Lesson for Michael Ondaatje from Sri Lanka
written a few more columns on neo-colonial Galle Literary Festival and
their owners who provide fun and happiness for chosen ones in Galle,
perhaps using British Council funds meant for Sri Lanka's cultural
program, I want to digress and share some thoughts on what lessons some
of our local writers could offer, for example, Sri Lankan-born Canadian
novelist, the Booker Prize winning author, Michael Ondaatje.
In this week's column, I intend to look at the work of Michael
Ondaatje as a novelist and suggest that there may be lessons for him to
learn from a new brand of literati who are very capable (in their own
way) of producing at least one novel each for annual Swarna Pusthka
Samana (Golden Book Award) which some perceive as one of a life time
reward equal to Sri Lanka's Booker Prize.
This new brand of literati, though far behind Ondaatje in terms of
quality and the content of their literary productions, but light years
ahead of him, in terms of the speed of churning out fiction which is
almost closer to the proverbial speed of light.
It is pertinent to examine Michael Ondaatje's literary career to
identify how his creations have evolved and how he has achieved
universal acclaim. It is obvious that Ondaatje has developed his
impressive style of writing through sheer discipline and meticulous
These factors make Ondaatje's work universally appreciable and
contribute to their lasting value. His elegant style of writing was
first observed in his very first novel, Coming Through Slaughter in 1976
and mastered in The English Patient (1992).
I would like to examine, albeit, briefly, the career of Ondaatje as a
novelist, although he has played a significant role as a poet. Coming
Through Slaughter is Ondaatje's first novel which was published in 1976
and he won Canada's First Novel Award the same year. The novel is based
on the life of the New Orleans' pioneering jazz singer, Buddy Bolden. It
covers a fictionalised version of the last months of Bolden's sanity in
1907, during which his music became more radical and his behaviour more
erratic. A secondary protagonist of the novel is the photographer E. J.
Bellocq. These historical characters are portrayed drawing on their
actual lives. However, Ondaatje departs from "facts" to explore the
central theme of the novel focusing on the relationship between
creativity and self-destruction.
The English Patient (1992) which was turned into movie by Anthony
Minghella starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche won an Academy
Award for the best film in 1996. The novel which stands out for its
impressive narrative style is focused around four people coming together
in an abandoned bombed monastery, during the final days of World War II:
Hana, a young Canadian nurse and her horribly burned patient, nick named
English patient, a vengeful Canadian soldier named Caravaggio, and an
Indian soldier working for the British army. Their stories of the past
and the present demonstrate how lives are caught and changed by the
circumstances of war.
Anil's Ghost (2000) deals with the conflict in Sri Lanka and his
latest book Divisadero (2007) revolves around a single father and his
children: Anna, his natural daughter; Claire, who was adopted as a baby
when Anna was born; and Cooper (Coop), who was taken in "to stay and
work on the farm" at the age of four when orphaned. Subsequently they
all found their ways in life.
Though Ondaatje is better known as a novelist, his canon of literary
works spread over diverse genres ranging from autobiography, poetry and
film. One such important work is his semi-fictional memoir of his
childhood in Sri Lanka entitled Running in the Family (1982).
Besides them, he has published 13 books of poetry. For two of them,
he won Canada's Governor General's award. The documentary on Poet B.P
Nichol, Sons of Captain Poetry and The Clinton Special include three
documentaries that Ondaatje produced. Ondaatje published a non-fictional
book in 2002 entitled The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of
Editing Film. The book won special recognition at the 2003 American
Cinema Editors Awards and Kraszna-Krausz Book Award for best book of the
year on the moving image.
A significant factor of Ondaatje's literary journey is that the sheer
amount of time he invests in and spent on research, before writing a
novel. Interestingly, the Booker Prize winning novelist took seven years
to write Divisadero (2007) after publishing Anil's Ghost in 2000. This
is in contrast to the practice of a group of Sri Lankan literati who
almost write novels annually, apparently, with the intention of
presenting them to literary awards such as Gratiaen Award and Swarna
Pusthka Samana (Golden Book Award).
Ironically, the Gratiaen Award was founded by Ondaatje himself with
the lofty goal of producing Sri Lankan literati in English who would
follow Ondaatje's foot prints and would become internationally acclaimed
However, contrary to its objectives, The Gratiaen Award has proved to
be counterproductive and over the years reduced to a label for literary
works of dubious quality. If Gratiaen Award has contributed to the
lowering standards of Sri Lankan literature in English, and indirectly
promoting pidgin writing, Swarna Pusthka Samana has done the same in
Writing fantasy fiction annually
The most appropriate metaphor for the high speed Sri Lankan literary
production is like making hoppers (Appa) in a plain hotel! Our annual
literary productions are glamorous in appearance and yet with little or
no substance. A group of literati has emerged who annually write novels,
poetry (some of them are sentences broken into lines under the label of
Haiku!) and short stories with the objective of grabbing awards.
Those Sri Lankan literati may be far ahead of Michael Ondaatje in
terms of their light speed writing! Why not Ondaatje visit Sri Lanka
soon to meet our speed writers, and learn how to write fantasy fictions
annually? We are happy to provide names of our speed writers!