- Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) on 12 September 1943. He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971. He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983. His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General’s Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998).His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996. Anil’s Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells the story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group .Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto with his wife, Linda Spalding, with whom he edits the literary journal Brick. His new novel is Divisadero(2007).
Ondaatje is, along with Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s most important contemporary writers and one of the country’s biggest cultural exports.
Partly due to the phenomenal success of his Booker prize winning The English Patient (1992) and, more recently, Anil’s Ghost (2000), Ondaatje is best known today as a novelist. However, he first achieved critical acclaim as a poet with early collections like The Dainty Monsters(1967), Rat Jelly (1980) and his long poem The Man with Seven Toes(1969). More recently he has returned to poetry with the publication of his long poem, The Story (2005). Set alongside water colour illustrations by artist David Bolducan this beautiful book aims to raise funds for the World Literacy Project in Canada. Meditations on childhood, love and mythology, these poems reveal a preoccupation with language and rhythm that is pursued later in his typically economical, lyrical prose fiction. During this period, Ondaatje also produced a book of criticism – Leonard Cohen (1970) – and the filmsSons of Captain Poetry (1970) about concrete poet bpNichol; Carry on Crime and Punishment (1972); and The Clinton Special (1974). Ondaatje has also compiled a book of interviews with filmmaker Walter Murch (responsible for The English Patient among other things) entitledThe Conversations (2002).
Ultimately, Ondaatje is perhaps best understood not as poet or novelist, but as an artist who has drawn into question the very limits of such genres. In his playfully titled The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1981) we are treated to some of the formal exuberance and experimentation for which Ondaatje is critically respected. As its author has stated, the book is not ‘interested in the real Billy the Kid’. Often referred to as a ‘collage’, the ‘collected works’ brings together, within a single, episodic narrative, songs, photographs, poetry, prose, interviews, a play, as well as the white space of blank pages. Where the title of this text implies a ‘complete’ narrative of its hero, the events of the text are ambiguous and fragmented. Its protagonists, Billy and Pat Garrett are the product of plural perspectives, a combination of history and legend that ultimately favours uncertainty in place of the whole story.
In his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), Ondaatje continues his focus on folk heroes, creating a fictionalised biography of Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden (1876-1931), a legendary jazz musician. Here Ondaatje develops the formal experimentation of The Collected Worksto produce a prose poem that is also ‘a parable of the twentieth century artist’. Like Billy, Buddy exists outside ‘official’ history and the narrative hints that this is a ‘life’ only available to us through music, stories and rumours. As if to highlight the blurred boundaries between real and fictional lives, Ondaatje himself makes an appearance as a character within the text. Life and art, biography and fiction are not polar opposites in this text, but mutually constitutive categories.
In Running in the Family (1983), Ondaatje turns away from America and Canada in order to interrogate his own life and family history through a return to Sri Lanka. Written shortly after a visiting the country of his birth, the text, once more, blends different genres in a fragmentary collage of photographs, poems and stories. If the boundary between autobiography and fiction is frayed in Coming through Slaughter, then in Running in the Family it appears to have been erased completely. More recent works such as Handwriting(1998) and Anil’s Ghost see Ondaatje dwelling increasingly on the history and landscape of his native country. While early pieces like The Collected Works and Coming Through Slaughter led to accusations that Ondaatje was an ‘Americanised’ artist, his writing since the late 1980s reveals a growing preoccupation with the artist’s ‘roots’ and the politics of race and migration (Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka before settling in Canada).
In the Skin of a Lion (1987) fictionalises the lives of those migrants and minorities that participated in the construction of Toronto in the early 1900s, but who have since been written out of the country’s official history. In this beautiful, poignant novel Ondaatje dwells on the work, the labour, the energy invested in Canada by those settlers who are imagined as outsiders. In the Skin of a Lion is a profound exploration of the migrant condition. It is a novel about the wearing and the removal of masks; the shedding of skin, the transformations and translations of identity.
