My short story “In the Ruins of Shambhala” has appeared on 600 Second Saga, a flash fiction audiobook podcast. It’s my first publication outside of a student literary magazine and you can listen to it here! It is narrated by Mariah Avix.
I wrote a first draft of this story while at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and presented it at the Odyssey public reading at Barnes and Noble. The idea of the story came to me as a kind of sidetrack while working on my novel, which takes place in a similar, though not identical, milieu. A couple of characters from Michael Ondaatje novels crossed together in my imagination–specifically, the deminer Kirpal Singh from The English Patient and Ananda from Anil’s Ghost–and in my own consciousness, the composite of these two figures became inextricable from the plot of a Lost World story. The setting of my story is based loosely on the Hindu/Buddhist myth of Shambhala–to elevate the drama, I suppose.
I view this story as a commemoration of the men and women who work to preserve cultural heritage sites in dangerous places. A great example of individuals who do just that in real life are the archaeologists at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, who place themselves at risk daily to preserve the past.
I may not have posted for a while, but I wanted to share this success with as many of my readers and listeners as I can. I have had plans over the last few weeks to give this blog a new start and possibly a re-brand. I’ve had the idea of reviewing short stories as I read through fantasy/weird fiction anthologies, such as the massive volume known as The Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and the slimmer but no less rewarding The New Voices of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. I hope that some of my present responsibilities will free up soon so I can dedicate time for these ambitious projects.
The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.
“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient“
Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:
From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. […] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1
Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.
In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?
Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.
On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.
Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.
Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.
Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásysays, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.
Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.
Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>
Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.
1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.
2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).
Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?
Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).
Scotch night update. Lagavulin 16, unsurprisingly, the blind taste winner, & many called it for what it was.
Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:
1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.
At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)
2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.
Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.
Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.
3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.
In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.
Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.” When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.
4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.
Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.
Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.
5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.
In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.
Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.
6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.
Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?
In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:
And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?
The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]
The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.
Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.
Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses. Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.
Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden. Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.
Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”
In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.
Before jazz became what it is today, before it was mainstream, Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the streets of New Orleans. No recording of his music survives. A famous musician in his time, his genius and the threat of vanishing into silence tormented him. The quest Michael Ondaatje undertook in 1976 to discover the genius of this unheard-of jazz legend involved meticulous historical research, but also–inevitably–a certain amount of fantasy. The result is a novel that runs like a dream sequence, filled with erotic moments that are violent, frenzied, and at other times, romantic.
By erotic, I mean the entire novel is a slow uncovering. Every sentence has a perceptive, tender, yet improvised quality. You might know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, which was turned a movie. Written nearly twenty years before The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter is the novel of a more rogue Ondaatje, who helped, along with other poets such as Robert Kroetsch, develop the literary movement of postmodernism in Canada.
You might say Coming Through Slaughteris jazz. I have already mentioned its improvised quality. This is not, however, a novel printed off a first draft, but a meticulously crafted set of poetic scenes. You should expect nothing less from Ondaatje, whose reputation as one of Canada’s greatest writers is an acknowledged fact. I tried to catch Ondaatje committing the poetic treason of writing a single cliché, but I failed to locate even one. Every phrase he says is original. Both Ondaatje and Bolden’s art is the result of a genius instinct.
Buddy Bolden’s quarter of New Orleans, Storyville, “had some 2000 prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players.” His jazz synthesizes all the sounds around this lively area of town, where he works in a barber shop by day and plays sweet jazz by night. In a similar way, Ondaatje’s prose-poetry seems to be taken directly from life–from its most tender, private moments, and its most public, eccentric displays of passion.
But how can Ondaatje write so much about Buddy Bolden given the lack of historical records about his music? Necessity compels him to create a partly fictitious character out of Bolden–though perhaps not as fictitious as Count Almasy in The English Patient. Ondaatje caused some controversy with his best-known work of historical fiction, for depicting the character of the count, who really existed, in ways that clearly went against historical evidence. Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the topic of historical characters being used in works of fiction at some length in “Home and Away.” Some poetic invention of the past is necessary in order to create the stories we treasure as a society and a nation. England would not have Shakespeare’s Richard III, Kay paraphrases Ondaatje as saying, if not for poetic license with historical characters. I would add that Canada would never have Ondaatje, if a certain amount of historical fantasy were impossible to ‘get away’ with.
