Michael Ondaatje: Overview

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Authors: Diane Watson and John McLeod
Date: 1996
From: Contemporary Novelists(6th ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,420 words

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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...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420006128