His next novel, The English Patient (1992), takes up these themes and issues in a more subtle, indirect manner. Ondaatje has said that the novel articulates ‘All people born in one place who live in another place [and who] have lost their source’. In the place of origins and sources, we are offered fragments: fragments of narratives, fragments of buildings, fragments of lives. While Ondaatje’s early work was without doubt critically successful, it was The English Patient, a work that has also been translated into a successful film, that brought the author true international fame. Set in a villa in northern Florence, The English Patient observes the tumultuous events at the end of Second World War from the ‘margins’. The haunting, harrowing yet compelling narrative spirals around one woman (Hana) and three men: Caravaggio (also the name of a key character in In the Skin of the Lion), Kip and the English patient of the title. The mysterious, nameless protagonist is confined to an upstairs bedroom after receiving horrific burns in a plane crash. Physically immobile, it is through his restless, drifting memory that the story of the victim’s past emerges through a series of teasing fragments that takes us on an intimate journey between continental Europe and the African continent.
Anil’s Ghost (2000), Ondaatje’s much anticipated follow-up to The English Patient, returns us once more to the author’s Sri Lankan homeland. Here the backdrop shifts from European World War to South Asian civil war and the horrors and traumas of post-colonial violence. The novel tells the story of Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist who has trained in the United States and in England. Anil returns to Sri Lanka to investigate a series of politically motivated murders on the island. Paired up with anthropologist, Sarath Diyasena, it is the discovery of human remains in the Bandarawela caves that drives their quest for the truth and which haunts both the novel and its war-torn landscape. Ondaatje’s latest novel confirms his status as one of the world’s leading storytellers.
Ondaatje’s most recent novel, Divisadero (2007), takes its name from a street in San Francisco, and is concerned with the intersections between what otherwise seem divided narratives. In the words of Ondaatje, ‘it’s a story where each half reflects the other’. One half focuses on a farm in California, the other on Southern France before the outbreak of World War I. But there is also internal division. The first narrative describes the disintegration of an already fragile family comprising a father, his biological daughter (Anna), an adopted girl (Claire) and an orphaned boy (Coop). It is this story of division that reverberates throughout the novel as Anna slowly discovers when she traces the life of writer Lucien Segura in Europe. Ondaatje’s first novel in seven years has received a mixed critical reception, with many praising Ondaatje’s writing style, but with some complaining about the contrived connections between the two parts.
Dr James Procter, 2008
Ondaatje Delivers A Romp Through Memory, Boyhood NPR Books
In writer Michael Ondaatje’s mind, the “cat’s table” is where the undesirables sit in a boat’s dining room. It’s for the hecklers, the lowly ones and the ones farthest away from power. And it’s also where you’ll find the narrator of Ondaatje’s new novel, Micheal, an 11-year-old who’s on a 21-day voyage from Sri Lanka to London all on his own.
He and his companions — two other boys who are travelling alone — live by only one rule: to every day do at least one thing that is forbidden.
Ondaatje — who also wrote The English Patient — tells their story in The Cat‘s Table, a book set in the 1950s that is part boyhood romp, part crime novel and part nostalgic reflection as an adult Michael looks back on how the trip shaped his life.
Ondaatje tells NPR’s Michele Norris that the idea for his new book came from personal experience: he went on a similar journey when he was a young boy. He says that looking back, his own voyage seems very strange to him.
“You wouldn’t put your kid on a bus to go across America, let alone on a ship for 21 days,” he says.
Despite the book’s resemblance to reality, the author says that his goal in writing The Cat‘s Table wasn’t to rediscover the boy he was; it was to write a fictional version of something that had been forgotten.
“About halfway through, I suddenly named the boy, or the narrator, Michael,” after himself, Ondaatje says. “It had an odd effect on me in that calling him Michael separated him from me so that he began to change. He was a very different kind of person to what I am.”
Capturing The ‘Feral Quality‘ Of Childhood
On the ship, the boys occupy a world that is shaped by their adventures. They begin their day before the sun rises, plunging into the gold-painted first-class pool and raiding the sundeck’s breakfast table before other passengers are awake.
Ondaatje, who is in his 60s, says writing about the lives of rambunctious children wasn’t too much of a stretch for him.
“Something I realized much later on is that some of the most anarchic and perhaps accurate books about childhood — that catches that feral quality — are often written by older people,” he says. “We think about a film like Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman; it’s a wonderful film about childhood and he was quite an old man when he wrote it. There’s something about looking back that allows you a freedom to invent bad behavior.”
