This story was originally published Saturday, Oct. 10, 1992.
When Michael Ondaatje went back to his native Sri Lanka more than a decade ago, family friends told him what they had discovered while digging up the grounds at one of the Ondaatje family’s former estates: “About 30 bottles of Rocklands Gin buried in that lawn by your father. . . .” A dipsomaniac unexploded minefield. Michael Ondaatje has been writing about bombs and minefields, real and metaphorical, for much of his life.
“It intrigues me,” says Urjo Kareda, who worked with him for five years on a revival of Ondaatje’s play, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. “There’s this courteous, controlled man with the pale eyes. And there’s violence, in book after book. It’s unresolved. And mysterious.” Michael Ondaatje is a celebrated poet, playwright, filmmaker and author of four novels. His latest, The English Patient, could win the Booker Prize next Tuesday. He is also adamantly private, an enigmatic black box. His best friends decline to be interviewed on the record even to praise him. Some people who have worked beside him for 25 years at Coach House Press (he’s on the editorial board) say they don’t know him. Novelist Susan Swan, another Coach House board member, offers this assessment: “A magical person but a journalist’s nightmare.”
Ondaatje has wrapped his private life in secrecy, like Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, but the harder he tries, the more intrigued his readers get. Anticipation was high over the appearance this fall of his latest novel. It had to make an even bigger impact than his 1987 book In The Skin of Lion, which won two major Canadian awards and was shortlisted for a Ritz-Hemingway Prize. High expectations at home (where he has twice won a Governor-General’s award) were coupled with skepticism abroad, triggered by a reported L70,000 advance from his U.K. publisher, Bloomsbury. Newspapers and TV programs were refused advance copies of the new book, apparently on Ondaatje’s orders. Happily, this September, The English Patient emerged in a blaze of mostly brilliant reviews.
But Ondaatje has continued to exercise great care. He agrees to be interviewed if certain buttons are not pressed. We will meet on neutral ground, a cafe on the Danforth. We will not discuss his older brother Christopher, a financier whose brief ownership of a publishing house indirectly led to its collapse (he sold Lester & Orpen Dennys to a Bronfman company which shut it down). I will not talk to the author’s wife, Linda Spalding.
But when Ondaatje ambles into the Upper Crust cafe, right on time, he seems like a bashful, beautiful grey bear. He’s wearing an average Canadian plaid shirt, as if he has just returned from one of his annual canoe trips. “I was within 10 feet of three moose last week,” he volunteers. “With my son Griffin, in Algonquin Park.” When he talks, he mumbles, in a feinting, deflecting way, almost inarticulate.
He says something about not being sure how often he can do a novel like this one. “It’s too emotional. I was locked away for five years. For me, the last six months of writing a book are completely crazy. Removing something as small as a phrase, trying to get the balance right.” He worked right up until the end. After the manuscript went to the printer, he broke into it to change the English patient’s final scene.
But even in person, Ondaatje insists on one thing. “Privacy is essential. I’ve seen a lot of writers being interpreted by their personalities - Ginsberg, Layton, serious writers turned into personas.” He lowers his voice and speeds through the next bit before you realize it may be a kind of apology. “That’s the cause of all this paranoia. You want the book to be read, not the author.” No matter. What is important to know about the Ondaatje family of Sri Lanka has already been told in Ondaatje’s magical 1982 memoir, Running In The Family. (A few facts are put more soberly in his brother Christopher’s The Maneater of Punanai, which came out this year.) The Ondaatje roots are Dutch, English, Sinhalese and Tamil; records of illustrious ancestors, including leading members of the island’s clergy and judiciary, can be traced back to the 17th century. In the 1920s, one branch was locally notorious. They set fire to their rooms at Oxford, played drunken tennis matches, downed rivers of Rocklands Gin and lost a fortune.
According to Running In The Family, some were drunk when swept to their deaths by drowning. One was the family’s maternal grandmother, Lalla. “It was her last perfect journey,” writes Michael. “A magic ride, the alcohol still in her - serene and relaxed . . . .” Christopher’s version of his grandmother’s death is less metaphorical. Lalla died of alcoholic poisoning in her sleep.
Both brothers write of the family’s antics, Michael with a mythologizing sense of wonder, Christopher more bluntly. Of how, despite an upper-class background, Lalla would squat in the road to pee. Of how their father Mervyn - so volatile when soused - would brandish his army pistol aboard the Colombo-Trincomalee train, delaying it for hours.
In Michael’s hands, poetry makes fabulous even the most painful memories. Running in the Family opens with a recurring dream Michael has of his father “chaotic, surrounded by dogs.” Later on, he recalls “a story about my father I cannot come to terms with.” Mervyn Ondaatje, who normally loved animals, was once found trying to hang five huge black canines; tongues distended, swinging “like black magnets,” they had to be cut down by a friend. If the writer cannot come to terms with this in the memoir, he enters into it in full in his first novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid - where a man is ripped apart by a pack of dogs.
