Canadientalism–that’s Orientalism, but Canadian. Instead of a discourse of largely European imperialist knowledge production aimed at defining the “exotic East,” Canadientalism is a discourse of American imperialist stereotypes aimed at defining the essential nature of the “exotic North.”
In the visual arts, we see Orientalism perpetrating stereotypes of the Arab, everything from turbaned thieves with splendid scimitars to veiled harem seductresses. Spicy aromas wafting around bazaar stalls, jewel-encrusted onion-domed palaces, vivid green gardens of paradise, and the licentious inner sanctuary of the harem–all these are part of standard Orientalist set design.
Canadientalism, on the other hand, is more corny and a whole lot less sexy (unless you have a thing for men in uniform). It perpetrates stereotypes of the Canadian, everything from scarlet coated Mounties with saddled steeds to bucktoothed Laurentian beavers. The aroma of spruce wafting from a lumberjack’s cabin, snow-encrusted igloo homes, vivid green national parks, and the chilly interior the hockey arena during playoff season–these are the stereotypes Americans attach to Canada because they find our apologetic complacency favourable to their imperial interests.
Whereas the Arab is a symbol of terror for many Americans these days, the Canadian is a symbol of timidity. The Americans would never invade their neighbours to the North, at least not as easily as they’ve done in the Middle East, but Canadians can generally be trusted to go along with whatever the Americans decide to do. Sorry, but there’s nothing threatening about a bunch of maple syrup-glazed doughnut eating, Tim Hortons coffee-drinking igloo dwellers. Except maybe Don Cherry, with his exotic suits gleaming like Damascene silk.
Above all Canadientalist texts, one stands above all as a paragon of literary exoticism: The One Thousand and One Hockey Nights in Canada. Loosely based on The One Thousand and One Nights, OTOHNC recounts the story of a Prime Minister embittered by Quebec separatism and the heroic MP who filibusters Parliament with a storytelling marathon that lasts for exactly one thousand and one nights. When the last story is told, the PM is fully cured of his jealousy, after learning so many stories about the whelps who have had it worse off than he has.
On the three hundred and fifty-sixth night, a tale is recounted of a French-Canadian university student and Habs fan who is then transformed into a beaver when he accidentally triggers the wrath of a jinni. The beaver travels to Ottawa to convince the chief of the RCMP that he is human. Seeing that the beaver has above average intelligence and can even play chess, the police chief makes the beaver his own personal pet. This leaves it up to the police chief’s mistress, an Indian princess, to plead on behalf of Mr. Beaver for the return of his humanity.
The following illustration is based on an actual illustration of The One Thousand and One Nights by H.J. Ford, a talented English illustrator active at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a quick sketch in which I hoped to pastiche this illustrator’s style with a kind of humour reminiscent of Kent Monkman’s style in his painting The King’s Beavers, on display in the Canadian exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
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He spoke in a small presentation room called Broadway I in the Saratoga Hilton at Saratoga Springs, NY, introducing for the first time the central concept behind his new novel. It was Guy Gavriel Kay giving the origin story behind Children of the Earth and Sky, due for release this Spring, and I was among the privileged few to hear him read from his new novel–the most anyone has ever learned about his latest historical fantasy.
This was only one of the many highlights over the weekend, but it was the highlight to which I had most been looking forward. I may not own Guy Kay’s complete works, but I have read them all and that includes not just Fionavar Tapestry and all of his historical fantasies, but his poetry volume Beyond this Dark House as well.
Before going into the details of his new novel that were revealed during his reading, let me at first attempt to describe my experience of what went down during the first few days (Thursday and Friday) of the World Fantasy Convention. There were many panels and big-name, even venerable, authors of both fantasy and science fiction–as well as authors of horror and weird tales, and their editors, publishers, and even some literary agents.
I arrived late Thursday evening, but I was on time to attend three plays by Lord Dunsany. The tone of the these plays was British-mannered and satirical and included play where a thief gone to heaven strives to break the lock of the pearly gates–but finds only the stars of the firmament on the other side.
I was rooming at the convention with a celebrity, as I discovered, although to me he was just a normal guy I was able to connect with in order to share a room: Usman T. Malik is an author of weird fiction and very popular in Pakistan, the first from his country to win a Bram Stoker Award. His story “Resurrection Points” was published in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. II, which was one of the many books I bought at the convention.