Looking back can also provide a certain amount of perspective. It isn’t until he’s older that the fictional Michael begins to recognize the longing that haunted him as a child; he’s flooded with memories and the sense that he’s missing something, even though he’s clearly surrounded by people who care about him.
“One of the things I wanted to do was have a sense of that huge gulf between children and parents,” Ondaatje says. “Michael is going to meet his mother in England, who’s been living there for four or five years, but he doesn’t really know her and doesn’t even know if he will recognize her when he gets there.”
Or, for that matter, if she will recognize him.
Crafting A Novel By Hand
Part of the book’s brilliance is the way Ondaatje presents his characters; it’s almost like flipping through the pages of a scrapbook of Michael’s memories, with characters moving from the background to the foreground of the story, and back again.
“I always have loved that element of having characters in a novel who disappear and then come back 50 pages later,” Ondaatje says. “This is what happens in our lives. We lose contact with people, and then they come back, and they are altered and sometimes we don’t know how they’re altered.”
And the constellation of characters Ondaatje invents is impressive. It seems like the only way to keep them all straight would be to plan them all out before you even started writing — but that’s not how Ondaatje works.
“They appeared as I was telling the story,” he says. “One of the things I do with my books is I write them and improvise when I’m actually writing that first draft and discovering what the plot is. But later on, I spend a lot of time rewriting, reshaping the book and underlining that architecture.”
A lot of that rewriting and reshaping — the first four or five drafts, to be exact — takes place in hand-written manuscripts that lend a chaotic air to Ondaatje’s office.
“It’s an outrageously untidy office. No one can go there because it’s so bad,” he says. “The table is so full of stuff I haven’t done, which I ought to have done.”
Still, the office provides a small space for Ondaatje to spin his tales from. You can either view it as clutter, or as a small sign of brilliance.
“I think I might have seen a sticker in a car which said, ‘A clean car is a sign of a sick mind.'” he says. “I’m really healthy if that’s the case.”
Jeffrey Brown Interviews Michael Ondaatje About The Cat’s Table
JEFFREY BROWN: In the early 1950s, a young boy sets out on a ship from his home in what was then called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, bound for England. On board he meets up with a lively cast of characters and has many adventures. It’s just a three week trip but one that will change his life forever. That’s the fictional voyage of a new novel, “The Cat’s Table.” It’s author, Michael Ondaatje, took a trip like that long ago before becoming the much honored writer of such works as “The English Patient” and “Anil’s Ghost” and “Divisadero.” He joins us now. Welcome to you.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: So an 11-year-old boy named Michael makes this trip, as did 11-year-old …
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I mean, I had no idea the boy was going to be called Michael until about age 40 and suddenly that name appeared and I thought should I go with that or not?
JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, so it didn’t start out that way?
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: No, I mean, I don’t usually know how the book is going to evolve before I write it so I just began with a boy coming on the ship one night and then he gets off the ship at, you know, 21 days later on, and the actual journey I took in fact was, I don’t remember it all, it was like I played a lot of ping pong and used the swimming pool a lot, but that was about it and …
JEFFREY BROWN: Something compelled you to look back at that whether it’s autobiographical, I don’t want to make it too autobiographic, but something the material made you want to look back.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Well, what happened was a few years ago I talked to my children who now grown up and I said I was put on this ship and there was no parental guidance nothing and they were appalled and I said actually it is appalling
JEFFREY BROWN: It is, that’s a different time, right, a young boy put on a boat by himself.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Right, so I thought my God there’s a wonderful story here and I’ll just invent this adventure that takes place on this ship during that time so even though I’m using a kind of an element of memoir or seeming autobiography all the characters in the story and all the adventures in fact are fictional.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now “The Cat’s Table” refers to the table in the dining room that’s the furthest from the captain’s table right? One of the characters says this is the least privileged place, these are the least important people on board.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: It’s, you know, if you have some big banquet and you are by the kitchens or something like that, you are sitting at the cat’s table and you know it’s the insignificance. I think there’s lot of freedom in being unofficial, there is a lot of freedom in being not on stage all the time so you can be a heckler, you can kind of and for a boy of 11 years old is at this table he’s almost completely invisible so he can go to places that others can’t go to and these three boys that get together are kind of having great adventures and you know slipping into the butcher’s room and into the jails, and into all kinds of strange places.
