Memory and History in the Works of Michael Ondaatje

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Memory and History in the Works of Michael Ondaatje


In the Canadian social context, the issue of identity can be a fraught one, and the question of what it means to be Canadian is notoriously sticky, particularly given the wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds claimed by Canadians and the heterogeneity of their own experiences. This paper deals with the ways in which the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje works with issues of understanding and accessing memories and histories outside of one’s personal lived experience.

Ondaatje’s The English Patient opens with an epigraph culled from the minutes of a Geographical Society meeting in London in the early nineteen-forties. It reads:

“Most of you, I am sure, remember the tragic circumstances of the death of Geoffrey Clifton at Gilf Kebir, followed later by the disappearance of his wife, Katherine Clifton, which took place during the 1939 desert expedition in search of Zerzura.

“I cannot begin this meeting tonight without referring very sympathetically to those tragic occurrences.

‘The lecture this evening…”

The passage introduces a number of key themes in the text, and is worth dealing with at some length. The first issue I want to examine is the opening line. Memory is arguably the most important issue at play in this novel, and its positioning here draws attention to its recurring significance throughout the text. The context of its usage is of particular interest. A later passage notes the attitude of disinterested objectivity, of scientific detachment, that pervades the lectures’ setting, and the uneasiness of the speakers as they struggle to readjust to the urban and urbane environment. ‘Someone will introduce the talk’, it notes, ‘and someone will give thanks … [t]he years of preparation and research and fund-raising are never mentioned in these oak rooms … losses in extreme heat or windstorm are announced with minimal eulogy. All human and financial behaviour lies on the far side of the issue being discussed — which is the earth’s surface and its “interesting geographical problems”’ (134).

The tension between the impersonal detachment of the lecture’s atmosphere and the terminology in the epigraph is one that operates through much of Ondaatje’s work. That tension is in the text that holds together two opposing forces — personal, lived memory, and cultural memory. Susan Sontag, in her recent book Regarding the Pain of Others, makes the somewhat contentious claim that ‘there is no such thing as collective memory … all memory is individual, unreproducible — it dies with each person.

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What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important … Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings’ (76-7). This is perhaps a debatable statement, but I think there’s certainly a case to be made for it, although I’m not going make here. If it is true, though, then I think one of the recurrent issues in Ondaatje’s work is the negotiation between these two versions of the past. Lynette Hunter argues that ‘all of his narratives, whether prose or poetry, tell about the terrible destructive search for a fixed personal identity that will challenge the way that the state/public history forgets and erases individuals’ (205). One of the alternatives to this problem that Ondaatje comes up with, I’d argue, is a new way of relating to history and identity, in which the body plays an important part in one’s ability to understand historical stipulations by interacting with them imaginatively and relating them to one’s self through the body. Ondaatje’s characters frequently situate themselves in relation to the historical and external world in this manner.

These relationships are made possible by a sense of the body as an extremely porous entity in Ondaatje’s books. Hallam and Hockey describe a ‘conception of the body that emerged throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, re-situating the body in its material environment … [e]mphasizing the bounded individual … maintained at a distance from the “exterior nonbodily world’ (39) that still has a significant influence on the way bodies are conceived of. By contrast, Ondaatje’s narrative voice in Running in the Family asserts that that ‘my body must remember everything’ (202).

