Author Michael Ondaatje, who won the Man Booker and the Golden Man Booker Prize, must be explored.
Early in the film Away from Her, the two protagonists — played by Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent — are lying together by the fire in the living room of their cabin with snow falling outside the window. Eventually Pinsent starts reading from a poem, The Cinnamon Peeler.
It’s a poem about intimacy and lovers’ bodies and memory. Watching the scene, it’s impossible not to be entranced by all the Canadian artistry on display: the film was written and directed by Sarah Polley and is based on Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s haunting short story. The poem itself is by that other Canadian literary superstar, Michael Ondaatje.
Ondaatje made it to the Man Booker Prize list with his latest novel Warlight, after he also recently won the acclaimed Golden Man Booker prize for his novel The English Patient. This latter prize was a best-of-the-best contest, pitting novels that had previously won the Booker over the past five decades against each other. When The English Patient won the prize in 1992, it was praised for the sensuality of its prose. Four years later, Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation made the book even more popular. The movie won nine Oscars, made its cast into superstars, turned its picturesque locations into tourism hotspots and gained notoriety when in an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine Benes can barely restrain her impatience with the story and characters and screams in frustration in the theatre.
Elaine’s reaction reflected the polarisation that Ondaatje’s prose often produces: his narratives are often disjointed, points of view shift with extreme fluidity and the prose, while not purple, can seem to tilt that way.
But to pursue an Ondaatje novel to the end is a literary journey without equal. This is a writer who made his name as a poet before writing his first book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. It's a book true to its name: a collage composed of, among other things, songs, poems, prose, interviews and a play.
As you read his works in chronological order, you find him not just producing works of extreme beauty, but also find the world-view gradually expanding from North America to shores as far away as South Asia. He has returned time and again, directly or tangentially, to Sri Lanka. It was there in 1943 that Ondaatje, who is of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese descent, was born. When he was 11 years old, he was shipped off to England — a journey that inspired his 2011 novel The Cat’s Table. In 1962, Ondaatje went off to Canada where he’s lived ever since.
Given his background, it’s no surprise to see that war, migration, nationalism, fractured families and forgotten histories are at the very core of his stories. It’s there in The English Patient which hops around North Africa, Europe and India and it’s there in Divisadero which takes place in California and France. In Anil’s Ghost, he sets the story in Sri Lanka and the after-effects of the devastating civil war that tore the country apart for years.
It’s difficult to pick one book that perfectly encapsulates Ondaatje’s style and themes, but In the Skin of A Lion comes close. Caravaggio, the charming thief who holes up with Hana and Almasy in the Tuscan villa in The English Patient, first appears in this book which is almost entirely set in Toronto. The novel brings to light the lives of the immigrant labourers who worked on building the modern city and who’d never been acknowledged in official histories.
Ondaatje’s works throb with empathy for the outsider. And in these times of prejudice, violence and increasingly virulent nationalism, his stories act as a necessary antidote that help understand perspectives foreign to one’s own.
— The writer is a Bengaluru-based communications professional currently working on a novel.