Upon first entering the convention, we were handed canvas bags loaded with 4-5 free books. Already this was more books than I had anticipated bringing home, but then again, I had yet to learn the ways of World Fantasy. These books included an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of soon-to-be-released novel The Alchemist’s Council by Cynthia Masson, which I will strive to write a review for before its release date.
The funky thing about this book is that it was published by ECW Publications, to which I have a connection. Robert Lecker, who was my professor throughout several classes on Canadian literature at McGill and for whom I am now employed as a research assistant, was an ex-editor at ECW when it was a magazine called Essays in Canadian Writing. Nowadays, although they kept the copyrighted acronym, the publishers changed the meaning of ECW to Entertainment Culture Writing and are now publishing fantasy and science fiction, among other genres including non-fiction and literary fiction. While I knew Lecker had been with ECW, I was not aware they were publishing in my genre and I was quite surprised to see them at Saratoga!
Thursday night I chilled at the Canadian SF party, listening to David Hartwell, editor of Tor’s Years Best anthologies, talk informally about how a lot of authors nowadays are being taught how to write publishable material, but rare is the writer who can write with voice and rise to greatness. Guy Kay was circulating about the room as I listened, but I missed my chance to speak with him right then. The next day, Friday, I had a better opportunity to do this.
Friday, I attended two panels before walking into Guy Kay’s reading and learning the long-kept secret of the subject of his latest novel.
One of these panels was “Ur-Fantasies: It all Started With…” and it was composed of Tod McCoy, a Seattle-area small press publisher, Roderick Killheffer, a reviewer and publisher for 25 years, Michael Dirda, a reviewer for the New York Review of Books and who was a medievalist in grad school, Rosemary Claire Smith, who was written for Analog using her experience as an archaeologist, and Barbara Chepaitis, a novelist and the panel’s moderator. What were the first, original fantasy texts? Do they stretch back to The Epic of Gilgamesh or even earlier? Michael Dirda talked about his discovery of the Icelandic sagas as a sort of Ur-fantasy; he called them and I paraphrase, “spaghetti westerns on ice.” Barbara Chepaitis called Scheherazade’s storytelling in The Arabian Nights “the first civil disobedience” since Scheherazade’s tales, designed to always end on a hook, keep interesting the king, thus delaying his plan to execute her in order to ensure her marital fidelity. Telling stories, she saves the kingdom from the murderous rampage of the king, who has already killed hundreds of previous wives. Chepaitis also provocatively mentioned the Iroquois Peacemaker’s Epic, which recounts the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy by chief Hiawatha, as a counterpoint to fantasy epics that tend to constantly revolve around warfare.
“Scale in Epic Fantasy–Tensions between the Epic and the Intimate” involved Chris Gerwel, Ilana C. Meyer, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Glen Cook, with Joshua Palmatier as moderator. How can one write an epic fantasy that also treats intimate moments of human relationships? How do you balance character interaction with the wider lens of a Risk board of military conquests? The market expectation, Palmatier opened, is for vast, sprawling epics. But readers relate to more intimate moments. Striking this balance, I must note, is something Guy Gavriel Kay is excellent in doing.
A good example of pace and scale failing was the example of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films, the panel proposed: Tolkien’s story is intensely focused on Bilbo’s psychology and relationship with the dwarves, while Jackson erred in making the 3-part film too epic in scope. Glen Cook told us that he knows pace more intuitively and that it is his habit to write his entire novel by hand, then type it on a computer and go through 2-3 drafts in that way. Ilana C. Meyer suggested the helpful screenwriter’s trick for writing any scene: “in late, out early.” Chris Girwell suggested that first person voice is an excellent way of filtering a wider, epic world through a single character’s perspective. The panel also seemed to agree that multiple third-person POVS can be useful for presenting the perspectives of diverse people positioned in all walks of life, enabling an author to present a wider sense of events than a single perspective can.
Following this panel, I made a dash to catch the beginning of Guy Gavriel Kay’s reading. The following is a paraphrase of the story Guy Kay told us.
The story behind the creation of Children of the Earth and Sky began eight or nine years ago when Kay was touring Croatia with an editor friend while heading for a librarian conference. They were making for the coast and the editor suggested he write about the Uskoks. Kay explained how upon hearing the name, he promptly asked his editor, “What?” in a “suave and urbane fashion,” he assured us. But he really had never yet heard of this culture of Dalmatian coastal pirates operative during the Renaissance. These Uskoks raided the borderlands of the Ottoman, Venetian and Holy Roman Empires in the Adriatic Sea. They regarded themselves as heroes, “warriors of the border.”