Bodies do remember things in Ondaatje’s books. In Coming Through Slaughter, Webb, the detective, ‘discovered the minds of certain people through their bodies. Or through the perceptions that distinguished them’ (53). Buddy’s relationship to his common law wife Nora is such that ‘[w]ith the utmost curiosity and faith he learned all he could about Nora Bass … [h]er body a system of emotions and triggers he got lost in. Every hair she lost in the bath, every dead cell she rubbed off on a towel’ (9). John Kertzer, discussing The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, notes that in that book, ‘[t]ouching … is also a way of feeling … with a tangible immediacy impossible to abstract understanding. The latter is represented with fanatical precision by Billy’s adversary, Pat Garrett, whose Cartesian rationalism — detached, indifferent, self-sufficient — contrasts Billy’s fleshy phenomenology’ (118). In the English Patient, the relationship between Katherine and Almásy operates on similar principles. Katherine is referred to as ‘the woman who bit into his flesh’ (96), while the physicality of memory is perhaps made most explicit with Almásy’s statement that ‘[s]he once sucked blood from a cut on my hand as I had tasted and swallowed her menstrual blood. There are some European words you can never translate properly into another language. Felhomaly. The dusk of graves. With the connotation of intimacy there between the living and the dead’ (170). All of these characters understand the people around them through involved bodily interaction with it, rather than through detached self sufficiency. This last piece from the English Patient is particularly interesting, because it’s not just understanding between people that operates this way, but between people and historical representations and between texts as well. The point is alluded to in the last sentence ‘with the connotation of intimacy there between the living and the dead’ (170), which shifts the paradigm of physical understanding into the historical sphere. Likewise, an earlier scene has Katherine and Almásy lying ‘in each other’s arms, the pulse and shadow of the fan on them. All morning he and Bermann have worked in the archaeological museum placing Arabic texts and European histories beside each other in an attempt to recognize echo, coincidence, name changes — back past Herodotus to the Kitab al Kanuz, where Zerzura is named for the bathing woman in a desert caravan. And there too the slow blink of a fan’s shadow. And here too the intimate exchange and echo of a childhood history, of scar, of manner of kiss. (152). The English patient is described as a man who would walk into a library, ‘open books, and inhale them’, and Hana, when reading, ‘entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments’ (12).

I’d like, for the purposes of this paper, to deal with one specific example of this interplay between the body, memory, history and text, to examine how it operates. The instance is from Ondaatje’s early work, Coming Through Slaughter, and deals with the only remaining photograph of Buddy Bolden and his band. The title page of the book includes that photograph of Bolden and the band, and this historical artefact serves as the starting point for the imaginative act that the novel represents. On page 63, the photograph is translated into language. The section reads:

There is only one photograph that exists today of Bolden and the band. This is what you see.



Jimmy Johnson Bolden Willy Cornish Willy Warner

on bass on valve trombone on clarinet



Brock Mumford Frank Lewis

on guitar on clarinet

Ondaatje follows his photographic translation with the statement that, ‘As a photograph, it is not good or precise, partly because the print was found after the fire. The picture, waterlogged by climbing hoses, stayed in the possession of Willy Cornish for several years’ (63). This description of the original photograph could equally well apply to the linguistic representation it follows. As a photograph, it is neither good nor precise. In the context of the novel, however, it’s interesting for a number of reasons. I’d like to suggest that it represents an act of translation between media, and that it operates on the lines I’ve sketched out here.

First of all, this translation operates as a means of understanding a historical document (the photograph), both for Ondaatje and the reader. If, as Benjamin argues in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, ‘[e]very image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’ (247), then Ondaatje’s use of this photograph brings it into the present both at the point of writing and the point of reading, as one of its own concerns. The text addresses Ondaatje’s relationship with his historical subject with a particular conception of the body.

Beginning with author’s realisation that when Bolden went mad, ‘he was the same age as I am now’, a sense of physical interaction develops as ‘[t]he photograph moves and becomes a mirror. When I read he stood in front of mirrors and attacked himself, there was a shock of memory. For I had done that. Stood, and with a razor-blade cut into cheeks and forehead, shaved hair, defiling people we did not wish to be. He comes in to the room, kneels in front of the mirror, and sits on his heels. Begins to talk. Holds a blade between his first two fingers and cuts high onto the cheek’ (135). The identifying pronouns in this passage work to break down the distinction between Ondaatje and Bolden, moving from a ‘he’ for Bolden and an ‘I’ for Ondaatje to a ‘we’ that joins them in an act of stripping away social identities and subjectivities, so that the ‘he’ that follows in describing the act of self-mutilation is indeterminate, and can refer to either Ondaatje or Bolden, merging them in the act of cutting away identities.

