Michael Ondaatje wanted to call Secular Love, his seventh book of poetry, a novel, but of his three prose works, only In the Skin of a Lion can be clearly identified as a novel: Sam Solecki notes that Ondaatje once described Coming Through Slaughter as "a soup" (a word equally applicable to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid); and he identifies the autobiographical Running in the Family as "a portrait or `gesture'" with a "fictional air." As a documenter of human experience, Ondaatje begins in these lyrical prose works with seeds of historical fact and renders them resonant through fictionalizing. Like The Cricket, Buddy Bolden's community newspaper in Coming Through Slaughter, he "respect[s] stray facts, manic theories, and well-told lies" as much as the seeds of historical fact.
Concerned always to focus on the human, the private, and the "real" over the theoretical and the ideological, Ondaatje examines the internal workings of characters who struggle against and burst through that which renders people passive and which renders human experience programmatic and static. To this end, his style—for which two lines from his poem "The Linguistic War Between Men and Women" act as a perfect comment—is raw, stark, energetic: "Men never trail away./ They sweat adjective." He employs a consistent set of images for concentrated energy; for instance arrows, insects, explosions, twitching nerves and veins, coiled muscles. And he points to palpable vitality at an almost molecular level: grains of pollen and dust, seeds, are as alive as working, sweating shoulders and rainstorms; air is "fraught" and "forensic"; everywhere are "remnants of energy." Energy frequently takes the form of heat and light, with which scenes are often suffused. It is more appropriate to talk of Ondaatje's fiction as proceeding through "scenes" than through episodes or chapters: his extensive work and interest in film informs his preoccupation with matters of shaping and form.
Through Ondaatje's prose the reader is taken beyond morality into a realm of human action and interaction that is at the same time nightmarish, resonantly mythic, and truly creative. His protagonists take great risks because they cannot do otherwise: they are driven to break through the limitations of mediocrity in a personal anarchy that is often destructive to self and others. The fractured narrative Coming Through Slaughter traces the personal anarchy of jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden and the perspectives on him of those who knew him best. Bolden was never recorded and "never professional in the brain," but he was hailed as a great and powerful innovator. Ondaatje molds the little-known facts of Bolden's life into a fictional yet ostensibly objective account of the years of his fame, from the moment in approximately 1900 (age 22) he walks into a New Orleans parade playing his loud, moody jazz. In a manic push beyond the order and certainty by which he was always tormented, he goes insane while playing in a parade in 1907, and is committed to an asylum where he dies in 1931.
In the Skin of a Lion draws less on historical fact than any of his previous "fictions." For the first time he uses culturally marginalized and wholly fictional central characters—except for Ambrose Small—and draws out their mythic potential rather than relying on and reshaping a preexistent cultural myth or a historical figure. In this novel, which seems indebted to John Berger's Pig Earth, Ondaatje explores the pulse of physical labor and the life of an immigrant neighborhood in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario from 1900 to 1940, and reveals its sense of community, solidarity, and hatred of the solipsistic idle rich. The protagonist Patrick, like Buddy Bolden, "departs from the world," but unlike Bolden, he has a private revolution that eventually takes the form of public political action.
All of Ondaatje's "fictions" have a metafictional aspect: Patrick, like the police detective Webb in Coming Through Slaughter, like Ondaatje himself in Running in the Family, is the searcher-figure, analogous to the writer, who stands to an extent outside of "lived experience" observing, rooting out facts and "truths," trying to shape a coherent history, or story. Through these figures, Ondaatje inscribes the perspective of the history-writer and sets up a tension between their observing and others' experiencing. In his novels, Ondaatje himself becomes a kind of historiographer and underscores the fact that the observer's impulse to articulate, an impulse experience almost as a physical drive, is necessary to history. And hence Nicholas Temelcoff (In the Skin of a Lion), the solitary, daredevil bridge builder who rescues a nun from her fall from the partially completed bridge, urges the nun out of a state of shock and silence with "Talk, you must talk," and thereby releases her into a new, active identity; and, though initially silent and secretive himself, Nicholas later finds that Patrick "shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories."
Ondaatje's most recent novel, The English Patient, might be considered a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion. It features characters from the previous novel—Hana (Patrick's daughter), Caravaggio the thief—and continues Ondaatje's alertness to the fundamental importance of writing history. But Ondaatje's novels are characterized so much by inner transformations of character, voice, and scene, that it would be against the tenor of his craft to presume rigid connections between them, or to read them in a sequential manner. Like the sands of the North African desert that feature so prominently, The English Patient is a novel about shape-shifting. Set in the final days of World War II, as the map of Europe is about to be redrawn and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are soon to be disfigured utterly, it depicts the lives of four characters in a derelict villa north of Florence. The English patient (whose Englishness is not secure) is an aircraft pilot burned beyond recognition. He is cared for by a shell-shocked Hana, a nurse in the Canadian forces. They are joined by Caravaggio and Kirpal Singh (abbreviated to Kip). Caravaggio has been tortured and suffered the removal of his thumbs. The emphasis upon the damage that each of these three characters has suffered finds its contrast in Kip, a Sikh sapper who spends his days defusing the mines that litter the vicinity of the villa. Kip symbolizes the propensity to reverse potential destruction. Ondaatje's descriptions of his work are some of the most memorable in all his prose—those passages depicting Kip defusing the complex circuitry of mines makes you tremble with relief at his eventual success.
Kip's presence at the villa helps emphasize storytelling as an form of defusing, an act that makes approachable an incendiary past. Gradually, through the act of recounting their histories, each character clears a path through their pasts that allows them to remember in safety. Their stories resemble the tattered books in the villa's library: fragmentary, full of gaps and parentheses. Indeed, the importance of rewriting is a theme that emerges in the novel's structure. There are gestures towards Hemingway and Kipling in certain of its features, and it is intertextually complex. Ondaatje builds its narrative upon the fragments of other texts, just as the English patient records his thoughts in the pages of an old copy of Herodotus that is similarly ripped and torn.
But the bombs that cannot be defused fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the novel is never far from this apocalypse. When Kip learns of the news on the radio in the novel's climactic scene, his response is to confront the English patient with a rifle, outraged at this latest "tremor of Western wisdom." This, it seems, is one historical experience that renders redundant the narratives of Western history—with their emphasis on civilization and progress. A new narrative of history is required, perhaps one the novel itself tries to fashion, that rents the fabric of existing history in its attempt to bear witness to the immensity of what has happened. Although much the novel's the emphasis is on healing, its final pages are dark.
One reviewer of The English Patient wondered if the novel was part of a wider project, perhaps a trilogy, that begins with In the Skin of a Lion. Certainly, Ondaatje's central concern with writing history has not been exhausted in his work. If so, it will be interesting to see where Ondaatje's lyrical and hypnotic prose will next focus. One of Canada's best writers, Ondaatje is fulfilling his potential as a teller of stories in prose fiction promised by his earlier work.