What this growing interest in the Uskoks produced is a novel set in the generation following the fall of Sarantium, which in terms of Kay’s ‘quarter-turn of the fantastic’ world-building corresponds to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Which means we have a novel set in the Renaissance that contains a significant section set in a city state evocative of Venice, with other locales to be revealed in the Spring.
I was slightly disappointed that Kay wasn’t turning towards North America for his inspiration this time around, which was my grand theory, but I felt a growing excitement for his new concept. The cover, which contains an ocean, a backdrop of a map, and a fleur-de-lys, along with a title evocative of Plains Indian mythology, suggested a novel set in New France, however inconsistent that would be with the Plains Indians. Kay had employed Plains culture in Fionavar Tapestry. My theory may have been a long shot in retrospect, but it’s easy to get excited about the actual concept Kay has now chosen: pirates!
Emphatically–and this is interesting in relation to the earlier panel on scale in epic fantasy–Kay describes his new novel as not being about kings, emperors, and courtiers, but about people who are powerless, unimportant. Children of the Earth and Sky revolves around five protagonists from various milieus who struggle to cope with what history sends their way. Illuminating the lives of secondary characters is something Kay has almost always been interested in and which truly showed itself in his two latest Chinese novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. However, Children of the Earth and Sky will be different in how it focuses on unimportant and disempowered characters.
I heard Kay read the tense opening scene of one of these characters’ stories. This involved a painter who produces a scandalous portrait of a countessa and lives to regret it. You could feel Kay’s strong love of art history expressed in how he weaved sexual tension into the drama of a artist’s struggle, providing insight into the secret behind this painter’s work, a canvas that depicts a woman’s knowing smile. Leonardo Da Vinci he is not, however: he soon finds himself in hot water. The dramatic pauses and practiced pacing of Kay’s reading combined to create a highly professional performance that promised only good things to come with the Spring release.
The epigraphs to the new novel are borrowed from poem No. XXX in Look, Stranger! by W.H. Auden (“We swayed forward on the dangerous flood of history…”) and from the poem “Parable” by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Glück.
I, for one, am going to try to apply to Penguin for an ARC and be among the first to review it. If I am successful, I will write a review informed by my knowledge of Kay’s entire oeuvre, having previously written a 50-page Honours thesis devoted to his works. As such, you can trust it will be a well-informed review.
Next week look out for an account of the second half of my experience at the World Fantasy Convention, in which I interview Charles de Lint!
On CKUT (McGill Campus Radio) this week on Monday and at the launch for the Veg magazine yesterday, I read some magical poems I composed recently. One was inspired by Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Dee, the other was an elimination of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the last was a pantoum, a fabulously musical poetic form if there ever was one. I hope I did it justice.
I also told audiences about a certain poem called “Index” that has been published in the Veg. I wrote this poem in Notepad and tried to pun on and play with HTML format tags, in order to produce two texts in a single poem: one written directly by me, the other intended by me, but actually put together by a web browser. Click on the link below to view the .pdf:
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.
Two weeks ago, my seminar class on Michael Ondaatje got together to put on a fantastic presentation for Professor Robert Lecker. We were reading Ondaatje’s poem “Tin Roof” and instead of writing a four-page essay response, which we are supposed to do every week, Prof. Lecker told us to go do something as a group. Usually seminar students see each other in class, exchange pleasantries and ideas, and then go their separate ways without really learning about each other. The challenge was to buck the trend and surprise the prof with something we’d all organized.
We ended up agreeing to perform a tableaux, set in a bar, where we would each say a monologue that would be our existential response to the poem. We each chose a couple of lines from “Tin Roof” that inspired us. After we had written the poems/monologues over the weekend, we met on Monday to order them and come up with a strategy to put on the presentation. Various people brought in curtain drapes, candles, wine glasses, beer, wine, and whiskey. Then on the day of, we arranged the classroom into the bar setting and presented ourselves to Prof. Lecker, our audience of one, who we decked out in a Hawaiian lei.
