Michael Ondaatje is contained.  His shape is compact.  His clothes are Canadian casual; cotton trousers and a blue cheque shirt. His beard is neatly trimmed.  His blue-eyed gaze is direct, calm.  His voice is a soft, gentle fusion of English and Canadian with hints of the orient.  Only the shock of white hair, an occasional wild look in his eyes and a slight twitch of his mouth like he is sucking on a painful tooth, betrays the darkness and chaos that is tamed by his writing. 

He has come to Ilkley to read from his new novel, ‘Divisadero’, which docments the trajectory of the three main characters, the two sisters, Anna and Claire and the enigmatic young farmworker, Coop, after their makeshift family is riven by the violence that explodes when the girl’s father discovers Coop’s relationship with Anna  Anna comes to rest amid the calming landscape of South West France, where she delves into the story of the previous occupant of the house she occupies, a story that echoes her own history.  Claire and Coop pursue their independent course in a present rough-hewn from the ruins of the past.       

Ondaatje captures the footloose loneliness of the disconnected; the emigrants, the travellers, who find themselves propelled by fate or circumstance into situations and relationships, which alter their lives.  Think of Hannah and Kip in the English patient, washed up by war in a ruined and deserted villa in the Apennine Hills. Think of the English patient himself – or is he English?  There is an enigmatic, dream like quality in Ondaatje’s novels, a feeling evoked by Ondaatje himself.  

Ondaatje lived for the first 11 years of his life in Sri-Lanka where he never read a book but was the recipient of a rich oral tradition of stories and myths.  Then the family emigrated first to England, where he went to school, and then to Canada.  It wasn’t until he went to Canada that he began to read anything he could lay his hands on.  Later he became interested in poetry and he started writing poems rich in philosophy and imagery.  Novel writing came later; In the Skin of a Lion (1987), The English Patient (1992), Anil’s Ghost (2000).   Ondaatje is also a photographer, he edits film – he has written a technical book about it – Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002).  

Ondaatje’s novels are rich in technical and specialist detail, whether it is of bomb disposal, forensic anthropology and the writings of Herodotus as in The English Patient, or the techniques of bridge building and the deceptions of playing poker in Divisadero.  Ondaatje needs to know about how things work and the detail not only contributes a richness; it helps to contain the emotion.  It grounds the narrative in fact and place.    

It takes Ondaatje 5 years to write a novel and he cannot write anything else while he is doing it.  He has to maintain the focus.  He doesn’t know where the novel is going at first.  He starts with an idea for the characters and the first chapter and it just grows from there.  But it doesn’t grow in a linear form.  Ondaatje’s novels are more like a collage.  The novel is set in California, then in Nevada, then in France.  The characters are introduced and may disappear only to reappear, older and changed.  He doesn’t feel any compulsion to explain what has happened in the meantime.  That is up to the reader.  Like a film maker, he provides the scenes.  His audience will connect them in their individual ways.  And because the readers have to do the work, the book is more likely to be remembered.  The first draft may only take a year to complete. The real work comes in the editing and revising. 

Ondaatje is a craftsman; he pays great attention to detail.  He adjusts the tone and pace.  He makes sure the metaphors are right, the echoes work and the characters are credible.  It’s the adjusting and readjusting that takes the time.  He does the first two or three revisions himself.  Then he sends the book out for friends to read and revises it again.  Finally he sends his work to a publisher and works on more revisions with the editor. 

 Listening to Ondaatje is a strangely calming and moving experience, not unlike meditation.  His writing conveys a kind of acceptance, a containment of passion of violence, a comfort in a disturbing world.

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