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 on Michael Ondaatje
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.