Author(s): Michael OndaatjeDownload
Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick’s life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning The English Patient. 256 pp.
Some Reviews: 930 in Goodreads.com
Astounding. One of the best novels I’ve ever read. Ondaatje does things with language that should be almost illegal, giving us scenes that can be at the same time lush and heartbreakingly stark, weaving in and out of different timeframes and contexts with the fluidity and free association of memory. His depictions of the hard work these characters undertake in early 20th Century Canada (bridge building, logging, tunnel drilling under Lake Ontario in order to build a water purification plant) have a scale, a daring and a sense of the concrete and muscular that are beyond compare. And in between all of this, he gives us a sweet and sad story of immigrants, torn between destitution and the promise of the New World, between loves past and loves present, between rich and poor, that are vivid, precise, lived-in. You will remember many scenes in this book for weeks – the nuns being tossed around by the wind on an unfinished bridge, a daring escape from prison, a confrontation (ending in a molotov cocktail) between a rich man who wants to disappear and the searcher that is looking for him to retrieve the woman he loves, and a final denouement at the Palace of Purification that is at the same time sad, thrilling and reaffirming of the basic decency of a human being. Superb.
Ondaatje is incredibly familiar. He has the schizophrenic narrative of Faulkner and the fragmented working class romanticism of Raymond Carver. Its interesting how much I adore Ondaatje while he reminds me of one of my mortal enemies (I’m talking to you Faulkner!). His visual brand of prose-poetry reminds me more of a filmmaker than a writer. His nostalghic exploration of Canada, and specifically Toronto increased the book’s appeal for me. I had a hard time getting into Ondaatje’s world, to a point where I had to give up on “Anil’s Ghost” after reading a hundred pages or so; but having become more familiar with his working class eroticism, and his signature ethereal narrative, I’ve grown quite fond of his style.
A book full of sights and more, signifying much, including, and in a big way, one of my favorite themes — that of the ‘little’ people, the ones ‘behind the scenes’ of history, the ones we’ll never know.
After reading this book, I feel like I’ve been to Ontario and in particular Toronto during the early-20th century. Toronto is a teeming, vibrant multicultural community, so much so that the main character from backwoods Ontario feels like the outsider. Though to be completely accurate, he probably would’ve felt like an outsider no matter where he ended up, such was his upbringing and outlook.
Be patient with this book if the beginning seems a bit slow or meandering. You will be hugely rewarded. As one of the quotes I’ve marked from this says: The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” Meander if you want to get to town.
And as I neared the end and realized where we were headed, I also realized I’d forgotten where we started, because in between — how we get from the beginning to the end — is a dazzling feast, and feat.
A full five star endorsement for a novel that has a mesmeric, hallucinatory quality. Images as powerful and poignant as a dream, narrative that slips and weaves and ducks between people, places and time, and an impressive sweep of invention that catches the breath. Ondaatje uncovers the story of those whose labour created Toronto landmarks in the early twentieth century, deftly knitting up truth and myth, revealing the lives of those who were forgotten in the official version of history.
Actually, The English Patient is one of the few books in my reading life that I never finished. I don’t think I ever really took note of the book until the film came out, so it must have been 1996, when we had just moved back to Germany from Austria, because I have a clear memory of trying to read it in bed on a mattress on the floor. With moving and coping with all that entails, I know I was only reading a few pages in bed at night before falling into a coma. After three weeks of this where it seemed to me that nothing whatever had happened, I gave up. I was amazed at how political In the Skin of a Lion is, I had Ondaatje down in my mind as a somewhat artsy poetic type that uses a lot of words to skirt the ineffable. How wrong I was.
There is a scene, in the very beginning of this book, during which Patrick Lewis, primary voice among the the half-dozen or so protagonists, watches Scandinavian men skate home over a frozen river on a dark winter’s night in Northern Ontario, carrying handfuls of burning cattails over their heads. Ondaatje, who is the rare poet capable of writing great fiction, describes the scene thusly:
“It was not just the pleasure of skating. They could have done that during the day. This was against the night. The hard ice was so certain, they could leap into the air and crash down and it would hold them. their lanterns replaces with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries, speed! romance! one man waltzing with his fire. . . .”
And thus it begins. Dancing with the elements. A wind catching the skirts of a young nun and sending her spinning out into the air and into the arms of a daredevil bridge builder. Great explosions underwater and on land. Escape through water and betrayal by it. So much of this book exists on the perilous edge between something fear and whimsy. I’ve certainly never found any other book in which the acts of destruction felt so balletic.
Nuns,actresses, missing millionaires, orphan girls, burglars, radicals, immigrants and great marvels of engineering. For a slim book that often reads like poetry, there’s an awful lot going on here. You hardly know where to look. And it is absolutely exquisite.
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