Michael Ondaatje

“…they were made with the lens wide open”

The role of a camera is to capture the light and movement of a moment onto film; the role of an author is to capture the immensity of life’s moments onto text. Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje attempts such mystical conjuration in both his prose and poetic prints, while still remaining true to the rhythms of the geographic peoples he mimics in his narratives. Ondaatje, the man, is a mystery. Seldom seen pumping the media for fame, he appears to be a Wizard of Oz who guards his public image quite carefully. Certainly, one can never tell if he consciously plays with scholars for mockery or for the love of the game — in either outcome the chase is sweet for all who engage in the self-allusions and breadcrumb clues he leaves in his wake.

While achieving international recognition with the success of the film adaptation of his 1992 novel, The English Patient, Ondaatje did not sacrifice his artistry for the demands of the public. Indeed, Handwriting was a return to both the lush, careful poetry and the images from Ceylon found in The Cinnamon Peeler and Rat Jelly. With the public hype for another English patient to crawl out from beneath the desert sands, it was refreshing to find the poet writing for poetry’s sake. In his most recent work, Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje returns to the spellbinding prose that leads the reader into the political turmoil of his homeland of Sri Lanka, and into labyrinths of both archaeology and genealogy. The beauty of Ondaatje’s chase is that nothing is truly hidden from plain view. As the epigraph to this summary states: the lens is wide open and every detail is caught on film. But like a fine tapestry, there are so many interesting corners within each piece that it is hard to gain a broad perspective of what is before you.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Ondaatje’s work is the fashion in which he juxtaposes and blends the media of poetry, prose, and photography, making reading an almost multi-media function while remaining on the printed page. Like film montage, Ondaatje’s fiction often walks the line between narrative and imagery, leaving the reader puzzled with what she has just experienced. But Ondaatje’s work is more precise than montage, and his mixing of media shows an acute awareness of form and function while still calling both into question: If narrative prose is selected to carry the story, and poetry is chosen to convey emotion, his use of photographic images often shows us that we may be wrong about everything; that we need to dig deeper in holes already dug.

In Coming Through Slaughter, arguably his finest original work, Ondaatje soaks his text with actual music and photographic references. From the opening page of Slaughter, the author features three sonographs showing the squawk, whistle and echolocation patterns of dolphins. With this introduction, the author sets the reader up for a quizzical exploration of what it means to be a reader, and questions just what expectations and “baggage” a reader may have in approaching the novel. In the 1995 Anansi edition of Slaughter, the reader is advantaged with a copy of the only Bolden photo on the cover. It is an obscured photo, with scratches and overexposed areas, but what the author has done is to put a photographic face to his character — it’s all there, if the eye takes the time to read the man. Ondaatje simultaneously creates both a puzzle and a collage: all the pieces are on the page; it is up to the reader to sift through them and create his own unique image. In almost Joycean fashion, he forces the reader to look beyond the text, into the perhiphery of Bolden’s grimy world, his jazz town and its idiosyncratic movements. It is a place which tempts like the voice of a siren, but damns with the stroke of the father’s rod — and that is the point where Ondaatje’s writing takes you if you are willing to follow.

Michael Ondaatje was born Sri Lanka, but emigrated to Canada, by way of England, in 1962. Ondaatje, at the age of nineteen, completed his formal education in Canada, receiving a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, and then a Master’s degree from Queens University. His family life, real and imagined, is documented in Running in the Family, a novel that deals with the loss of language, birthplace and his father, both of which he neither saw nor heard after his emigration.

Ondaatje has won acclaim with the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1970, and 1979, and for fiction in 1992. However, it is his winning of the prestigious Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth’s highest literary honour, for The English Patient in 1992 that was a breakthrough for the author. His most recent accolade is sharing with David Adams Richards the 2000 Giller Prize. While alluding to Canadian cities, most of his work is situated in the exotic locations of Italy, Ceylon, New Orleans and the Wild West, and has become an integral part in the postcolonial canon. Now living in Toronto, Canada, he has taught at Glendon College, but mostly works and writes outside of academia.

–Anthony N. Chandler, 27 July 2001


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