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Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje

Once a highly regarded denizen of a burgeoning Canadian literary scene in the early 1970s, Michael Ondaatje (born 1943) has since gone on to achieve international renown for his poetry and fiction. His 1992 novel, The English Patient, was made into a motion picture four years later that won an array of industry awards.

Philip Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a large island located off the southern tip of India. He later wrote of his unusual childhood in Running in the Family, a 1982 memoir. In it, Ondaatje explains that his family were British colonists who possessed a large tea plantation-as well as a spirit of adventure that this large extended family and their lavish colonial life passed on to him. The work won critical acclaim for the beautiful imagery which Ondaatje, by then an established poet, used to tell his predecessors' tales-such as the story of his grandmother attending a formal dance with fireflies sewn into her gown. "The book was praised by critics as much for its re-creation of a particular society, " wrote Ann Mandel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "as for its stylistic exploration of the relationship between history and the poetic imagination."

Yet Ondaatje's childhood, as some of Running in the Family recollects, was less than idyllic; his father drank to excess, and so before he was ten his parents' marriage had ended. As a result, Ondaatje went to London, England, with his mother in the early 1950s, and eventually studied at Dulwich College. Ondaatje, however, found the English educational system constricting. He subsequently left to join his brother, already living in Quebec, and enrolled in Bishop's University in the early 1960s. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, receiving a B.A. in 1965. Graduate work was undertaken at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, from which Ondaatje earned a master's degree in 1967.

Ondaatje entered academia, becoming an instructor in English at the University of Western Ontario until 1971; when his superiors pressured him to earn a Ph.D., Ondaatje left and took a post in the English department at York University's Glendon College in Toronto. There was little reason for him to add a title to his name, since by then he was already an established poet: The Dainty Monsters, its title borrowed from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, was his first published volume. Its first half poeticized some fantastical beasts and otherworldly animals, such as the mythological beast known as a manticore (human head, lion's body, dragon's tail) that populated Toronto's sewer system in one poem. Its second half, "Troy Town, " featured interrelated poems based on tales from classical literature. The Dainty Monsters was extremely well-received for a small edition by an unknown poet, and made Ondaatje an important figure in Canada's acclaimed new generation of young writers; the work has never gone out of print.

Ondaatje's next few works were also published by his first press, Toronto's acclaimed Coach House, and he has worked for them as an editor as well over the years. These early titles offered more examples of his poetry and included 1969's The Man with Seven Toes, and his nonfiction look at Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, published in 1970. What has been termed Ondaatje's best-known volume of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kidd: Left-Handed Poems, appeared in 1970. In it, Ondaatje placed himself in both the third-person and the first with the inner monologues of the outlaw Kidd himself to re-create his unusual life story and to speculate on the motivations behind this icon of the American Wild West.

"The book continues thematically his exploration of the ambiguous and often paradoxical area between biology and mechanization, movement and stasis, chaotic life and the framed artistic moment, " wrote Mandel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. When Billy the Kidd received one of Canada's top literary prizes in the poetry category in 1971, there was some grumbling from the Canadian political establishment that the Governor-General's award had been given to a work that reflected some very American subject matter. Ondaatje's verse was adapted into a script and staged at the legendary Stratford Festival Theatre in 1973.

Matured, Ventured into Other Forms

Ondaatje had married and begun a family in the mid-1960s, and the poems and often whimsical imagery contained in 1973's Rat Jelly reflect the blended family he and artist Kim Jones created. The writer also ventured into filmmaking, such as a 1972 short work that chronicled the tale of the abduction of Wallace, the family's basset hound. His first foray into fiction came with the 1976 title Coming through Slaughter, classified as "a biographical novel." In London years before, Ondaatje was intrigued by a newspaper article about a New Orleans musician early in the twentieth century who had what apparently was a breakdown while playing in a parade. He began to research the life of cornetist Buddy Bolden, an actual figure who spent the last twenty-plus years of his life in a mental ward. Bolden is credited with pioneering a playing style that gave birth to what is now known as Dixieland jazz. No recordings were ever made of him, and little is actually known about the man or his tragic life. Ondaatje traveled to New Orleans in 1973 to work on the book, which takes a non-chronological form as part narrative, part interior monologue. "Ondaatje succeeds in giving us a sense of how Bolden actually played, " wrote Canadian Literature's Roy MacSkimming. "The texture of the book itself has that fertile, driving, improvisational quality, rich with its own pleasure in language and human complexity."

During the 1970s, Ondaatje continued to write poetry, edit the works of others for Coach House, and experiment with blending fact, fiction, and verse. Volumes which further enhanced his reputation include: There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978, published in 1979, Claude Glass, another volume of poetry published that same year, and the aforementioned memoir published in 1982, Running in the Family. In order to write the last work, Ondaatje journeyed to Sri Lanka and spent time with his relatives there. His own family in Canada underwent transformation during the early part of the next decade, when Ondaatje's relationship with Jones ended. The poems in Secular Love, published in 1984, reflect this change in his life, chronicling the difficulty of coming to terms with the end of a long-term coupling, as well as the joys of beginning a new one. Its title comes from the following poem: "Seeing you/I want no other life/and turn around/to the sky/and everywhere below/jungle, waves of heat/secular love." Again, Ondaatje won kudos for his work among the members of the literary establishment. The critic Liz Rosenberg, writing for the New York Times Book Review called Ondaatje "an oddity-a passionate intellect-and his book is alternatingly exasperating and beautiful."

