He had come from a country where mathematics and mechanics are natural traits. Cars were never destroyed. Parts of them were carried across a village and readapted into a sewing machine or water pump. The backseat of a Ford was reupholstered and became a sofa. Most people in his village were more likely to carry a spanner or screwdriver than a pencil. A car’s irrelevant parts thus entered a grandfather clock or irrigation pulley or the spinning mechanism of an office chair. Antidotes to mechanized disaster were easily found. One cooled an overheating car engine not with new rubber hoses but by scooping up cow shit and patting it around the condenser. What he saw in England was a surfeit of parts that would keep the continent of India going for two hundred years. (Ondaatje, 1993, p. 188)

This description of the uses of a car, apart from transportation, really spoke to me about how objects can overcome their intended use, and have an unexpected second (or third) act, when you add human care and ingenuity into the mix. Necessity is the mother of reinvention.


For no easy to articulate reason I’ve found myself rereading Michael Ondaatje recently. His work was very important to me in my 20s, I think because it was in vogue at the time, after he won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, and it was turned into a film (which won 9 Oscars).

He was born in Sri Lanka, spent his teenage years in England, and moved to Toronto to study, where he finally settled. I was kind of wandering in my 20s too, and I’m sure his writing appealed to me because it spoke to that keen awareness of new places, being uprooted, and putting down roots as best you could.

I’ve also found myself listening to some interviews with him that are available on the web. In many ways these feel like a luxury now, the web was still busy being born in the early 1990s. Hearing him speak, and read from his work, lends a great deal of richness and depth to his texts.

I think the thing I most appreciate about his novels are their poetic quality (he’s an accomplished poet as well). You can read them slowly. The chapters are sized perfectly, often being broken up into shorter segments, that then divide into the paragraphs within. I’m not in rush to finish, or get to The End.

His stories are told in intense, fluid detail, but in fragments that get stuck together like a collage, with intentional gaps between them. These narrative gaps invite you in to connect them–to participate in the telling of the story. Ondaatje talks about the importance of collage in some of his interviews. He famously starts with a very specific scene or moment, and then grows the larger structure from it, like a generative seed.

Another thing that came across in his interviews is how important archival research is to his writing. He goes deep learning about a particular topic, time, place of profession, which then infuses his story. This of course appeals more to me now, after I’ve had a career working in libraries and archives. Ondaatje texts have a way of communicating this strange characteristic of surviving documents, and even fragments of documents, to transport and change us (Harris, 2002; Levy, 2001). But somehow he doesn’t do this by talking about documents explicitly. He enacts them, and puts them to work, instead.

I lost track of him after 2000, maybe because I started reading less fiction then, and became absorbed with work, which is something I regret a bit. Note: keep fiction in your life. I did read Anil’s Ghost recently, and I’ve got The Cat’s Table waiting on the top of the pile on my bedside table. Anil’s Ghost is/was amazing. The central character is a forensic pathologist. It’s about evidence, and political violence, and love, and work, and … so many things.

References

Harris, V. (2002). The archival sliver: power, memory, and archives in South Africa. Archival Science, 2(1-2), 63–86.
Levy, D. (2001). Scrolling forward. In. Arcade.
Ondaatje, M. (1993). The English patient (1st Vintage International ed). New York: Vintage Books.