JEFFREY BROWN: But was there something freeing for you about having the character be a boy?
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: To write from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy was fantastic for me. He was, that was an adventure as well, you know, because you weren’t judging people, you weren’t trying to work out what someone really felt. You just received information and you were lead into kin of badness and goodness right away.
JEFFREY BROWN: You are working here on one the great realms of literature that trip and the characters along the way from “The Canterbury Tales” onward right?
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: That’s right, and I guess that’s why you kind of, it’s very important to populate the adventure with many, many people from different classes of society.
JEFFREY BROWN: So how did that happen? Did you have this fully formed when you sat down or did you literally make it up as you went along?
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I made it up and all I had was the boy at the beginning and then he has three friends and then the fact that they are at the cat’s table allowed me to kind of think of a larger cast of characters, you know, and so I have a jazz musician who is on the skids, and you’ve got a strange woman with pigeons who might be work for Whitehall and you’ve got a millionaire who’s dying of rabies. All kinds of very strange things are happening, but it allowed me to invent these people, and what someone says to the boy you know keep your ears and eyes open because this is going to be a great education, and so the minute I said that or had someone say that then it became in a way a book about how especially 11-year-olds are easily educated in a bad way or a good way. So there is a thief who uses the boy to break into cabins for instance and he’s happy to do this. It’s an adventure for him.
JEFFREY BROWN: The boy, as well as some of these characters that he meets, they are traveling from east to west, and there is another part of the great literature I think that you are working in here.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Well, I am someone who as I said, born in Sri Lanka and then moved to England and then moved to Canada, so I’ve been pretty nomadic in my life you know, and I’ve always been interested in how the east in the lives west. I mean in “The English Patient,” it was Kip the bomb disposal character and in this book it’s these boys from Asia who really haven’t, don’t even know what England is, who are suddenly kind of about to arrive in and all their lives are going to change completely. And I love that kind of transferring of people from one location to another one.
JEFFREY BROWN: So when you finished I guess and I’m going back to where we started you are looking back at a life that is sort of yours but not yours. Were you surprised by what you had written?
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: You know, it’s very obvious, I think, when you write fiction you are obviously kind of you know discovering elements of yourself even if you are writing fiction, because the kind of characters you invent aspects of yourself or glimmers of aspects of yourself, and then you had to kind of you’ve got to paint them in great detail. So the boy Michael who I see as a fictional character I am sure contains elements of my fears or wishes I think all those things, and I wrote a book called “Running in the Family,” which was about my family in Sri Lanka. I listened to all these stories from uncles and aunts and I wrote this portrait of that time, and even though half of them were lying to me I kind of believe all that stuff now. You know, fiction is very powerful in that way. It does replace facts sometimes.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “The Cat’s Table.” Michael Ondaatje, nice to talk to you. Thank you.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Good to talk to you.
The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje
If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to you hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…
When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said
this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
Peeler’s wife. Smell me.
Excerpt: ‘In the Skin of a Lion’
by MICHAEL ONDAATJE
Chapter One: Little Seeds
If he is awake early enough the boy sees the men walk past the farmhouse down First Lake Road. Then he stands at the bedroom window and watches: he can see two or three lanterns between the soft maple and the walnut tree. He hears their boots on gravel. Thirty loggers, wrapped up dark, carrying axes and small packages of food which hang from their belts. The boy walks downstairs and moves to a window in the kitchen where he can look down the driveway. They move from right to left. Already they seem exhausted, before the energy of the sun.
Sometimes, he knows, this collection of strangers will meet the cows being brought in from a pasture barn for milking and there will be a hushed politeness as they stand to the side of the road holding up the lanterns (one step back and they will be in a knee-high snowdrift), to let the cows lazily pass them on the narrow road. Sometimes the men put their hands on the warm flanks of these animals and receive their heat as they pass. They put their thin-gloved hands no these black and white creatures, who are barely discernible in the last of the night’s darkness. They must do this gently, without any sense of attack or right. They do not own this land as the owner of the cows does.
