Michael Ondaatje: A Traveller Without Maps

Michael Ondaatje
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Golden Booker for Michael Ondaatje

THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje recently won the Golden Man Booker Prize, which celebrates five decades of the finest fiction. Written in 1992, The English Patient secured more public votes than VS Naipaul’s In a Free State (1970s), Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1980s), Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2000s), and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2010s). These five novels were selected by a panel of judges from the 51 previous winners of the Man Booker and then opened to a vote.

The award proves that The English Patient is a noteworthy work of literature, but also a mass hit. Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, would never garner the same kind of public adulation because it is a complicated text and not a love story playing out at the end of World War II. A cinematic rendition of Ondaatje’s novel that won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 1996, has certainly helped its cause. After all, there is nothing like Hollywood to neatly package literature for people at large.

Ondaatje, a 74-year-old Sri Lanka-born Canadian author, poet, essayist and editor, is easily one of the most recognisable faces in literature today. He stands out in a room, not only because of the general reverence that he is accorded, but also for his bolshie hair and boyish eyes. This year has been special for him. First came the release of his novel Warlight, seven years after The Cat’s Table (2011), and now the Golden Prize.

The English Patient and its four wounded (literally and figuratively) characters are important studies in the essence of isolation and questions of nationalism. A severely burned soldier lies in a ruined Italian villa. A nurse tends to him—‘she’s got her own ghost, a burned patient’. The other protagonists include a professional thief David Caravaggio, and Kirpal Singh, who defuses bombs ‘attached to taps, to the spines of books’.

The English Patient continues to be relevant today because of the questions it raises on identity. Written between 1985 and 1992, its themes seem familiar. In an interview with The Guardian , Ondaatje said that arguments “on nationalism and integration” were part of the political discourse at that time. “They didn’t want Sikhs to wear turbans if they were policemen and stuff like that. That was in the air.” Reading the novel today, those same issues resonate. As a character in The English Patient says, ‘I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.’

Today, Ondaatje is considered to be part of a Canadian triumvirate of top writers, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood being the other two. But for him, belonging has been a more complex issue, as he was born in Ceylon and spent his teenage years in London, and he is now based in Toronto.

His latest novel Warlight centres around siblings Nathaniel and Rachel left in the care of The Moth, after their parents abandon them. It is a novel of dark and light, secrets and revelations, told in the voice of Nathaniel who is 14 when the story opens. Much of the novel is an unpacking of the past: as adults, how do we make sense of our childhoods, what clues do they hold to our present lives? It is set in post-war London. For Ondaatje, this is important, as wars do not end in simple resolutions; their end is a ‘treacherous time, filled with hidden things’ .

It is these hidden worlds that Ondaatje explores with acuity and tenderness. As he writes in The English Patient, a ‘tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self’.