“The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town. – Michael Ondaatje, In The Skin Of A Lion
People often ask each other about their favorites – films, books, music, whatever. Often, there is no simple or well-defined answer. Other times there is a rock-solid and immutable answer, and so it is with my views on Michael Ondaatje. Most people will know Ondaatje for his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient, or from Anthony Minghella’s faithful adaptation of it for the big screen. However, the body of his work is much richer than this one novel. For those that have never read anything by Ondaatje, read on, and be convinced why you have made a grave, but fixable mistake.
It will only take a few pages of any of Ondaatje’s work for you to spot the absolute and stunning beauty of his writing. Almost every sentence is heavy in meaning, and powerful in content. Ondaatje brings the lines together seamlessly, and in many ways you never feel like you are reading his writing – you feel like the writing is washing over you somehow. The beauty of Ondaatje’s writing is probably most clear in In The Skin Of A Lion (his second novel), but, in fairness, is clear everywhere.
Exquisite as Ondaatje’s writing is, it would be worth nothing if he did not tell great stories. Ondaatje’s novels give us memorable, often enigmatic, characters and interlocking tales of their extraordinary lives. His most recent novel, Anil’s Ghost, tells a story of an ex-patriate Sri Lankan who returns on a Human Rights mission to find a very different country from the one she left behind. The English Patient goes further than the film, as it tells the explosive wartime stories of Almasy, Katharine, Hanna and Kirpal. The criminal and other exploits of protagonist Patrick Lewis in In The Skin Of A Lion, and the jazz-filled art-deco nights traversed in Coming Through Slaughter are just as engaging.
The lushness of the writing and the vibrancy of the characters should be enough to entice most readers. However, the appeal of Ondaatje’s work goes much further. For example, Ondaatje is rightly well-known for his innovative use of structure in his writing. His first work, The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid, is a curious hybrid of short stories, poems, flyers, press clippings and so on. They seem disjointed at first, but fit together in a resonant whole. The same can be said for his novels, which all employ a non-traditional narrative structure, moving through present, past and future moments – a literary version of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. His poems also follow no rules, and experiment with style, language, rhyme, meter and much more.
Additionally, many readers will enjoy the historical content in Ondaatje’s writing. Though never overtly political, his sensitive treatment of issues of discrimination (Coming Through Slaughter), Hiroshima and WWII (The English Patient), ethnic conflict (Anil’s Ghost) and power relations (In The Skin Of A Lion) deserve special mention. Ondaatje would be on the political left of most of these issues but you have to read closely to find this, as he makes his points through the lives and fortunes of his characters. His sensibility probably stems from his background (born in Sri Lanka, significant time in England, but a long-term resident of Canada), and his education (liberal arts, and Professorial appointments at York University, Canada).
Finally, Ondaatje is a great guy. Best of all, he eschews the celebrity that comes from being a literary superstar. Instead, he gives few interviews in mainstream press, and lets his work speak for itself. He has also set up a fund to support aspiring writers, and edits Brick, which is one of the best literary journals around.
So, in a few short paragraphs, that is why Michael Ondaatje is my favorite author. Pick up one of his books sometime, and maybe he’ll become your favorite too.
List of Michael Ondaatje’s Major Published Works
1970: The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid (poetry, short stories)
1976: Coming Through Slaughter (novel)
1987: In The Skin Of A Lion (novel)
1991: The English Patient (novel)
1992: The Cinnamon Peeler (poetry)
1999: Anil’s Ghost (novel)
2000: Handwriting (poetry)