I first encountered Michael Ondaatje’s work twenty years ago when I picked up a slim volume titled The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. It was a chance encounter, but I was immediately struck by the book’s wildly original way of providing a detailed portrait of a man whose mythological stature overshadows the few known facts of his life. When I sought out this quirky experimental novel again recently in the Iowa City public library (thinking to use it in my writing workshop as an example of effective character sketches), it was classified as nonfiction, perhaps because the librarians simply didn’t know what to make of it. The book uses various devices to portray the notorious outlaw: a series of sketches of the characters who surrounded him, newspaper interviews (that may be real or made up), the occasional picture and the thoughts ascribed to him by a dime novelist who is the putative narrator of the novel. I was looking for a passage that had stuck with me for more than two decades, a portrait of Pat Garrett that I wanted to share with my students. It goes, in part:
Pat Garrett, ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope, on his wrist there was a purple stain there all his life. Ideal assassin for his mind was unwarped. Had the ability to kill someone on the street walk back and finish a joke….
At the age of 15 he taught himself French and never told anyone about it and never spoke to anyone in French for the next 40 years. He didn’t even read French books.
Although I still love this passage (this novel and Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family are my particular favorites), reading it again I can’t help but notice the distinctive flaws in the writing as much as the pleasures it offers. Here is a character portrait that actually reveals almost nothing about the character’s underlying personality. Here are enigmatic utterances (how can someone who kills without affect have an “unwarped” mind?) and the occasional lapse in grammar–that unnecessary second “there” after “purple stain.” Most striking is the idiosyncratic description of Garrett’s act of teaching himself a language he will neither use nor take credit for knowing. It’s a memorable gesture, but what the hell does it mean, and are we really to believe it?
Ondaatje’s work is filled with such memorable gestures, like the scene in In the Skin of a Lion when, suspended in midair from the central arch, Nicholas Temelcoff, an immigrant worker, reaches out and elegantly catches a nun who has fallen off the unfinished bridge that he is helping to build. In that instant she decides to stop being a nun, and neither of them tells the larger world that she has survived the fall. Temelcoff’s arm is pulled out of its socket by the force of the falling body, and as the nun jerks it back into place he almost passes out. A similar scene occurs in Ondaatje’s new novel, Divisadero, when a young woman’s father “torques” her dislocated shoulder back into place.
Ondaatje likes to repeat certain picturesque scenarios, usually involving dangerous acts of gymnastic skill. Roman, a minor character in Divisadero, is a craftsman who, like Temelcoff, hangs from rafters and balances precariously on beams suspended in midair as he works alone high up in the belfry of a church that is being restored. David Caravaggio, who appears in both In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, is another solitary, “a thief who refused to work with men because he did not trust them.” He moves around in the dark in silence while the inhabitants of the places he is robbing sleep unsuspectingly–Caravaggio had practiced his art of silent intrusion at home by rearranging the furniture at night as his wife slept–and he runs across roofs at night and swings from one veranda to another.
A surprising proportion of Ondaatje’s writing consists of meticulous and well-researched descriptions of arcane craftsmen at work–always with that element of peril. The most famous of these is of Kip, the bomb defuser in The English Patient, who painstakingly puzzles out the fuse wires on unexploded German ordnance, a wrong move being certain death, while the reader holds his breath with each snip of wire. Occasionally, a woman lends a hand–literally. “He picked the wire like a thin adder from her left hand. Then the other. She didn’t move away,” Ondaatje writes.