The Singular Singhalese

Michael Ondaatje isn't a betting man. He didn't wager on who'd be selected for the 1992 Booker Prize. He should have, for he won. (Believe it or not, John Bull is bullish on gambling on literature, so much so that the Booker Prize award ceremony is televised, and just like a sporting event, it comes complete with pre- and post-game interviews.) The favorite of critics and bookmakers -- I mean bookies

-- The English Patient, Ondaatje's lyrical, hypnotic novel of four wounded souls coming together in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II, was awarded the British Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize. He'll be reading from it Thursday, January 13, at Brazos Bookstore.

The machinations of finding his subject and then rewriting it just-so result in Ondaatje's taking about six years to complete a work. Ondaatje is a professor at York University, edits a literary magazine, Brick, with his wife, the novelist Linda Spalding, and has written three books of poetry -- The Cinnamon Peeler (1991), Secular Love (1984) and There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979) -- an output substantial enough to show he's literally ambidextrous.

Such devotion to words shows in The English Patient, a novel beguiling not as much for the standard story it tells as for the extraordinary images it evokes along the way: a crucifix becomes a scarecrow; books fill in missing steps of a staircase; a soldier staves off starvation by eating a nightingale; a desert healer is yoked in a coat of many colors of medicinal herbs and unguents. The novel doesn't gather momentum; rather, it breathes deeply, has breadth's exhale.

Soon to be made into a film, The English Patient grounds itself in another time, in another place, to weave and reweave character revelation. Amid the fallout of war, in the refuge of a bombed-out building, Ondaatje writes about the nature of identity: a burned-out young nurse who retreats from herself as much as from the war; her literally burned English patient who's as charming as he is mysterious; a gentle Canadian thief whose wartime "skills" cost him his hands as well as his nerve; a stalwart Indian sapper in the British army whose three years of bomb-disposal duty have taught him that the only thing safe is himself.

There is a reason Ondaatje puts his characters in earlier times. By using a historical moment as backdrop, by creating recognizable situations -- by making fact into fiction -- Ondaatje's aim is to provide the reader with bearings, a static world as opposed to a dynamic one. A finite tableau of the past, instead of an evolving one of the present, frees him up, he says, to expose individual histories gradually, enigmatically, in fits and starts -- like in life. He can experiment with how to manifest the stuff of people and not worry about conventional plot because he gives the reader a footing through setting, intent via context. Dreamlike, mingling craft since the environment is self-contained, pat. To Ondaatje, the human story is not cut-and-dried, it does not unfold chronologically or even rationally; the writer chips away at the layers so the reader can excavate.

The technique of creating an identifiable historical landscape, replete with acute detail, around an ebbing and flowing narrative, is present in his other novels: Depression-era Toronto in In the Skin of a Lion (1987), two characters of which reappear in The English Patient; old-time New Orleans and the legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden (who went mad while performing in a parade) in Coming Through Slaughter (1976); the American West at the turn of the century in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970). So much does he advocate that writing should take leaps of narrative faith that Slaughter and Billy the Kid are a compendium of prose, poetry, archives, newspaper clips, photographs and journals.

Ondaatje's artistic fluidity has borne itself out of his personal tapestry. He was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943 of mixed Dutch, Singhalese and Tamil ancestry. (Running in the Family, his delightful 1982 quasi-fictional, tragi-comedic personal memoir about his eccentric family in an exotic land -- a father burying gin bottles in flower beds here, cobras in the garden there -- is being reissued and is part of Ondaatje's reason for the current book tour.) Ondaatje emigrated to England at age eleven, when his parents separated; he eventually settled in Toronto. A Sri Lankan childhood, a British education, a Canadian residence, a couple of novels on American mythology: a man for all seasons and countries.

In Running in the Family, Ondaatje writes of a rare animal native to Sri Lanka called the thalagoya, a cross between an iguana and lizard, that's a great climber and uses its rasping tongue to catch prey. "There is a myth," he says, "that if a child is given thalagoya tongue to eat he will become brilliantly articulate, will always speak beautifully, and in his speech be able to "catch" and collect wonderful, humorous information." What you're supposed to do is remove the skin, cut it in half lengthwise, place the grey tongue between two pieces of banana or plantain and swallow the sandwich without chewing. Though the few people he knew who were given thalagoya tongue spat it out and got sick, and though legend says a side effect is possible death, surely the omnifarious Ondaatje was fed some.

Michael Ondaatje will read from The English Patient on Thursday, January 13, at 7 p.m. at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 523-0701.


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