The Reading Lesson: Michael Ondaatje and the Patients of Desire

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Author: Stephen Scobie
Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2006
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 23)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,888 words

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I. A Man Falls, Burning, from the Sky

This image--arresting, violent, beautiful--occurs towards the beginning of Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient. For Ondaatje himself, quite literally, it was this image that began the novel. He has explained in an interview, "I usually begin books in a dream-like--no, that sounds a little esoteric. But I had this little fragment of a guy who had crashed in the desert. I didn't know who he was, or anything" ("In the Skin" 69). All of the characters in The English Patient are bound together by love and loss, by absence and desire. At the centre of the pattern, controlling it by her terrible absence, is Katharine Clifton....

It is typical of Ondaatje that he would begin his book with an image, rather than a character or a plot; his sensibility as a writer is grounded in poetry, and all his "novels" may be described as poetic novels. As his international reputation has grown, and as reviewers in Britain and the United States have attempted to introduce his previous work to their readers, even The Collected Works of Billy the Kid has been described as a novel. That is a very loose description, but it is symptomatic of the way in which Ondaatje's approach to narrative by way of the image has been assimilated, sometimes misleadingly, into more conventional categories. Billy the Kid is in fact a mixture of genres--prose narrative, lyric poem, collage text, and illustrated text--but it is perhaps best summed up by its seldom quoted subtitle, Left Handed Poems. Poems, that is, that come to you in a devious manner, like the reversed photographic negative that first gave rise to the legend that Billy the Kid was a left-handed gun. A gunman's poems; sinister.

Often, then, a critical response to Ondaatje's novels will have to adopt the techniques of talking about poetry as much as, if not more than, the techniques of talking about fiction. An examination of patterns of image, symbol, and metaphor will lead the reader into the book as readily as a more conventional investigation of characterization or plot. Over the years, Ondaatje has moved closer to the stance of a traditional novelist, and The English Patient is perhaps his most accomplished novel so far, but it is still an image that engenders and dominates the book.

This image, of a burning man falling into the desert, has all kinds of symbolic or mythological resonances (Lucifer, for instance, falling into hell--and the third page of Ondaatje's novel does cite the Miltonic phrase "the war in heaven"), but it also poses obvious questions of narrative. "I didn't know who he was," Ondaatje confesses, so the business of the novel becomes the telling of a story to explain who he was. How did he get there? Why was he burning? What happened next?

So a story begins, and unwinds compellingly before us; and as Ondaatje slowly, deviously circles the plot back towards its opening/climactic image, the moment when...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420071632