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Riffing with Michael Ondaatje : A Brief Encounter with the Canadian Writer and His Imaginative Obsessions

October 16, 1994|Ella Taylor | Ella Taylor is film columnist for Mirabella and the Atlantic Monthly's arts and entertainment supplement. She is also a film reviewer for KPCC radio

Michael Ondaatje is wheeling me around downtown Toronto in an impressively dented Honda, looking for a new restaurant called the Angie Dickinson. The Angie Dickinson is closed; we settle for an outside table at the Boulevard Cafe, where a restaurant employee soon collars Ondaatje to tell him that her copy of his best-selling novel, "The English Patient," has 30 pages missing. "That's terrible," he says, and gives her a number to call for a replacement copy.

At a dinner party the night before, I had met a number of Toronto writers and film people who fiercely claimed Ondaatje as Canadian property. Though he was born in Sri Lanka and partly educated in England, Ondaatje ( on - DAH - chay ) is a local hero in Canada, where he has produced a steady stream of poetry and prose since he moved there in the early 1960s. When "The English Patient" shared the 1992 Booker Prize, a coveted British award for fiction, it generated enormous pride in a country caught in a post-colonial bind between reverence for its Anglo American heritage and the desire to grow its own literary culture. "He was highly admired," says Ellen Seligman, who edits Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood at McClelland & Stewart, a top Canadian publisher. "Now he's highly admired by a lot more people."

Evidently: During lunch our waitress hovers reverentially and apologizes for interrupting with food. Although he's uneasy about the loss of privacy that comes with fame ("I have to take visibility lessons"), Ondaatje receives the attention with the same easy grace that earlier had him chatting with waiters about whether the new local dog-leash laws favor canines or humans.

Ondaatje considers himself a Canadian writer, whatever that means in an age when "local" has all but lost its significance and "national" may also be headed for oblivion. Only some of his poems (reprinted this year by Knopf in a handsome paperback under the title "The Cinnamon Peeler") and his exquisite 1987 novel, "In the Skin of a Lion," which centers on immigrant workers who built the Bloor Street Viaduct in 1920s Toronto, are set in Canada. Although a sense of place and time are crucial to all his work, Ondaatje's books are bounded more by the geography of his imaginative obsessions than by any home turf.

"The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" (1974) rereads the American Western icon the author loved as a child in Sri Lanka, in a wild collage of prose, poetry and photographs mixed with archival material woven into fake interviews. "In Coming Through Slaughter" (1976), Ondaatje abolishes the borders between fact and fiction to put his own delirious spin on the life of Buddy Bolden, a Southern jazz musician who went mad during a parade in 1920s New Orleans. "I always wanted to be Fats Waller," says the writer, who is a jazz fanatic. "I still want to be Fats Waller."

Lunch with Ondaatje is like an extended surf through a vast Internet thick with bulletin boards for language, literature, world politics, pop culture and stand-up comedy, with the least-clicked icon being the collected works of Michael Ondaatje. He has a passionately associative mind that's triggered by the slightest stimulus--everything reminds him of something else.

I remark that his writing reminds me of John Fowles', and off he goes. "A friend of mine with a dog bought 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.' He was touching it and bonding with it, and when he went out the dog ate the book. So he bought another copy, and the dog ate that one too. The third copy survived on a high shelf." On his friend, the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro ("The Remains of the Day"): "He's the funniest man in the world. When he was here I took him to a mad church--it's not officially mad yet, but it's going mad--and they had this bizarre event where they bless all the animals. We took our dog." On Faulkner: "He's the funniest writer in America. I wanted to write a thesis once on the animals in Faulkner." We're talking about media language, and he remembers that the attack on Grenada was referred to on television as a pre-dawn vertical insertion. "Someone said, 'Oh, that sounds lovely.' " Which in turn reminds him of a scene in the Polish movie "A Year of the Quiet Sun," in which an American man and a Polish woman must declare their love through an interpreter. "Honestly, it's the most devastatingly brutal scene." He offers to sing me the entire score of "High Society."

And so on and delightfully on. But if I want to know why people in his novels repeatedly suffer random reversals of fortune, he tosses me a bone about the randomness of life in the 20th Century and grows terribly interested in his lamb tenderloin and Chilean Chardonnay.

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