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Reviewed by
Rashmi Ramachandran
Independent Scholar
Spinks, Lee. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009. xvi + 280 pp. $24.95.

Lee Spinks’s eponymous critical work on Michael Ondaatje spans most of his oeuvre and works well within the mandate of the Contemporary World Writers series, which is to publish books on “culturally diverse contemporary writers” that offer perspectives on their work that are not defined only by the postcolonial or the postmodern (series editor’s foreword). Spinks’s attempt to “account for the power and originality of Ondaatje’s writing” (17) through an elucidation of the possibility of a third viewpoint not solely defined by the binary oppositions of East and West, and somewhat eliding the postcolonial and postmodern, is commendable. Spinks uses Bhabha’s trope of hybridity and Peter Hallward’s distinction between “singular and specific modes of individuation” (17) to foreground his own interpretation and to create a nuanced reading that avoids unitary frameworks. The book is an excellent reference for incisive theoretical readings of Ondaatje’s work that move away from a solely postcolonial postmodern reading; however, the lack of a theoretical foregrounding for this differentiated reading prevents its arguments from being comprehensively articulated.

As befits a book that purports to cover all of Ondaatje’s work, the chapters are arranged chronologically, bookended by chapters titled “Contexts and Intertexts” and [End Page 140] “Critical Overview and Conclusion.” Both chapters are useful, especially for beginners to Ondaatje criticism. The opening chapter provides an overview of Ondaatje’s life and the definitive influence that his Sri Lankan-Dutch-Canadian background has had on his work. It is somewhat puzzling that Spinks limits theoretical foregrounding to a small portion of the opening chapter. While the final chapter somewhat makes up for the lack of a theoretical introduction, it might have better served its purpose at the beginning of the book. The final chapter covers several of the influential works of Ondaatje criticism, but leaves out works such as Annick Hillger’s Not Needing All the Words: Michael Ondaatje’s Literature of Silence. While it is difficult to cover all of the extant criticism, given the scope of Spinks’s effort, the brevity of the bibliography makes this book less useful for beginners to Ondaatje criticism, a stated goal of the series.

Chapters 2 and 3 of the book deal with Ondaatje’s early poems, The Dainty Monsters, the man with seven toes, and his long poem The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Pointing to the thematic continuity between Ondaatje’s poetry and his later prose, Spinks comments that the redemptive power of art is a constant theme in many of the poems. Spinks’s longer commentary on the man with seven toes effectively gathers Ondaatje’s variegated themes to display how “different modes of perception create different imaginative worlds” (41). Stripped of historical context, Ondaatje imbues the story with the power of myth as a contrast to “acute historical self-consciousness” (38). Spinks draws from Linda Hutcheon’s work on historiography to inform his reading of Billy the Kid, where he comments extensively on how the poem calls into question the versions of history and myth that have overlapped to create the persona we “know” as Billy the Kid. He also notes the topoi in this work as precursors to those more fully developed in Ondaatje’s first novel, Coming Through Slaughter.

Spinks observes that Coming Through Slaughter first and most fully develops two of Ondaatje’s continuing concerns: the Nietzschean “creative tension” between “becoming and being,” and “the conflict between molecular and molar life” (84, 79). In his portrayal of art as enabling the expression of singularity that can combat collective historical consciousness, Spinks notes, Ondaatje anticipates his later novels such as The English Patient. While Spinks’s analysis itself is comprehensive and compelling, the limited engagement with other Ondaatje critics and the relegation of oppositional viewpoints to the bibliographic notes section weakens the chapter.

The next chapter, an incisive engagement with the cross-genre work Running in the Family, engages most extensively with postcolonial criticism. Spinks notes that the work is imbued with Ondaatje’s concern with the “confrontation” between the reality of individual, polyphonic experience and a totalizing historical consciousness in the colonial context (128). He points out that marriage, in the work, becomes a metaphor for the “imbalance of power relations” between the colonizer and the colonized (116). The figure of Mervyn, with his Englishman hangover combined with an affinity for his Sri Lankan heritage, simultaneously represents the mimic man and the dispossessed colonial.

The following chapter positions In the Skin of a Lion as having inaugurated the “mature phase” of Ondaatje’s writing, creating a “counter-history of Canadian civic-modernity” and further developing Ondaatje’s idée fixe with narrative form (170, 137). Spinks notes that the impact of Cubism is most evident in this work with its multiplicity of voices. In his exegesis of the moment when Clara telephones Patrick to help her following the death of Ambrose Small, Spinks points to Ondaatje’s preoccupation with the dialectic between art and life and his conviction that writing can “continually expand time…to open up a new image of life” (166). [End Page 141]

In Chapter 7, on The English Patient, Spinks engages with Ondaatje’s creative process, providing insights into how this novel—Ondaatje’s most read and discussed work—came to be. Spinks argues that the notion of “Englishness” as the “power to write and define the cultural self-image of other nations” is one of the primary concerns of the novel, exemplified, for instance, when Kip tells Caravaggio that anyone bombing “the brown races of the world” had to be “an Englishman” (172, 201). Spinks does a comprehensive analysis of the “status and function of historical knowledge” and of Ondaatje’s “challenge to the presumed distinction between literary and historical writing” (181, 183). In opposition to the English patient’s belief in the singularity of experience is Kip’s realization that there is no “private space untouched by…‘public battles’” (198). Regrettably, there is no space devoted to the complexity inherent in Hana and Kip’s relationship or to the mapping of Kip’s desire onto Hana’s body. Admittedly, the feminist postcolonialist angle is not a stated goal of this analysis; however, a paragraph dealing with this would have added to Spinks’s already comprehensive critique of the novel.

If The English Patient sees relationships germinating, Anil’s Ghost is suffused with the pain of lost relationships in a Sri Lanka that descended into a terrorist state during the period of civil war between 1983 and 2002. To foreground his reading, Spinks provides a brief, useful history of the civil war as well as that of Sinhala Buddhist tradition. Much of the exegesis in this chapter focuses on Ondaatje’s concern with preserving “the integrity of individual memory from the global language of ‘human rights’” (218). Ondaatje’s preoccupation with the “dialectical relationship” between the “singular and the universal” finds some resolution in Anil’s realization that each “‘historical’ situation” is made valid only through preserving the validity of the “singular event” (219). Spinks adds to the critical debate about this novel when he notes that Ondaatje’s decision to use the specific conditions of civil war in Sri Lanka to stand for political violence the world over obfuscates the specific history of the island nation itself.

In spite of the stated issues with theoretical foregrounding and inadequate engagement with other critics in certain chapters, there is no doubt that Spinks’s work is a valuable addition to the critical conversation surrounding Ondaatje’s work. [End Page 142]