Ondaatje wrote “Tin Roof” after suffering a divorce and period of silence in his writing career. He retreated to fellow poet Phyllis Webb’s cabin in Hawaii, the location where his confessional poem is set. The poem confronts despair and the violence of the poet’s existential anxieties, as he drowns in self-doubt and self-questioning, trying to seek a new foundation for his writing. The poem begins with the poet’s quest for “the solution” and ends with his realization,
I wanted poetry to be walnuts
in their green cases
but now it is the sea
and we let it drown us,
and we fly to it released
by giant catapults
of pain loneliness deceit and vanity.
The following is my personal monologue. I borrow lines from “Tin Roof” and some from other poems, such as “‘The gate in his head.'” I focus on the image of the gecko that the speaker of “Tin Roof” finds on his glass window–an image of voyeurism, the threshold between public and private lives, and a objective correlative that Ondaatje uses with some irony to critique the modernist value of impersonality.
I loved the fantastical image of this gecko turning invisible and how the gecko might have become a ghost briefly in the “Tin Roof.” Since large part of his work concerns the blurring of barriers between fiction and fact, Ondaatje is a writer who should be of interest to those intrigued by historical fantasties. I hope to include future posts about Michael Ondaatje as this seminar continues.
Prof. Lecker, who has these kinds of connections, has said he will present Ondaatje’s assistant with a copy of our monologues–which means with any luck, Ondaatje will read them himself and maybe even write back. We’ll see…
The following is an excerpt from the presentation I made earlier this week for my seminar on (Post)Colonial Geographies with Professor Sandeep Banerjee at McGill University.
The young protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s children’s fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories asks his father Rashid Khalifa, a great storyteller better known as the Shah of Blah, or the Ocean of Notions,“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22) Upon being asked this question Rashid falls silent and finds “he had run out of stories to tell” (22).
So begins Haroun’s great quest to restore his father’s gift for storytelling, a journey that will take him all the way to the Sea of Stories, which is being poisoned by a dark lord named Khattam-Shud, “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself” (79). On the way, Haroun meets an array of quirky characters who become his allies, including Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe bird (who don’t tolerate Ifs or Buts!). Haroun flies to Kahani, an invisible moon that shadows the visible one. There he travels the Sea of Stories to Gup City, capital of a kingdom of story-loving blabbermouths on Kahani who are at war against the Chupwalas, or “quiet fellows” (215), led by Khattam-Shud. He must help the kingdom rescue the princess Batcheat from the dark side of the planet, where the Chupwalas are poisoning the Streams of Story.
The Sea of Stories is a representation of intertextuality and the war between Gups and Chups is a battle over that initial question: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22). While the Chups are represented as bureaucratic functionaries interested in utility instead of fables, the Gups are defenders of the Sea. In TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute writes an entry devoted exclusively to the idea of an Ocean of Story. Somadeva, a Kashmiri poet, collected various stories in the eleventh century in the Katha Sarit Sagara—“a kind of encyclopedia of story types” (704). The English translation by Norman Penzer is the ten-volume anthology The Ocean of Story (1924-8). Like The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Story influenced Rushdie. Clute takes the notion of the “Ocean of Story” to refer “to the current critical understanding that almost every traditional STORY exists in multiple versions; that it is exceedingly difficult to sort these versions into chaste stemmata” (704). Stories interpenetrate each other in patterns that defy linearity. Rushdie describes this effectively in his description of the Sea of the Streams of Story:
“it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. […] the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves […] It was not dead but alive” (72).
The Sea is an intertextual body of water. However, when the Chups, who disbelieve in the utility of Story, poison the Sea, these Streams of Stories, about rescued princesses, for example, become scrambled and filled with horrors, until they are meaningless. Haroun’s mission is to stop the poison and let the Sea replenish itself.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories opens in Rashid and Haroun’s home in the Valley of K, in a “sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name” (15). Rashid mentions that the Valley of K used to be called “Kosh-Mar,” which is from the language of “Franj, which is no longer spoken in these parts” (40). A cauchemar in French is a nightmare, but it also sounds like câche-mer, or “the place that hides a Sea” (40). This nightmare-country is full of “sadness factories” and “ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts,” a magical image of an unevenly developed social reality. Mr. Sengupta, who is a clerk working for the City Corporation, “hated stories and storytellers” even though Rashid has a use in society: “the politicos needed Rashid to help them win the people’s votes” because he gains the people’s confidence by admitting “everything he told them was completely untrue” (20). As far as Rashid is concerned, the falseness of stories is what makes them useful.