To grow up among drinkers is to learn to live precariously, knowing that irrational behaviour can erupt at any moment, that everything you trust can be lost. Mervyn’s wife Doris left him; when he died, he was managing a poultry farm.
But work is the cure of the drinking class. Christopher emigrated to Canada in 1955. A compulsive risk-taker, the financier has recouped the family fortune and then some. This past week, he donated $100,000 to the Renascent Centres for the treatment of alcoholism.
Michael arrived in Canada in 1962. His brother pushed him into university, Bishop’s in Lennoxville, Que., where he got a degree. At 21, he married Kim Jones, a 35-year-old artist, had a son and a daughter (Griffin and Quintin) and began writing. His first book of poetry, The Dainty Monsters, came out when he was 24; reviewers welcomed “an obviously talented young poet.” Coach House is now re-publishing it.
Over the years, Ondaatje’s writing has become famous for its intoxicating sensuality. One of his most gorgeous poems is The Cinnamon Peeler from Secular Love (1984), which traces the scent a lover’s hands leave on a girl’s body. (Smells are a strong feature of all Ondaatje’s writing, from the whiffs of New Orleans shaving cream and orange juice in Coming Through Slaughter to the “cool moth smell” of Tuscan stone in Patient.) Other poems are slapstick, slamming images together. Elimination Dance (there are two versions) counts out anyone who has ever been on an elevator with the Three Stooges, anyone who has gone into a florist’s shop and asked for a clitoris instead of a clematis, anyone who has stapled themselves.
Ondaatje has also done theatre and film, though he confesses they don’t give him enough control to suit him. “I can be subtle in a poem or a novel. I can’t be subtle in film.” He seems to imply that, at 49, it’s too late. He made his latest film, Love Clinic, last year while he was on sabbatical at the Canadian Film Centre. “It got turned down by every film festival in the world except Bombay, which loved it,” he says cheerfully.
Now he lives with his second wife, Linda Spalding, on one of those streets of stolid houses off the Danforth. His neighbours are “a young Chinese guy and a guy who does a video thing.” Ondaatje teaches contemporary international literature at York University. He’s been offered jobs at U.S. universities, “but I wanted to live in Canada.” Why? “My home,” he mumbles, “my friends, my kids. . . .”
His life is not all calm. He can become enraged over artistic matters, publicly collaring other writers over their critical opinions. Another sign of his not-always-suppressed passion is the exuberance and gregariousness friends say he shows in private. He throws parties that mix kids, dogs and grownups in “scrummage dancing.”
At Coach House Press, he supports young writers: “A guardian of other writers’ artistic development,” says Susan Swan. Three times a year he helps put out Brick, a highly respected international literary magazine edited by Spalding.
Brick alone would have made Ondaatje and Spalding members of the international literary firmament. The latest issue features Toni Morrison interviewing Salman Rushdie, and a profile of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. “When I first came to Canada,” says novelist Alberto Manguel, “I was told there was only one magazine worth reading and that was Brick. It’s extraordinary.”
But it’s the novels that confirmed Ondaatje’s reputation. They’re works of unconventional construction and great intricacy, mixing fact and fantasy, with explosions and potential explosions as recurring themes. Gunman William Bonney starred in The Collected Works of Billy The Kid (1970). In Coming Through Slaughter (1976), the explosions were psychotic, in the brain of Buddy Bolden, the brilliant black jazz cornetist who lost his mind while playing in the middle of a parade in 1907.
In The Skin of A Lion (1987) is about the sweat and muscle and dynamite that went into the building of Ontario. It tells of those who dynamited tunnels under Lake Ontario to fill the R. C. Harris Water Filtration plant. It details the blasting boxes, plungers and fuses used by a man who confronts Commissioner of Public Works Harris and threatens to blow his tunnel to kingdom come. “As a teen-ager, I used to read books on bombs. I had a great passion to be a frogman,” Ondaatje recalls.
Intense research goes into the novels. “You can’t invent the most amazing things!” he says, astonished. “Look at the heroes of our time” - Nelson Mandela and his estranged wife Winnie - “That’s a level with profound Shakespearean drama!” And Magic Johnson, a superman struck down in his prime. “Magic shook hands with a bookseller at the American Booksellers Association convention - and she dropped dead! Really.”
He says The English Patient began with a vision: a burning man in the desert. Then he spent months researching the context. “Magpie work,” he calls it. He pored over the private letters of Elisabeth and Rodney Dennys (parents of his friend, the publisher Louise Dennys), who were stationed in Egypt during the war. He studied bomb defusers’ journals. He spent weeks in London at the Royal Geographical Society “among 40,000 dusty newspapers and a Maori canoe.” He read up on desert explorers - in particular a certain Count Almasy, a Hungarian who roamed the Libyan wilds in the 1930s and may have been a Nazi spy. (And who in the book, may be the English patient.) Then he retreated to Toronto, to write longhand. “The only time my mind is ordered is with a pen. The thought of Henry James dictating his last novels is terrifying.” Then he cut and pasted the handwritten notes. (Ondaatje’s handwriting is famously illegible, curly black marks that look like the snail- and-eyelid shapes of Sinhalese, the first alphabet he learned in school.) He put the results into a computer, a few pages at a time. “I need a physical pile of five pages so I can look for the echo.” Then he read the manuscript into a tape, “to hear the poetry.” And then he rewrote, fine-tuning the mechanism.
