The Sri Lankan Patient: Babel’s Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje is the kind of guy that you just want to sit back and have a conversation with. The man has a fantastic sense of humor, is totally self-deprecating, and just brings a smile to your face with each one of his own. After a brief introduction that delved into his past as well as a description of his novel of concern, The English Patient, (which just by it’s paraphrasing showed me how different the film is, being that I didn’t have a chance to read before the talk), Ondaatje took the podium and read a couple poems and excerpts from three of his novels. There were a couple anecdotes thrown in the mix, but for the most part he just orated his words as meant to be heard, leaving the fun interjections for the Q&A that followed.

One of the most animated of those that have come for the Babel series, Ondaatje started it all off with a little local love, ecstatic to be in a building with ties to Ani DiFranco as he is a “great fan of hers”. He was born in Ceylon (which is now Sri Lanka), lived in England for almost a decade, and then settled in Canada, where he still calls Toronto his home today. After reading a couple deep poetry examples, the true humor of the man showed face with a vignette from Running in the Family concerning his grandmother. Once done relating the fact that his relatives in Ceylon never told the truth—they told stories and exaggerations for everything—he read his account, more fiction than not. The jokes are aplenty and Ondaatje showed his joy by laughing and smiling with the audience at every comical turn. Then, before some passages from his newest novel Divisadero, he shared excerpts from The English Patient. It’s a novel he has not read since he finished it, but then he hasn’t read any due to the fear of seeing things he should have done better. And of course the obvious reason, “I saw the movie”.

While the readings were enjoyable, as any are straight from the mouth of their creator, the off-the-cuff question and answer period really stole the show. Always quick with a retort and facial expression, Ondaatje looked as though he enjoyed every second of the visit … and that’s what you like to see. No one wants someone on stage going through the motions. He wasn’t afraid to admit when things he wrote were purely accidental, nor to say “I don’t understand that question at all” when a word is used that he remembers had meaning when he wrote it, but couldn’t for the life of him recall what it was. There were things said about how too much research is not a good thing, one needs random research mixed in with fiction to build a good story; how he never has an idea before writing, just a location and time for which to build from and stumble onto his next point of business; and that his style mirrors how he believes people think, non-chronologically. “We have a non-linear gene in our bodies,” he says, things must be revealed at the right time, not the chronological time. He also delves into the people doing the activities he writes, rather than the activity’s process itself, allowing for a deeper resonance to show humanity and the ability to imagine himself in that life.

His exuberance was contagious and the discovery of how different the style is of his novel compared to the film just makes me want to read it more. There is a sense of the common man and emotion in his readings and overall demeanor that makes you at ease and invested in the stories. With his crazy hair and never-ending arsenal of quips, Michael Ondaatje showed us how unpretentious an award-winning artist can be—something refreshing and thoroughly worth the time to experience.

The sold-out second season of Babel continues on April 1 with Marjane Satrapi and April 17 with Isabel Allende.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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