Michael Ondaatje is a literary phenomenon—he’s a gifted poet, a bestselling novelist and has also made it in Hollywood. His body of work defies conventional form, revealing a unique fusion of jazz rhythms, film montage technique, and profoundly beautiful language.
Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He left at age 11 to attend boarding school in England, and then moved to Canada in 1962 for college. After completing his master’s degree, he published his first collection of poetry, The Dainty Monsters (1967), and two additional volumes soon followed. “The big influence on me in my writing certainly is poetry,” Ondaatje remarked, and the form remains the cornerstone of all his work. His experimentation with poetic form in fiction began with his first novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970). In this book he presents the life of William Bonney through a collage of poetry, prose, photographs and interviews.
In 1992 Ondaatje became internationally renowned with the release of his extraordinary novel The English Patient. The book is the closest Ondaatje has come to conventional prose, yet shares much in common with his earlier, more experimental works with poetic prose. The Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Their stories and their healing are the novel’s focus. This highly original work, which the Boston Sunday Globe described as “lyrical . . . dreamlike and enigmatic . . . A Farewell to Arms drenched in spooky ennui,” was later made into one of the decade’s most memorable films.
Many of Ondaatje’s works exhibit his trademark lyrical, haunting language, but they also explore themes and history associated with his homeland. His tenth volume of poetry, Handwriting (1999), a collection of beautifully crafted poems about love, politics, and landscape is set in Sri Lanka. In his novel, Anil’s Ghost (2000), the protagonist, Anil, is a self-exiled Sri Lankan who returns home after years away. A forensic anthropologist, she has been sent by an international human rights group to investigate the campaign of murders resulting from the Sri Lankan civil war. A compelling mystery, it is a story about love, family, identity, unknown enemies, and the past.
In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Ondaatje is the author of a critical book on the musician Leonard Cohen, and edits the literary journal Brick. He taught for many years at York University in Toronto. Ondaatje is also a film aficionado and has made several documentary films. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt from Anil’s Ghost (2000)
Sarath sees her from the dining room window. He watches a person he has never seen. A girl insane, a druid in moonlight, a thief in oil. This is not the Anil he knows. Just as she, in this state, is invisible to herself, though it is the state she longs for. Not a moth in a man’s club. Not the carrier and weigher of bones—she needs that side of herself too, just as she likes herself as a lover. But now it is herself dancing to a furious love song that can drum out loss,‘Coming In from the Cold,’ dancing the rhetoric of a lover’s parting with all of herself. She thinks she is most sane about love when she chooses damning gestures against him, against herself, against them together, against eros the bittersweet, consumed and then spat out in the last stages of their love story. Her weeping comes easy. It is for her in this state no more than sweat, no more than a cut foot she earns during the dance, and she will not stop for any of these, just as she would not change herself for a lover’s howl or sweet grin, then or anymore.
She stops when she is exhausted and can hardly move. She will crouch and lean there, lie on the stone. A leaf will come down. Its click of applause. The music continues furious like blood moving for a few more minutes in a dead man. She lies under the sound and witnesses her brain coming back, lighting its candle in the dark. And breathes in and breathes out and breathes in and breathes out.
Anil’s Ghost (2000)
Handwriting, Poems (1998)
The English Patient (1992)
The Cinnamon Peeler, Poems (1989)
In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
Running in the Family, Memoir (1982)
Coming Through the Slaughter (1979)
There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, Poems (1979)
The Collected Works of Billy The Kid (1974)
BOMB Magazine: Willem Dafoe interviews Michael Ondaatje
The English Patient reading group guide