Michael Ondaatje writes fiction at the very center of global literary success and attention, yet does so with both a discontinuous, poetic style more generally admired by a smaller readership and a recurrent focus on marginalized characters and communities. His popularity as an internationally respected novelist follows his early work as a poet, work that influences his intensely imagistic novels with their centripetal, often polyphonic narration, metafictional translucency, and contrapuntal plots. Thematically, the novels attend to individual and systemic violence, the intersection of official and unofficial history, textuality, romance, and sexuality. His characters frequently migrate from one community (whether geographically or socially rooted) to another, re-authoring themselves in new places while their author builds non-linear, imbricated narratives.
Born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on September 12, 1943, and emigrating first to England when he was 11 and then to Canada in 1962, each time leaving a family circle and seeking an education, Ondaatje has lived the itinerant life pursued by most of his characters. In interviews, he is conscious of what Salman Rushdie calls the “stereoscopic” perspective of the migrant writer: “I think my generation was the first of the real migrant tradition that you see in a number of writers of our time – Rushdie, Ishiguro, Ben Okri, Rohinton Mistry – writers leaving and not going back, but taking their country with them to a new place” (Bush 240). Ondaatje moved around within Canada while studying and teaching, eventually settling at Toronto's York University as a professor.
In addition to being emblematic of global literary trends, Ondaatje's career is equally illustrative of the late twentieth-century evolution of Canadian literature. Ondaatje has repeatedly stated that his emigration to Canada was crucial to his becoming a writer, and he arrived as Canadian writers, publishers, and readers were beginning to explore domestic identities distinct from American and English influence. He has said, “As a writer I feel very Canadian. I became a writer here” (Wachtel 260). Ondaatje's national and later international rise in popularity led a second wave of success for Canadian writers as he, Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, and others followed the international acceptance of Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant. The initial print run of Ondaatje's 1967 debut The Dainty Monsters was a modest 500 copies; by the mid-1990s, following a popular, Academy Award-winning film adaptation and the first Booker Prize won by a Canadian, English-language sales of The English Patient were in the millions.
Ondaatje wrote poetry for his first four books, although his third, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970a), began his overt fusion of poetry and prose (and won him his first Governor General's Award for poetry). Considering line breaks alone, one can categorize The Collected Works as poetry and Ondaatje's debut novel Coming through Slaughter (1976) as fiction, although the documentary touches and narrative arc in The Collected Works clearly lean toward fiction, while the imagistic tone and fragmentary structure of Slaughter have an obvious allegiance to poetry. His first book of selected poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979), won a second Governor General's Award. Even more resistant to genre categorization is Running in the Family (1982), which blends travelogue (about his return to Sri Lanka as an adult) with autobiography, fiction, poetry, and photographs. Two more books of poetry followed before the pair of novels that elevated Ondaatje from national to international renown: In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992). Each of these novels was followed by a book of poems before his last two novels, Anil's Ghost (2000) and Divisadero (2007), were published.
Each of Ondaatje's five novels concentrates on individuals finding, joining, and maintaining communities. With individuals or romantic couples in the foreground, these novels investigate the formation, legitimization, and evolution of communities in the narrative background, and do so across significant geographical landscapes. Coming through Slaughter is Ondaatje's portrait of the pioneering jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden in an early twentieth-century New Orleans governed by systemic racism and sexual exploitation. In this historical landscape, one both captured and invented by an Ondaatje intrigued alternately by history and by the “well-told lies” he confesses to admiring (18), black musicians and sex-trade workers were shipped in to clubs that black patrons were forbidden to attend.
Bolden's refusal to enter the “wax history” of early musical recording exemplifies the novel's pronounced concern with media and textuality (32). Emphatic within these textual strata of song lyrics, poems, set lists, interview transcripts, and letters are references to the actual historical photographs of brothel portraitist E. J. Bellocq and to The Cricket, a “scandal sheet” newspaper Ondaatje invents for Bolden. Although Slaughter fixates on Bolden, its shifting narrators and multiple perspectives anticipate Ondaatje's move to more episodic novels with ensemble casts.
While Slaughter is Ondaatje's only novel with a character (Webb) that is a detective by profession, each of his novels clearly invokes the detective genre, particularly the missing persons case. With In the Skin of a Lion, set in the Toronto of the 1920s and 1930s, a hunt for the millionaire Ambrose Small is one narrative thread in an episodic novel explicitly concerned with the role of under-recognized immigrant communities in Toronto's urban coming of age. Textual records, chiefly newspaper and radio reports, attend to the disappearance of a millionaire or the planning and completion of Toronto's Bloor Street Viaduct, yet the immigrant workers who risk their lives building the city do so without official memory. From its invocation of the Epic of Gilgamesh to its periodic references to heroes and heroines and a repeated plotline of isolation and adversity, the otherwise postmodern Skin maintains a pronounced interest in the traditional heroic pattern. Each of the main characters – laborer Patrick Lewis, thief David Caravaggio, acrobatic builder Nicholas Temelcoff, and activist Alice Gull – fulfills the heroic pattern of skill acquisition, travel, isolation, and testing. Ondaatje's examination of exploitive politics and economics departs from the heroic pattern, however, by minimizing the communal appreciation of its heroes.