The closing passage of the book operates in a similar manner. Having described Bolden’s existence in the state mental hospital through narrative, interviews, and archival inclusions, the book ends with the lines ‘I sit in this room. With the grey walls that darken into corner. And one window with teeth in it. Sit so still you can hear your hair rustle in your shirt. Look away from the window when clouds go by. Thirty one years old. There are no prizes’ (160). Having noted earlier that Bolden went mad at thirty one, the same age as he is at the time writing, Ondaatje ends with another ambiguously worded passage that can be read as describing either the writer of the musician equally well. In placing this indeterminate subject in that room with the single window, Ondaatje puts both himself and Bolden literally in camera, so that the book ends with the physical merging of the writer and the character, both trapped in the setting of the photographic frame that opened the book. The merging of identities here, I’d argue, opens a means of understanding the historical personage of Bolden through shared bodily experience. Ondaatje describes his first encounter with Bolden through

‘The thin sheaf of information. Why did my senses stop at you? There was that sentence, ‘Buddy Bolden who became a legend when he went berserk in a parade…’ What was there in that, before I knew your nation your colour your age, that made me push my arm forward and spill it through the front of your mirror and clutch myself? Did not want to pose in your accent but think in your brain and body, and you like a weatherbird arcing round in the middle of your life to exact opposites’ (135).

This is the link that begins the writing of the book, but it doesn’t result in the appropriation of Bolden’s identity. If Ondaatje is identifying with his subject, the book is nonetheless Bolden’s turf, or in the opening words of the text, ‘His geography’ (2). Ondaatje, as writer, is simply a particularly sensitive visitor.

Ondaatje’s visits to Bolden’s geography, in fact, form another element of the relationship under examination here. The stories and archival material that make up the book are framed in the present of its writing. This is an important aspect of the translation as well, for, as Mieke Bal argues, ‘structural, formal aspects of the object become meaningful, dynamic, and culturally operative: through the time-bound, changing effect of the culture that frames them’ (39). The opening of the first chapter announces ‘[h]is geography’, and invites the reader to ‘[f]loat by in a car today and see the corner shops’ (2), then provides a description of Bolden’s neighbourhood as it appears at the time of the research for the book. It notes ‘[t]he signs of owners obliterated by brand names. Tassin’s Food Store which he lived opposite for a time surrounded by drink coca cola in bottles, barg’s, or laura lee’s tavern, the signs speckled in the sun tom moore, yellowstone, jax, coca cola, coca cola, primary yellows and reds muted now against the white horizontal sheet wood walls’ (2).That the colours are described as ‘muted now’ implies their brightness at a time in the past, while the ‘white horizontal sheet wood walls’ upon which the signs are fixed hint towards the transformation of the scene into horizontal lines of text on the page which it becomes in the book. From this opening scene, it moves quickly into anecdotal ‘tales’ (2) of the area, moving the narrative back through time in the setting of the story. After Bolden’s spectacular breakdown in the parade, the book performs the operation again; having brought the muted colours of the street to vivid narrative life, the book returns to Ondaatje’s research trip: ‘The sunlight comes down flat and white on Gravier, on Phillip Street, on Liberty. The paint on the wood walls has crumpled under the heat, you can brush it off with your hand. This is where he lived seventy years ago … There is so little noise that I can easily hear the click of my camera as I take fast bad photographs into the sun aiming at the barber shop he probably worked in’ (134). The opening, however, moves towards an emphasis on the primary colours which play an important part in the narrative — Bolden’s red shirt, for example. In the closing passage, as we move out of the narrative which has temporarily restored the vivid colours of the past, ‘[t]he sun has swallowed the colour of the street. It is a black and white photograph, part of a history book’ (136). In the opening of Running in the Family, Ondaatje considers ‘those relations from my parents’ generation who stood in my memory like frozen opera’, and how he ‘wanted to touch them into words’ (22). Here, he begins not with a memory, but a black and white photograph that the narrative pulls into colour and motion, and then releases back into frozen black and white.

The final element to consider here is the reader. The framing of the translated photograph is important on this respect as well, since it adds another cultural and temporal frame — that of the reader’s experience of the book. The immediate framing of the translation, with the assertion that this is what you see, works rhetorically to involve the reader in the process of interaction with the photograph, not only offering a sort of reading guide, but also by getting him or her to question whether this is, in fact, what is being seen. In doing so it invites a much closer reading of the photograph to determine whether or not this actually is what you see. It invites the reader to consider the differences between the two, getting them to participate in the translation by considering the two versions in parallel, and opening up numerous possible ways of understanding Bolden, and for considering one’s own readerly interaction with the text.