The risks the book takes are alarming; the balance, delicacy and precision are palpable. The plot ticks along - it’s the end of the Second World War in an abandonded Italian villa that may or may not be mined. A young Canadian nurse tends her patient, an Englishman burned black in a fiery desert plane crash. For a long time nothing seems to happen, though there’s always the imminent possibility of an explosion. Just when you think the scene is finally set, another character clicks in - Caravaggio, a thief turned spy, who knows the nurse from Toronto; Kip, a young Sikh bomb-disposal expert in the British army; and all the extra characters they conjure up as they tell one another their stories.
It’s tense-making, how long the author lays the fuse between these people and the climax. “Technically, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I was sweating blood,” Ondaatje confesses. “I was always scared I couldn’t get back. As the writer Bobbie Louise Hawkins says, the plot of this book is ‘How do we get out of here?’ ” The English Patient seems like the work of someone who tracks a bomb’s wires to the precise point where he can dismantle the clockwork safely and lay the thing to rest. Just as Lion can be read as a political book, so can Patient. The former is about class war, the rich using the workers to turn their visions into reality. It ends with a truce. The English Patient is much darker. The patient might be a metaphor for the British empire, dying slowly, haunted by memory. “That’s one of the reasons I picked the title,” says Ondaatje. The novel ends with news that atomic bombs have been dropped on Japan. The young Asian flees from the white people in the villa in horror - “They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.”
The Bomb is the irony, says Ondaatje. “Kip knowing where all the little bombs are buried and then - this monster above. In the years of writing it, I felt the political world had become so out of reach. When the Gulf war broke out, I was horrified; it was a nightmare. I’d turn on the TV and see these guys getting mines out of the sand.”
As his reputation as a writer has grown, Michael Ondaatje has spent more and more energy trying to control what’s said about his life as opposed to his work. But it’s no use. To shut us out, he would have to stop writing; you encounter the human artist through the people he creates.
He’s like young Hana in her acute sensuality. In one reflective moment, she smells her skin, “breathing into her own cupped hands so her breath would bounce back to her nose.” Hana, who retreats at the end of the war to calm, ordered Canada.
One of Ondaatje’s friends suggests he is like the English patient of mysterious identity who identifies with Goliath in a painting by the real Caravaggio, the 17th-century Italian master. The patient describes David With The Head of Goliath: “The young warrior holds at the end of his outstretched arm the head, ravaged and old . . . youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand.”
Patient is about generations, according to Ondaatje. But it’s premature to identify him with someone on his deathbed. Sure, the writing has matured. Instead of the adrenalin-crazed scenes of Billy The Kid, the violence now happens offstage, and is felt through its effect on people. “As opposed to me as a 25-year-old saying, ‘I think I’ll have a great death scene.’ But I wouldn’t want to lose that 25-year-old stuff,” he adds anxiously.
He’s also a little like Caravaggio, the street-smart observer, who breaks into other people’s lives and (like a writer) takes a bit here and there. Caravaggio, an immigrant whose name is rich with sensual allusions, whose name sounds as absurd among the Anglo-Scots of Toronto as, say, “Ondaatje.” Caravaggio, who thinks he’s figured out the mystery.
Ondaatje dreamed up the name while working on Lion, after he went to see a Caravaggio show in New York. “It was the greatest art show I’ve seen in my life. Not just his sense of light and dark, it was the precariousness.” He demonstrates, pulling his bowl of cafe au lait across the table until it threatens to fall into his lap. “There’s always a cup - balanced on the edge.”
And that leaves Kip, the young Indian. Who survives the minefields. Who survives the war in a job where life expectancy is measured in weeks. Kip has a charmed life, and all the luck and skill in the world. And still he discovers the unbearable truth, that luck and skill aren’t enough. You can correctly defuse all the bombs you encounter, but there’s always a bigger one.
Does the book end happily? Ondaatje shrugs. “Kip is - becalmed.”
The last scene in the book is Kip’s. Years have passed, and he’s a doctor in India, with a family, but also with memories of the people he met in the war. In this last scene, Kip’s hand suddenly, almost unconsciously, swoops down and catches a dropped fork an inch from the floor. He gently passes it into the fingers of his daughter.
It reminds you of the way Ondaatje gently pushes his cafe au lait back from the edge of the table to safety. Another small disaster, gracefully defused - just.