Now in his forties and still teaching at Glendon College, Ondaatje returned to the quasi-novel format with the 1987 work In the Skin of a Lion. To construct a plot about the life of a young man coming of age in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s, the author built upon the facts of a real-life incident from that time-the mysterious disappearance of a well-known millionaire. The novel is as much about the search for the missing tycoon, the hero's involvement in the potentially lucrative quest, and his ensuing mix-up in radical politics of the era, as it is about Toronto's immigrant communities and their role in building the city. Its focal point is an actual viaduct at Bloor Street that was indeed constructed by laborers who spoke a polyglot of languages. In the Skin of a Lion was adapted into a play staged that same year. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, Michael Hulse, compared Ondaatje's achievement in painting a portrait of a growing city to that of James Joyce's Dubliners or Alfred Doeblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hulse commended the way by which Ondaatje mixed "psychological sensitivity and physical sensuality with a meticulous fidelity to factual detail, " and termed it "his most ambitious work to date."

The English Patient

Ondaatje became a household name, however, with the 1996 film adaptation of his 1992 novel The English Patient. Set in a Tuscan villa at the end of World War II, the story took Ondaatje eight years to write. It begins with a Canadian nurse, Hana-in time, the reader learns she is the daughter of the protagonist of In the Skin of the Lion-who is left almost alone in a bombed-out former convent. She has stayed behind at the former military hospital with a badly burned patient who has been brought there to pass his remaining days. Nameless, he was rescued from an air crash in the North African desert, and appears to be English. Hana reads to him, gives him morphine, and ministers to his charred skin. "Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint, " Ondaatje writes of Hana, who is washing the body. "He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky."

Ondaatje introduces two other characters into the novel-one, a Canadian who has spied for the Allies and lost his thumbs for it, and a Sikh Indian who is a "sapper, " or bomb disposal expert. The Canadian ascertains that the "English patient" is actually a Hungarian noble and onetime Nazi spy. Through the course of the novel, the quartet of characters recount their pasts, all of which are emotionally wrenching. "Isolated together, they invent for a brief while an improbable and delightful and fearful civilization of their own, a zone of fragile intimacy and understanding that can't-of course-survive, " wrote Lorna Sage in a Times Literary Supplement review. The novel concludes as the characters learn that an atomic bomb has been dropped on Japan, a betrayal that Kip, the Indian bomb-defuser, feels more keenly than the others: he spent years working in the rubble of London and the minefields of Tuscany in the service of the West, who in turn use their technological "superiority" to annihilate an Asian nation.

The screen version of The English Patient was adapted from the novel by director Anthony Minghella and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1996. Ondaatje's novel version was awarded Britain's top literary honor, the Booker Prize, in 1992.

Further Reading

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 29, 1984, Volume 51, 1989, Volume 76, 1993.

Contemporary Poets, Gale, 1985.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, Gale, 1987.

Canadian Literature, summer, 1977.

New York Times Book Review, December 22, 1985.

Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1987; September 11, 1992.

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Ondaatje, Michael

Michael Ondaatje (Philip Michael Ondaatje) (ändät´chā), 1943–, Canadian writer, b. Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Immigrating (1962) to Canada, he attended the Univ. of Toronto (B.A., 1965) and Queen's Univ., Ontario (M.A., 1967). Since 1971 he has been an English professor at Glendon College, York Univ., Toronto. His first published works were poems, noted for their mixture of fact and fiction, real and surreal. His Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) blends poetry, prose, and visual materials into a compelling portrait of the American outlaw. Other poetry collections include The Dainty Monsters (1967), Rat Jelly (1973), The Cinnamon Peeler (1990), and Handwriting (1998). Ondaatje is best known for his novels, which also blend reality and imagination, exploring a variety of cultures and mingling present and past in richly evocative prose. The antithesis of linear narrative, his fiction is filled with incident and coincidence, often changing abruptly in time, style, and point of view. With his most celebrated novel, The English Patient (1992; film 1996), a tale of love and betrayal set in a ruined Italian villa during World War II, Ondaatje became the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize. His other novels are Coming through Slaughter (1976), In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Anil's Ghost (2000), Divisadero (2007), and The Cat's Table (2011). He also has written screenplays and edited anthologies and a literary journal.

See his memoir, Running in the Family (1982); studies by L. Mundwiler (1984), S. Solecki, ed. (1985), D. Barbour (1993), and E. Jewinski (1994).

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Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael

ONDAATJE, (Philip) Michael

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), 12 September 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. Family: Married 1) Betty Kimbark in 1963, one daughter and one son; 2) Kim Jones (separated). 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. Address: Department of English, Glendon College, York University, 2275 Bayview Ave., Toronto, Ontario M4N 3M6, Canada.



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.

Manuscript Collection:

National Archives, Ottawa; Metropolitan Toronto Library.

Critical Studies:

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.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Films Sons of Captain Poetry, 1971; Carry on Crime and Punishment, 1972; Royal Canadian Hounds, 1973; The Clinton Special, 1974.

* * *

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 stylefor which two lines from his poem "The Linguistic War Between Men and Women" act as a perfect commentis 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 charactersexcept for Ambrose Smalland 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 novelHana (Patrick's daughter), Caravaggio the thiefand 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 historywith 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 novelunspeakable scripts on leaves, on smoke, or dispersed gestures like a gathering of bones that point to different pasts.

Diane Watson,

revisions by John McLeod

and Adam Dickinson

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