‘Translation’, Bal argues, ‘can no longer be traced as a one-directional passage from source to destination. It mediates in both directions … and what it yields, produces, and makes visible, yet refrains from fixing, is an image’(89). A reading of the two versions of the photograph as parallel texts brings to light a number of differences and similarities between them. To begin with the photograph: The blocking of the image is important. Bolden is second from the right in the back row. Although he might not, initially, stand out from the rest of the band the central vertical axis formed by the fold in the backdrop sheet and the apex formed by the neck of Johnson’s bass and Cornish’s trombone, with Bolden in the middle of them both do position him at the intersection of two major geometrical forms in the photograph, drawing the eye to his figure. The translation dispenses with the background and most of the nuances of the photographic blocking, focussing instead on the figures and their instruments.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the linguistic and photographic versions is the layout. The two neat lines of text in the translation, and their positioning on the page, reads in a manner opposite to that of the photograph, in that the reader’s eye first encounters not the subjects in the foreground of the photograph, but those in the back row. The words on the page acting both as signifiers and signifieds in this manner is an important addition of the translation, which reverses the prominence of the figures, and substitutes strong horizontals for the insistent verticals of the photograph. Sobieszek argues that a strong vertical axis has been the historical norm in portraiture, and links it to conceptions of rationality, social hierarchical power, and unitary identity (254). The horizontal, on the other hand, he relates to ‘a dimension of entropy’, intersubjective identification, and fractured self identity. All of three of these are key issues in Ondaatje’s work generally, and Coming Through Slaughter in particular, in which the characters’ stories of Bolden are described as being ‘like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them (60).

The most noticeable absence in the textual version of the image is, perhaps, Bolden’s coronet. In the photograph, the instrument is partially hidden behind Brock Mumford’s head, and partially obscured by the fading of the print. Its total disappearance in Ondaatje’s translation, however, is another matter. In the translation, the instruments they play are the only defining characteristics of the subjects, and Bolden stands out by not being similarly identified. The horn is thereby noticeable through its absence, and, in not including Bolden in this form of identification, Ondaatje not only further isolates him from the other band members, he also disassociates him from his music, and the instrument which eventually destroys him. Bolden, in the story, describes his return to New Orleans in bleak terms: ‘Then later Webb came and pulled me out of the other depth and there was nothing on me. I was glinting and sharp and cold from the lack of light. I had turned to metal at the mouth’ (112). His return to the city is also his return to playing music, the combination which precipitates his slide into madness, and this passage describes him in terms of his instrument: glinting, sharp, and cold. He is undergoing a physical transformation (‘metal at the mouth’) into the instrument which corresponds to the alteration in both his public and private persona. He is being pushed into the identity of musician which he had previously shed, and becoming his horn; the other aspects of his life, including family, employment, and friends, falling away as his musical reputation spreads. In not including Bolden’s horn in the translation, Ondaatje seems to be separating him from his historical identity as a musician, allowing other possible modes of identity to operate through the text.

This sort of a close reading of the image and its translation is, I think, an important aspect of the work, and one the text itself encourages. The element of the book that completes its rhetorical project is the reader, who is given the responsibility of bringing the novel into the contextual frame of his or her own present through an engaged reading. Ultimately, the act of translation that anchors the book is to be carried on by a reader who can follow Bolden and Ondaatje’s lead by responding to a passage in which Bolden’s voice shades into Ondaatje’s and that ends with an ambiguous command: ‘Come with me Webb I want to show you something, no come with me I want to show you something. You come too. Put your hand through this window.’ (89).



Works Cited



Primary Works:



Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1998.

-- The English Patient. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1996.

-- Running in the Family. London: Picador Books, 1983.

Secondary Works:

Bal, Meike. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide. London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. Illuminations. Harry Zohn, Trans. London: Harper-Collins, 1992.

Hallam, Elizabeth and Jenny Hockey. Death, Memory, and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg Publishing, 2001.

Hunter, Lynette. Modern Allegory and Fantasy: Rhetorical Stances in Contemporary Writing. London: Macmillan Press, 1989.

Kertzer, Jon. “Justice and the Pathos of Understanding in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost”. English Studies in Canada. 29.3-4 September/December 2003: 116-138.

Sobieszek, Robert A. The Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul 1850-2000: Essays on Camera Portraiture. London: MIT Press, 1999.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003.


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