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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ondaatje’

In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

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My book club decided to read The English Patient after the recent announcement that it had won the “golden” Booker, chosen by readers from a shortlist (selected by judges) of 5 books representing the five decades of the prize. I’d never read it before, but I had recently ordered Warlight, Ondaatje‘s recent novel, for my library and was curious to read the book he’s possibly most known for.

The copy I read has the movie cover — a marketing trend I dislike — with a blown up image of a kiss between two of the characters. This image misleadingly indicates that this love affair, between the man known throughout most of the novel only as the English Patient (because is burned beyond recognition) and the wife of a fellow desert explorer is the central story. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The story is actually four fragmented stories which come together, as the people they belong to do, at the end of WWII in an abandoned monastery, Villa San Girolamo. Hana is the first to be there, when it was still an active war hospital. Only twenty years old, she has served as a nurse throughout Italy, where she has suffered her own losses as well as caring for dozens of wounded and dying soldiers. When the allied hospital staff move on she turns in her uniform and stays, in a place where she “felt safe  . . . half adult and half child,” with the English patient, who is too injured to move. For some time it just the two of them in the ruined building, which really isn’t actually safe. Then Caravaggio, a man described as a thief who was Hana’s father’s friend in Toronto, shows up after hearing about the strange young nurse and her patient. Finally Kip, a Punjabi Sikh man from a British sapper unit, comes to stay at the Villa, clearing it of explosives, sleeping in a tent in the garden.

Ondaatje provides only glimpses of each of his main characters, just as one might get from meeting strangers in a war torn place in strange circumstances. Of the four, it is Kip we come to know best, and whose future Ondaatje most clearly portrays. And it is the love between these four, the comradely love that develops when people are thrown together in loss and danger, that is really the centerpiece, not the English Patient’s and his Cairo lover’s. I still think it is accurate to call it a love story set in wartime. But it isn’t just about passion.

It’s also the story of the end of the colonial world, and the rise of a world where wars will now have “mutually assured destruction” hanging over them in the shape of no longer theoretical mushroom clouds. The most moving parts of the book, for me, are towards the end, when Kip hears over his crystal radio set about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is horrified, realizing that as he has been risking his life throughout the war to disarm bombs, the allies have been planning to unleash this new weapon. He sees, suddenly, that these people he has come to love and admire are the enemy of “the brown races” just as his militant brother in India has warned him.

This isn’t a book with a lot of action, although again, Kip’s story has the most. It’s a book with a lot of scenes in the dark, where the English Patient’s identity stays for much of the time. It’s incredibly interesting — salted with history, geography, literature and art, and a few real historical figures who appear as characters. And it’s a drama about the human capacity to wound and to heal.

 

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