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July-August 2008

The gruesome genius of Michael Ondaatje, destroyer of worlds

John DegenWebsite

Michael OndaatgeTwice over the endless winter of 2007-08, I finished a pleasant-enough telephone conversation with my mother only to have her call me back a couple of minutes later.

“I know what I wanted to tell you,” she said both times, “so-and-so died.”

The first unfortunate object of forgotten conversation was a dear old great aunt in Vancouver I hadn’t seen in a decade. The second was my childhood family doctor, whose last prescription for me was filled at least 20 years ago. My mother is the meticulous and dedicated reporter of demise in our family. She spreads the detailed news of death and disease, and these are usually the lead stories in any call from her. In this, she shares a curious simpatico with a writer of whom both she and I are fond, Michael Ondaatje.

Is there another writer anywhere who makes sickening violence and death into beauty with such regularity and skill? I hear someone shouting—perhaps wailing—Atwood!, and indeed, Peggy and Mike can be justly seen as the twin pillars of Canadian moroseness. Why bring a character’s life to a satisfying conclusion amid doting pets and darling grandchildren when you can murder, beat, maim, dismember, explode or burn them beyond recognition? But while Atwood hurts her characters as object lessons in the indifference of the universe, Ondaatje’s cruelty has the air of fetish about it. It is violence for art’s sake. His is a stunningly beautiful landscape of suffering.

In Divisadero, the reigning Governor General’s Award champion, Ondaatje cripples one character with childhood polio, has a horse kick the stuffing out of the same girl and her sister, induces a father to attack and nearly murder his daughter’s lover, and has that same daughter stab and almost dispatch the attacking father.

Later in the book, the almost-murdered lover is beaten into amnesia by some gambling colleagues and must undergo a second round of recovery and recall. As well, a literary flashback takes us through the life of a French poet who is blinded in one eye when glass shards pierce his cornea, and who later witnesses his one true love die of diphtheria. In an Ondaatje novel, not even a poet is allowed a life of quiet. Then again, this is the same writer who flung a nun from the Bloor Street viaduct, blew up a nurse with a roadside bomb and forced a lovestruck archeologist through the agonies of body-wide third-degree burns.

When we were younger, my writer friends and I made a game of Ondaatje sightings around town. Someone had spotted him in a liquor store, buying a wine that screamed of excellent taste. Another had a long, uncomfortable conversation with him at a book launch. Yet another is proud to report he used the urinal beside Ondaatje’s not once but twice in his travels. In each instance, the tellers of the tale escaped literary harm despite their proximity to this genius of personal disaster. So far, Ondaatje has not clubbed a character with a wine bottle, talked one to death or had him painfully assaulted during urination.

I note a brand-new Coach House title, Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig, brings potential bio-terrorism to the Toronto subway. Helwig’s characters drop to the tiled platforms in delightfully Ondaatjean style. Of course, Ondaatje began his career as a Coach House author. Is Canada’s hippest small press the source of all this pain and morbidity?

In my student days I edited and handmade a literary magazine called ink, and we printed the covers and trimmed the final books at Coach House. I did the trimming myself on their diabolical-looking industrial book cutter, an awesome machine that can straighten the edges of 20 magazines or more with one precise machine-driven cut. I never passed my fingers beneath the blade without visualizing the horrible damage it could visit upon me.

Once, deep in concentrated trimming, I was interrupted by someone standing beside me. A voice asked me to trim a pile of Brick magazine covers. As I handed back the trimmed pile, Michael Ondaatje gave me, and the deadly cutting edge, a grateful smile. I realize now I’m lucky to have escaped with my life.

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