With The English Patient, co-winner of the 1992 Booker Prize and winner of the Governor General's Award for fiction, Ondaatje's focus on the politics of records and record keeping shifts to the European exploration of the North African desert before and during World War II. By its close, a bombed villa in Tuscany becomes a convalescent home for four individuals expatriated by the war. The Hungarian explorer Almásy, falsely thought to be English, recovers from burns sustained while attempting to leave a desert that had become his adopted, spiritual home. The Canadian nurse Hana draws the Canadian thief turned spy Caravaggio to the villa (both characters recur from In the Skin of a Lion). Comparable to Almásy's voluntary migration into the adopted homeland of the desert is the Indian sapper Kirpal Singh's migration from India to England for military service. Leaving a colony increasingly committed to independence in favor of an England at war, Kip serves the imperial motherland as a sapper. By war's end, working to rid Italy of bombs, his loyalties appear severely misplaced when he learns of the atomic bombing of a fellow Asian country.
With Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje's career obsession with violence, missing persons, and politics replace The English Patient‘s international war with the separatist insurgency of his native Sri Lanka. Like Ondaatje, the forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera is a Westernized Sri Lankan who left the country for education and a career away. Returning to investigate human rights abuses, Anil works with government archaeologist Sarath Diyasena to identify the body of a skeleton she suspects was the victim of government-sponsored murder. Consciously or not, Anil's Ghost addresses earlier criticism that Ondaatje hadn't written enough about Sri Lanka's protracted civil war. Affecting scenes here depict the kidnapping of doctors and each side of a three-party conflict (two terrorist groups and a nominal government) pooling their weapons orders to receive bulk discounts. Anil's Ghost co-won Canada's Giller Prize and won the Governor General's Award for fiction, making Ondaatje the Canadian writer with the second highest number of Governor General's Awards at four (surpassed only by Hugh MacLennan).
Private and political pilgrimages continue into Ondaatje's latest novel, Divisadero. Opening in rural California, this novel of geographically discrete but emotionally related story lines begins with a surrogate farm family consisting of a taciturn father, a biological daughter and an adopted one, and a hired hand. Ferocious domestic violence sends the hired hand into an underworld of professional gambling and one daughter into an academic life that ultimately takes her to rural France to investigate the (invented) poet Lucien Segura. Segura's artistic ascendancy straddled the passage of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, and his contribution to World War I was as an underappreciated advocate for disease control. Similarly, each of the major characters in the novel also finds love to be infectious, if not lethal.
In interviews and in his substantial editorial work, Ondaatje reveals himself to be an insatiable reader. His books include intertexts classical and modern, including Herodotus's Histories in The English Patient and the Epic of Gilgamesh in Skin, as well as overt affection for writers as varied as John Berger, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov, and Annie Dillard. Most widely available of his various anthologies is From Ink Lake (1990), a book of Canadian fiction. Two compendia have emerged from his work at Brick magazine, including The Brick Reader (1991), which he coedited with his partner, the writer Linda Spalding. Other collaborative work includes an intriguing book-length meditation on editing entitled The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002). That inquiry followed Ondaatje's own filmmaking in the 1970s, the highlight of which is Sons of Captain Poetry (1970c), his portrait of fellow Canadian poet bp Nichol.
Popular with scholars and readers around the world, Michael Ondaatje has enjoyed a multigenre writing career emblematic of Canadian literature's rise in international recognition and respect. Ondaatje ascended from an intimate national literary culture in the late 1960s to write internationally best-selling novels characterized by poetic language and equally sensitive to the politics of individuals and nations.
SEE ALSO: Canadian Fiction (WF); The City in Fiction (WF); Detective/Crime Fiction (WF); Film/Television Adaptation and Fiction (WF); Historical Fiction (WF); Migration, Diaspora, and Exile in Fiction (WF); Realism/Magic Realism (WF); Sri Lankan Fiction (WF)
- Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne. (1993).
- Michael Ondaatje: An Interview. Essays on Canadian Writing, 53, 238-49. (1994).
- The English Patient. Miramax Films. (dir.), (1996).
- The Dainty Monsters. Toronto: Coach House. (1967).
- The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto: Anansi. (1970a).
- Leonard Cohen. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (1970b).
- Sons of Captain Poetry. Mongrel Films. (dir.), (1970c).
- Ondaatje, M. (ed.) (1971). The Broken Ark: A Book of Beasts. Ottawa: Oberon.
- Rat Jelly. Toronto: Coach House. (1973).
- Coming through Slaughter. Toronto: Anansi. (1976).
- Ondaatje, M. (ed.) (1977). Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Tomas, and Blaise. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
- There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963–1978. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (1979).
- Running in the Family. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (1982).
- In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (1987).
- Ondaatje, M. (ed.) (1990). From Ink Lake: Canadian Stories. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys.
- The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. New York: Knopf. (1991).
- The English Patient. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (1992).
- Handwriting. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (1998).
- Anil's Ghost. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (2000).
- The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Toronto: Vintage. (2002).
- Divisadero. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (2007).
- Ondaatje, M.; Spalding, L. (eds.) (1991). The Brick Reader. Toronto: Coach House.
- Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (1994).
- Cosmopolitan Fictions: Ethics, Politics, and Global Change in the Works of Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Jamaica Kincaid, and J. M. Coetzee. New York: Routledge. (2006).
- An Interview with Michael Ondaatje. Essays on Canadian Writing, 53, 250-61. (1994).
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