Michael Ondaatje’s novels are all about putting pieces together. Quite literally, because they proceed through a series of carefully shaped vignettes that the reader has to fit into a pattern; but more deeply, too, because their structure invariably reflects their theme. Nearly always they are about attempting to tie things together, to heal a fracture—between one side of Toronto and another in his first major novel, In the Skin of a Lion; between (and within) four wounded travelers in an abandoned convent in The English Patient; between a visiting forensic anthropologist and two divided brothers amid the debris of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war in Anil’s Ghost. How to turn the fragments into a living whole, if only for a moment, is the burden of these elaborate, questing narratives.
The main characters in these books are themselves in pieces, too, scarred fugitives, deeply alone and living at an angle to society. Ondaatje’s first book-length narrative, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, is a set of disparate scenes that follow Billy the Kid across the West; the fragments are linked so lightly and are so various in their tones that the author now lists the book among his nine works of poetry and not his six books of fiction. His next big work, Coming Through Slaughter, is another riffing picaresque about a messed-up jazzman in New Orleans at the turn of the last century (the real cornet-player Buddy Bolden) who, after cutting up his wife’s lover in a jealous rage, ends up cut up himself, and on the run; slowly he loses his mind as well as his art. It’s possible that one source of such concerns lies in Ondaatje’s own background, among the mixed-race Burghers of colonial Sri Lanka. His much-acclaimed memoir, Running in the Family, tells the story of his return to that world in the late 1970s (he left as a child), not quite a foreigner and yet not really a local, and his haunted attempts to sort through the rubble of his family’s self-destructive affairs.
These are poets’ books, in other words, the work of an unusually meticulous writer who creates scenes of uncanny beauty and precision and then pieces them together like jewels in a necklace. Educated in England and resident in Canada since 1962, while traveling widely, Ondaatje is harder to place than many of his fellow exile writers, and there is always a sense in his books that he is trying to create a new kind of mongrel fiction that leaves old categories behind. Few experiences in contemporary fiction are as sensual and absorbing as making one’s way through the slow, shaped pages of an Ondaatje novel. And there is a different, a deeper delight in going through his books a second time—“Only the rereading counts,” he quotes from Nabokov in his new novel—to see the secret stitching that links a reference to Alexandre Dumas…
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