[(essay date spring 1992) In the following essay, Bök discusses the sociopolitical implications of the glamorized violence that characterizes the male protagonists of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,Coming through Slaughter,Running in the Family, and In the Skin of a Lion.]
Michael Ondaatje has repeatedly demonstrated a writerly interest in violent, male protagonists who exhibit aesthetic sensitivity. William Bonney in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Buddy Bolden in Coming through Slaughter (1976), Mervyn Ondaatje in Running in the Family (1982), and Patrick Lewis in In the Skin of a Lion (1987), all play the role of violator, and often they resort to physical violence as an expressive outlet that is paradoxically both creative and destructive at the same time. Ondaatje's romanticization of such protagonists, however, suggests a potentially disturbing vision of the creative intellect, and little has been said by critics about the social implications of this motif. Ondaatje's texts actually appear to encourage the reader to forgive, if not admire, the protagonists for their violent excesses, and the texts appear to do so without adequately addressing the protagonists' degree of social accountability. Violence in Ondaatje's work represents an aesthetic virtue, but whereas Ondaatje's earlier texts appear to valorize violence enacted for purely idiosyncratic reasons, Ondaatje's later texts begin to reevaluate the ethics of such violence and suggest that it must ultimately serve a socially responsible end.
Exotic violence has indeed become a hallmark of Ondaatje's style: The Collected Works depicts a man eaten alive by mad dogs, "the hand that held the whip ... left untouched" (62); Coming through Slaughter portrays a photographer who deliberately immolates himself, "diving through a wave and emerging red on the other side" (67); Running in the Family cites the death of a jockey "savaged to pieces by his own horse" (25); and In the Skin of a Lion refers to a bridge-worker cut in two by a giant wire whip, "the upper half of his body found an hour later, still hanging in the halter" (41). Protagonists in these texts are especially exuberant in their violence: William Bonney, for example, goes into a frenzy and blasts away at rats drunk on fermented grain (18); Buddy Bolden uses a straight-razor to mutilate a man in a barber chair (73); Mervyn Ondaatje goes into a drunken rampage and holds up a passenger train at gunpoint (148); and Patrick Lewis uses dynamite to obliterate a country hotel (167). Truly, Dennis Lee in Savage Fields is correct when appraising Ondaatje in terms of a cosmological space where "'[t]o be' is to be in strife" (11).
Stephen Scobie in "The Lies Stay In," however, asks (but does not answer) the crucial question: "Does Ondaatje luxuriate too much in these images of violence" (119)? Douglas Barbour in "Controlling the Jungle" responds to the calculated brutality of Ondaatje's earliest, poetic images by praising the poet's stylistic refinement:
[Ondaatje] has a clear imaginative understanding of violence, yet this violence never overwhelms the poet. The poetry is not voluptuous in its violence;...