Deeper Darkness, after Choreography: Michael Ondaatje

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Author: Tom Marshall
Editors: Jean C. Stine and Daniel G. Marowski
Date: 1984
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,452 words

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If [Douglas] LePan's and [Leonard] Cohen's myths have to do with an expedition or descent into darkness, horror, a mystical sensuality, fragmentation, and madness, then Michael Ondaatje's work could be said to carry this movement to a further, darker extreme. For here there is virtually no intimation of the possibility of return or reintegration, of transcendence or the possible achievement of community (or even a more than momentary communication), at least for the author's doomed heroes. Ondaatje's is, thus far, a darker and apparently more nihilistic vision than those of Watson, Klein, LePan, Cohen, MacEwen, Atwood, or Helwig, in whose work more positive human possibilities still exist even in the midst of darkness. (p. 144)

It is, no doubt, of significance here that Ondaatje is not a native Canadian. Though he began to develop his extraordinary gift after his arrival in the new world, his earliest and most profound emotions and intuitions were shaped elsewhere, in far-off Sri Lanka. But he has been familiar with much of the best Canadian writing throughout his early career and has adapted the tradition to his own ends. (pp. 144–45)

Early reviewers were correct in recognizing Ondaatje's markedly individual if eccentric talent. An obsession with violence has also contributed to his popularity in these apocalyptic times. Whence this comes remains a mystery, though it is something that he shares with Pratt and Cohen, among other Canadian writers. His interest in animals is a thing common in Canada, too, of course: but his animals seem to be descendants of Ted Hughes 's animals, who are in turn descendants of D. H. Lawrence's animals. And the exoticism of treatment, while it has an obvious kinship with that of Wallace Stevens, whom Ondaatje introduces to King Kong, is presumably Ceylonese in origin. By means of these interests, the poems attempt to reveal the wonder, beauty, and horror of an inner life on which “civilized” society tries to keep the lid very tightly clamped. This is his version of the notorious Canadian garrison-and-wilderness theme. All in all, a heady mixture: the general effect is strange and intriguing to Canadians, and quite rightly. (p. 145)

Ondaatje is at his best in longer...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100002500