(Philip) Michael Ondaatje Biography
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), 1943. Education: St. Thomas' College, Colombo; Dulwich College, London; Bishop's University, Lennoxville, Quebec, 1962-64; University of Toronto, B.A. 1965; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, M.A. 1967. Career: Taught at the University of Western Ontario, London, 1967-71. Since 1971 member of the Department of English, most recently a full professor, Glendon College, York University, Toronto. Visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, summer 1979; Brown University, 1990. Editor, Mongrel Broadsides. Awards: Ralph Gustafson award, 1965; Epstein award, 1966; E.J. Pratt medal, 1966; President's medal, University of Western Ontario, 1967; Canada Council grant, 1968, 1977; Books in Canada First Novel award. 1977 Governor-General's Award for Poetry, 1979; Governor-General's Award for Fiction, 1971, 1980, 1992; Canada-Australia prize, 1980; Toronto Book award, 1988; Booker prize, 1992; Literary Lion award (New York Public Library), 1993.
Coming Through Slaughter. Toronto, Anansi, 1976; New York, Norton, 1977; London, Boyars, 1979.
In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Knopf, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1987.
The English Patient. New York, Knopf, and London, Bloomsbury, 1992.
Anil's Ghost. New York, Knopf, 2000.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (produced Stratford, Ontario, 1973; New York, 1974; London, 1984).
Coming Through Slaughter, adaptation of his own novel (producedToronto, 1980).
The Dainty Monsters. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1967.
The Man with Seven Toes. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1969.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto, Anansi, 1970; New York, Norton, 1974; London, Boyars, 1981.
Rat Jelly. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1973.
Elimination Dance. Ilderton, Ontario, Nairn Coldstream, 1978; revised edition, Ilderton, Brick, 1980.
There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963-1978. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and New York, Norton, 1979; as Rat Jelly and Other Poems 1963-1978, London, Boyars, 1980.
Secular Love. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1984; New York, Norton, 1985.
Two Poems. Milwaukee, Woodland Pattern, 1986.
The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. London, Pan, 1989; NewYork, Knopf, 1991.
Handwriting: Poems. New York, Knopf, 1999.
Leonard Cohen. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1970.
Claude Glass. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.
Tin Roof. Lantzville, British Columbia, Island, 1982.
Running in the Family. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and NewYork, Norton, 1982; London, Gollancz, 1983.
Editor, The Broken Ark (animal verse). Toronto, Oberon Press, 1971; revised edition, as A Book of Beasts, 1979.
Editor, Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Editor, The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.
Editor, with Russell Banks and David Young, Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1989.
Editor, with Linda Spalding, The Brick Anthology. Toronto, CoachHouse Press, 1989.
Editor, From Ink Lake: An Anthology of Canadian Stories. NewYork, Viking, 1990.
Editor, The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. London, Faber, 1990.
By Judith Brady, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 6 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Toronto, ECW Press, 1985.
National Archives, Ottawa; Metropolitan Toronto Library.
Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje edited by Sam Solecki, Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1985; Michael Ondaatje by Douglas Barbour, New York, Twayne, 1993; Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard by Winfried Siemerling, Toronto and Buffalo, University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Director: Films—Sons of Captain Poetry, 1971; Carry on Crime and Punishment, 1972; Royal Canadian Hounds, 1973; The Clinton Special, 1974.
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Award-winning author Michael Ondaatje's novels examine the internal workings of characters who struggle against and burst through that which makes people passive and which historically renders human experience programmatic and static. To this end, his style—for which two lines from his poem "The Linguistic War Between Men and Women" act as a perfect comment—is raw, stark, energetic: "Men never trail away. / They sweat adjective." It is more appropriate to talk of Ondaatje's fiction and its energetic qualities as proceeding through "scenes" rather than through episodes or chapters: his extensive work and interest in film informs his preoccupation with matters of shaping and form.
Through Ondaatje's prose the reader is taken beyond morality into a realm of human action and interaction. His protagonists take great risks because they cannot do otherwise: they are driven to break through the limitations of mediocrity in a personal anarchy that is often destructive to self and others. The fractured narrative Coming Through Slaughter traces the personal anarchy of jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden and the perspectives on him of those who knew him best. Bolden was never recorded and "never professional in the brain," but he was hailed as a great and powerful innovator. Ondaatje molds the little-known facts of Bolden's life into a fictional yet ostensibly objective account of the years of his fame, from the moment in approximately 1900 (age twenty-two) he walks into a New Orleans parade playing his loud, moody jazz. In a manic push beyond the order and certainty by which he was always tormented, he goes insane while playing in a parade in 1907, and is committed to an asylum where he dies in 1931.
In the Skin of a Lion draws less on historical fact than any of his previous novels. For the first time he uses culturally marginalized and wholly fictional central characters—except for Ambrose Small—and draws out their mythic potential rather than relying on and reshaping a preexistent cultural myth or a historical figure. In this novel Ondaatje explores the pulse of physical labor and the life of an immigrant neighborhood in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario from 1900 to 1940, and reveals its sense of community, solidarity, and hatred of the solipsistic idle rich. The protagonist Patrick, like Buddy Bolden, "departs from the world," but unlike Bolden, he has a private revolution that eventually takes the form of public political action.
All of Ondaatje's "fictions" have a metafictional aspect: Patrick, like the police detective Webb in Coming Through Slaughter, like Ondaatje himself in Running in the Family, is the searcher-figure, analogous to the writer, who stands to an extent outside of "lived experience" observing, rooting out facts and "truths," trying to shape a coherent history, or story. Through these figures, Ondaatje inscribes the perspective of the history-writer and sets up a tension between their observing and others' experiencing. In his novels, Ondaatje himself becomes a kind of historiographer and underscores the fact that the observer's impulse to articulate, an impulse experienced almost as a physical drive, is necessary to history.