The holsteins pass the silent gauntlet of men. The farmer who follows the cows nods. He passes this strange community most mornings during the winter months, the companionship a silent comfort to him in the dark of five A.M. — for he has been rounding up cattle for over an hour to take them to the milking barns.
The boy who witnesses this procession, and who even dreams about it, has also watched the men working a mile away in the grey trees. He has heard their barks, heard their axes banging into the cold wood as if into metal, has seen a fire beside the creek where water is molecular and grey under the thin ice.
The sweat moves between their hard bodies and the cold clothes. Some die of pneumonia or from the sulphur in their lungs from the mills they work in during other seasons. They sleep in the shacks behind the Bellrock Hotel and have little connection with the town.
Neither the boy nor his father has ever been into those dark rooms, into a warmth which is the odour of men. A raw table, four bunks, a window the size of a torso. These are built each December and dismantled the following spring. No one in the town of Bellrock really knows where the men have come from. It takes someone else, much later, to tell the boy that. The only connection the loggers have with the town is when they emerge to skate along the line of river, on homemade skates, the blades made of old knives.
For the boy the end of winter means a blue river, means the disappearance of these men.
He longs for the summer nights, for the moment when he turns out the lights, turns out even the small cream funnel in the hall near the room where his father sleeps. Then the house is in darkness except for the bright light in the kitchen. He sits down at the long table and looks into his school geography book with the maps of the world, the white sweep of currents, testing the names to himself, mouthing out the exotic. Caspian. Nepal. Durango. He closes the book and brushes it with his palms, feeling the texture of the pebbled cover and its coloured dyes which create a map of Canada.
Later, he walks through the dark living room, his hand stretched out in front of him, and returns the book to a shelf. He stands in darkness, rubbing his arms to bring energy back into his body. He is forcing himself to stay awake, take his time. It is still hot and he is naked to the waist. He walks back into the bright kitchen and moves from window to window to search out the moths pinioned against the screen, clinging to the brightness. From across the fields they will have seen this one lighted room and traveled towards it. A summer night’s inquiry.
Bugs, plant hoppers, grasshoppers, rust-dark moths. Patrick gazes on these things which have navigated the warm air above the surface of the earth and attached themselves to the mesh with a muted thunk. He’d heard them as he read, his senses tuned to such noises. Years later at the Riverdale Library he will learn how the shining leaf-chafers destroy shrubbery, how the flower beetles feed on the juice of decaying wood or young corn. There will suddenly be order and shape to these nights. Having given them fictional names he will learn their formal titles as if perusing the guest list for a ball — the Spur-throated Grasshopper! The Archbishop of Canterbury!
Even the real names are beautiful. Amber-winged skimmer. Bush cricket. Throughout the summer he records their visit and sketches the repeaters. Is it the same creature? He crayons the orange wings of the geometer into his notebook, the lunar moth, the soft brown — as if rabbit fur — of the tussock moth. He will not open the screen and capture their pollened bodies. He did this once and the terrified thrash of the moth — a brown-pink creature who released coloured dust on his fingers — scared them both.
Up close they are prehistoric. The insect jaws munch. Are they eating something minute or is it subliminal — the way his father chews his tongue when in the fields. The kitchen light radiates through their porous wings; even those that are squat, like the peach-green aphid, appear to be constructed of powder.
Patrick pulls a double-ocarina from his pocket. Outside he will not waken his father, the noise will simply drift up into the arms of soft maple. Perhaps he can haunt these creatures. Perhaps they are not mute at all, it is just a lack of range in his hearing. (When he was nine his father discovered him lying on the ground, his ear against the hard shell of cow shit inside which he could hear several bugs flapping and knocking.) He knows the robust calls from the small bodies of cicadas, but he wants conversation — the language of damsel flies who need something to translate their breath the way he uses the ocarina to give himself a voice, something to leap with over the wall of this place.
Do they return nightly to show him something? Or does he haunt them? In the way he steps from the dark house and at the doorway of the glowing kitchen says to the empty fields, I am here. Come and visit me.
From IN THE SKIN OF A LION by Michael Ondaatje, copyright © 1987 by Michael Ondaatje. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.