terror of, and fascination with, our own ignorance. As protagonists, he favours the "possessed" of the world—the mad, the outlaw and now most recently, the dipsomaniac paranoid—whereas standard Canadian fiction is about decent, reasonable though often disappointed citizenry.

The main...

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Mark Abley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Running in the Family … is the bravest, gentlest and funniest of [Ondaatje's] nine books.

The text is centred around a long trip he recently made to [Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon], visiting those members of his family who remain there. Interspersed with his own experiences are chapters that forage through time to recreate the vanished world of his grandparents and parents. By entering the darkness of history, Ondaatje hopes against hope to bring his father to light. Opening the pages at random, the reader might come across a conversation, an essay, a poem, a journal or a tall tale. Ondaatje is an excellent raconteur, fond of spinning yarns, and his Ceylon suggests a cross between the Corfu of...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Gary Draper

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Each new book by Michael Ondaatje seems wholly different from those that preceded it, and wholly the same. [Running in the Family] is a family reminiscence…. A far cry, I thought when I began it, from a cycle of poems about Billy the Kid, or a prose poem on the New Orleans jazz scene and cornetist Buddy Bolden. Not so far a cry, it turns out.

But how does it seem different? First, it has the flavour of autobiography. Of course the narrative "I" is always present in Ondaatje's work. The little kid in the cowboy clothes at the end of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is the author. And the narrator of Coming Through Slaughter enters the work at various points with a...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Christopher Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Running in the Family turns out to be an intelligent and responsible piece of work, full of good stories and colourful evocations of a world that will be foreign to most of its readers.

The book conflates descriptions of two separate visits to Sri Lanka, where Ondaatje was born and lived for the early part of his childhood. Significantly, the country is always referred to as "Ceylon" in his text, for this is very much an exploration of times past, a way of life that has all but irrevocably vanished….

By quizzing surviving relatives and friends, Ondaatje has created a picture of the life and times of his parents' and grandparents' generations that is necessarily...

(The entire section is 508 words.)