The English Patient might be considered a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion. It features characters from the previous novel—Hana (Patrick's daughter), Caravaggio the thief—and continues Ondaatje's alertness to the fundamental importance of writing history. But Ondaatje's novels are characterized so much by inner transformations of character, voice, and scene, that it would be against the tenor of his craft to presume rigid connections between them, or to read them in a sequential manner. Like the sands of the North African desert that feature so prominently, The English Patient is a novel about shape-shifting. Set in the final days of World War II, as the map of Europe is about to be redrawn and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are soon to be disfigured utterly, it depicts the lives of four characters in a derelict villa north of Florence. The English patient (whose Englishness is not secure) is an aircraft pilot burned beyond recognition. He is cared for by a shell-shocked Hana, a nurse in the Canadian forces. They are joined by Caravaggio and Kirpal Singh, who earns the nickname Kip. Caravaggio has been tortured and suffered the removal of his thumbs. The emphasis upon the damage that each of these three characters has suffered finds its contrast in Kip, a Sikh sapper who spends his days defusing the mines that litter the vicinity of the villa. Kip symbolizes the propensity to reverse potential destruction; Ondaatje's descriptions of his work are some of the most memorable in all his prose. Those passages depicting Kip defusing the complex circuitry of mines make you tremble with relief at his eventual success.
Kip's presence at the villa helps emphasize storytelling as a form of defusing, an act that makes approachable an incendiary past. Gradually, through the act of recounting their histories, each character clears a path through their pasts that allows them to remember in safety. Their stories resemble the tattered books in the villa's library: fragmentary, full of gaps and parentheses. Indeed, the importance of rewriting is a theme that emerges in the novel's structure. Ondaatje builds the narrative upon fragments of other texts, just as the English patient records his thoughts in the pages of an old copy of Herodotus's Histories that is similarly swollen and torn.
But the bombs that cannot be defused fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the novel is never far from this apocalypse. When Kip learns of the news on the radio in the novel's climactic scene, his response is to confront the English patient with a rifle, outraged at this latest "tremor of Western wisdom." This, it seems, is one historical experience that renders redundant the narratives of Western history—with their emphasis on civilization and progress. A new narrative of history is required, perhaps one the novel itself tries to fashion, that rends the fabric of existing history in its attempt to bear witness to the immensity of what has happened.
This attempt at writing history is again undertaken in Ondaatje's latest novel, Anil's Ghost. In this work, however, Ondaatje does not set his characters against a diminishing mid-century conflict but, instead, in the midst of a recent war that does not exhibit the geometric sweep of advancing fronts, nor antagonists that are readily identifiable. The conflict between the government, anti-government insurgents, and separatist guerrillas involved in the Sri Lankan civil war of the late 1980s and early 1990s envelops the story like the imperious monsoons that drench its combatants and obscure the landscape. The result is that the characters, amid the pervasive and bald-faced violence of this war, do not have the constant sanctuary of an Italian villa in which to assemble their fragmented stories. Anil, a foreign educated forensic anthropologist assigned to her homeland on a UN mission to investigate alleged war atrocities, discovers a suspicious skeleton with her secretive local colleague, Sarath. The careful descriptions of the evidence drawn by Anil's handling of the bones are as lyrical and compelling as Kip's meticulous maneuvers in The English Patient. However, evidence, like the fragmented scenes of the novel, does not point to an apprehensible truth in this conflict. Indeed, these characters tell their stories not by gathering the evidence of their lives, but by reaching into the unknowing that surrounds them and making, or sculpting a place for human encounter. Palipana, the blind epigraphist, lives his days making connections beyond the evidence of his former archeological research while searching for lice in his young caregiver's hair; Gamini, Sarath's brother, the peripatetic, shy doctor, is driven to insomnia and exhaustion by his irrepressible need to physically care for the wounded; even Sarath, who would not shake his brother's hand, learns to touch as he gives his life to the inscrutable machinery of government at the end in order to secure safe passage for Anil.
To a greater extent than The English Patient, war in its genocidal capacities is the central concern of this novel. War is an omnipresence that reveals itself in the novel's epigraphic scenes always removed from contextual certainty. In one such scene, a man is crucified to the pavement with common builder's nails. Similarly, later in the novel, an anonymous assassin, edging closer to the president on the street, flicks the switches under his shirt that will force Gamini from Sarath's bedside to tend to a burst of wounded in the hospital. We do not learn why the man was nailed to the road, nor do we learn the name of the assassin or the political motivation for his bomb. These fragmented moments are not given to us as evidence with which to logically apprehend the pulse of this conflict. Indeed, we are left to approach these horrific and emotional incidents the way that the artist in the novel's last few pages approaches the act of painting the Buddha's eyes. We can only see indirectly and we can only abide the "sweet touch from the world."
Ondaatje's writing of history in Anil's Ghost develops his interest in the observer's impulse to articulate, yet it qualifies it in a way that removes the assuredness of evidence and renders the characters either silent, as in the case of the departed Anil, or responsive to the intimate, ineffable corporeality of their surroundings. Stories become, as they are in his 1998 book of poetry, Handwriting—which is in many ways a companion piece to the novel—unspeakable scripts on leaves, on smoke, or dispersed gestures like a gathering of bones that point to different pasts.
revisions by John McLeod
and Adam Dickinson