Bolden becomes Ondaatje’s vehicle to explore his ideal of poetic genius, which he found in the figure of the outlaw, or the artist ‘on the edge’. Going outside the novel for a minute, I would like to quote a passage from “White Dwarfs,” a poem by Ondaatje that expressed his perfect hero: “Why do I like most / among my heroes those / that sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel?” Ondaatje is fascinated by the outlaw, especially in his early work (see The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and Bolden, while not a criminal precisely, is still on the edge, a lonely figure. He must come through slaughter–encounter mortality and his own imperfection–to reach that perfect edge, where beyond there is only silence.
Trapped in relationships with two different women, Bolden runs away from his wife, but later returns home, a changed man–more quiet, not his gossipy old self. But the silence is only a buildup to the defining moment of his history as an artist. He blows his cornet in a parade down a New Orleans street and, after a moment of musical ecstasy, loses his mind, vanishing among the stars.
Just as the poem “White Dwarfs” proposes that the meaning of language is found in silence, so is the significance of Bolden’s life found in his silence–the absence of his music. This blankness enables Ondaatje–along with his reader–to search for Bolden’s music, if such an ephemeral thing as music can ever truly be found, or artistic perfection ever attained.
Just as jazz is all about the silences you leave between the notes, so is Coming Through Slaughter all about the absence of Bolden. It is even about the physical white space on the page. Each scene is followed by white space, where, if we linger, we are left to imagine the untold. White space becomes the perfect mirror onto which we project our own fantasies of what Bolden and the other characters do between scenes. On one particular page, only the lyrics to a song, or poem appear: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky” (57). And that is all we need.
Ondaatje dares to go places other authors don’t ever go. His tale of Bolden’s life and death confirms his interest in transgression. Bolden’s story is like that of Icarus: he flew too high, too close to the sun where no one could catch him, on the wings of his own genius, and plummeted to his slaughter in the ocean. And like Doctor Faustus, Bolden even made a deal with the devil, according to his Christian critics: he dared to mix sacred hymns with blues, a music very earthly and secular. What came out of that has become to be known as “jazz.”
Ondaatje finds a wholly original way to express this Icaro-Faustian transgression: Bolden was always so short, he writes, that he couldn’t reach the blades of the fan in his barber shop. But later, after his fall, the following passage appears alone with itself on a page: “Bolden’s hand going up into the air / in agony. His brain driving it up into the path of the circling fan. / The last movement happens forever and ever in his memory” (138). Bolden’s artistic pride has caused him to reach out so far that he hurts himself, like he would if his fingers struck the blades of a fan.
I must now mourn Buddy Bolden using the words Christopher Marlowe’s chorus used to mourn Doctor Faustus at the end of his famous play: “cut is the branch that would have grown full straight / and burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bow.” Transgression is the only way to achieve artistic innovation, yet there is always a price to pay for it.
I think Coming Through Slaughter makes excellent reading, especially if you are on a bus heading to a Jazz Festival concert in downtown Montreal. You can also read it before attending a summer festival in your hometown. Even if you don’t like jazz, if you are an artist, or appreciative of good art, then this novel is worth a read. All art deals with blank space, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or even architecture. For the historical fantasy novelist, blanks spaces that show up in the historical record are also the perfect place to stage a work of imaginative, even fantastic, fiction. In a way, this is what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.
Which is why I leave you off, with this proposal: in addition to being antithetical, anti-real, and even heretical, historical fantasy, as we may see it through the lens of Michael Ondaatje’s oeuvre, is also jazz. The two syncopated rhythms of realistic history and fantastic mythology–one a linear, regular, pattern, the other free-flying and circular–give historical fantasy an edge. And nowhere is this phenomenon better explored than in Coming Through Slaughter.