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Michael Ondaatje has written more than one book, you know.

October 25, 2011

I don’t know whether to envy Michael Ondaatje, who will be at the Miami Book Fair, for his imposing body of work, or pity him for being known primarily for just one of his many books, the much-loved novel The English Patient.

Ondaatje is not the only contemporary international novelist to have his work overshadowed by one big success. Does anyone read Milan Kundera past The Unbearable Lightness of Being? And The Satanic Verses notwithstanding, Salman Rushdie is resigned to being known almost exclusively for Midnight’s Children.

Now pushing 70, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author has lost none of his power, as witnessed by the rave reviews for his new novel, The Cat’s Table.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the glittering author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

The Guardian cites The Cat’s Table for  its “extraordinary assortment of characters,” while The New York Times praises the book for “capturing…the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood.” The Independent notes the novel’s “deceptively light touch, hiding a carefully constructed and tender hymn to the enigma of journey.”

Most enthusiastic of all, the Los Angeles Times gushes, “Ondaatje teaches us that the most marvelous sights are those most often overlooked. It’s a lesson that turns this supple story, like the meals at the cat’s table, into a feast.”

All that no doubt is true, and it’s also true of most if not all of the other five novels, the innumerable poetry collections, and anthologies, and other books produced in a disciplined and fruitful career.

Yet, if you’re like me, you hear the name “Michael Ondaatje” and you immediately think: “The English Patient.”

Part of this, of course, is the result of the Academy Award-winning epic wartime love story the late Anthony Minghella made out of Ondaatje’s novel.

I found the picture as thrilling as any other soppy-minded ticket-buyer, and –ssshhh!– the image of Kristin Scott Thomas emerging from the bath, in the midst of a tense conversation with her lover, Ralph Fiennes, remains one of the highlights of my personal movie-going career.

It was also the first time I saw Juliette Binoche, for which I am likewise eternally grateful….Wait. What was I talking about? Oh! Right, Michael Ondaatje–

The movie alone doesn’t account for the impact of the novel, as anyone who has read it can attest. Remember, The English Patient won the Man Booker Prize for 1992, deservedly in my view, and those who love it love it for itself, not as a prose reflection of the movie.

Indeed, those who saw the movie first and then turned to the novel were no doubt as astonished as I was by the delicate obliquity of Ondaatje’s narrative. Minghella did not adapt Ondaatje’s novel so much as he conjured all that is hinted and vaporous in its pages and cast them upon the movie screen like a man wielding a Technicolor can of paint.

At this point it’s instructive to remember that Ondaatje began as a poet, and, indeed, as produced three times has many poetry collections as novels. If the novels are not themselves prose poems, then they certainly proceed by a poetic narrative sensibility, as supremely demonstrated by The English Patient.

In this regard, Nick Owchar at the L.A. Times makes perhaps the most perceptive observation to be found among the reviews of The Cat’s Table:

“Michael Ondaatje is a quiet writer. He’s certainly equal to grand, sweeping, historical subjects — civil war in Sri Lanka, the closing days of World War II — but the sound of advancing armies doesn’t roar in his reader’s ears. Instead, there’s a stillness in which his characters examine their own private crises more than the chaos of battle scenes.”

Exactly. The same is true of Ondaatje’s narrative treatment of all the big, loud effects of human life, including romantic love, family drama, hideous misfortune, or resounding success.

Any appreciation of Ondaatje must acknowledge his work not only as a novelist and poet, but also as an editor and what used to be called — so quaint it sounds today! — a man of letters.

Since the 1960s he has supported independent publishing as the poetry editor of Coach House Books in Toronto. With his wife, the novelist and academic Linda Spalding, he edits what many consider the finest literary journal in North America, Brick Magazine.

On balance, I think I’ll swing to envy rather than pity. It’s impossible to pity a writer who’s lead such a full and productive life — I can’t help but notice in most of his pictures Ondaatje is smiling, or on the verge of smiling.

If you can’t wait until he takes the stage at the Miami Book Fair to learn more, here’s a recent Q&A, from the CBC News.









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