Trouble starts, however, when Mr. Sengupta runs off with Rashid’s wife Soraya, spurring the initial question asked by Haroun. The rest of this book review essay is an inquiry into this question: what use are false stories? Rushdie intimately connects the prospect of storytelling and art to the Khalifas’ desire for their home town’s improvement, suggesting that art may indeed have a significant use—inspiring social change.
First, thought, I would like to speak more particularly about one intertext in particular that is involved in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun meets two talking and singing guppy fish in the Sea. Their names are Goopy and Bagha, a male and a female fish, but their names are taken from the male protagonists of Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). This Bengali film is furthermore based on a short story written by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray, who participated in a Bengali cultural renaissance, according to Wikipedia.
The film explores the redemptive and magical power of art. The film begins with Gopinath, seen as eccentric in his village for his love of the tanpura and his avoidance of hand labour, being exiled by the local king. On the road he meets Bagha, a drummer, and they both adopt the title ‘Bayen,’ meaning musician. Encountering a tiger in the forest, they are saved by a band of ghosts, who then grant them three boons: clothing and food, the ability to travel, and the ability to entertain. Goopy and Bagha gain the favour of the King of Shundi, whose peasant population is stricken dumb by an epidemic, similar to how the Chupwalas are speechless in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Using magic to subvert the Empire of Halla’s attempt to invade Shundi, Goopy and Bagha capture the King of Halla, who is the good King’s long lost brother. Soon after the people of Shundi have their speech restored, thanks to a magic potion. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as in Goopy Gyne Bagha Bynne, the power of art—storytelling and music—is seen as highly redemptive, inspiring social change and peace.
John Clute makes the connection between Story and music in works of fantasy more explicit:
“In modern fantasy, when they are performing their task, protagonists or COMPANIONS who are musicians […] tend to become LIMINAL BEINGS, and articulate in memorable form the relationship between different levels of being in the world. They put into a form […] some version of the essential STORY being enacted, which may be memorized, or followed, or obeyed” (673).
Goopy and Bagha embody this role in the film. They mediate the social relations between the lower classes and the upper classes as well as between the Kingdoms of Shundi and Halla. Furthermore each of their actions move the story towards the fairy-tale ending that culminates in their royal marriages to the daughters of the Kings of Shundi and Halla. This happy ending represents the healing of the brokenness of the land and alludes to the potential founding of a utopia in the new union between the kingdoms.
Yet what useis Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a story that is not even true? What useis Haroun and the Sea of Stories? What useare the ageless fairy tales that lay behind these modern forms? To the literary scholar, it is useful to consider how such “essential” stories are in fact mediating the historical moment and the social relations that produced them (Clute 673). But literary scholars are not the typical audience of such books. How could there be a social benefit from these stories, which do not even offer accurate, realist representations of social reality? Is magical realism and fantasy a mystification, a distraction?
The question I would like to direct our attention to can be whittled down to the following: do Ray and Rusdie affirm the possibility that immaterial labour, which is what storytelling arguably is, can bring about a utopia? Do the stories themselves have any agency, or is the potential for social revolution limited to the labours of the artist?
Walter Benjamin in “The Author as Producer” invites us to consider the author’s position is society rather than, say, the attitude of the artist or his/her text towards the relations of production, which are defined by capitalism and comodification (222). The movie and the children’s novel are part of a real social system. Furthermore, they are disseminating a representation of a pair of musicians and an old storyteller who must survive within the social milieu of their own fictional society. Benjamin argues that a revolutionary writer is in effect counterrevolutionary if he or she has a mere attitude of solidarity with the proletariat, but not in terms of his or her position as a producer (226). Though the author may belong to a higher, privileged class by virtue of education, he/she can still use this education to help the working class.
Rushdie’s position within society as an intellectual embedded in the capitalist system of the book market seems to be at odds with the theme of social restoration in his novel. However, perhaps Rushdie has done as much as he can do while still embedded in the system of capitalism. At any rate, it seems rather clear that capitalism helps in the dissemination of Haroun and the Sea of Stories and the in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne‘s wide distribution. The relationship between artist and capitalism is not necessarily limited to the notion of ‘selling out.’
Frederic Jameson is a historical materialist theorist of utopia and science fiction. One of his theories, which he expresses in “The Politics of Utopia,” is that representations of utopia mediate the current social structure of the society that produces that representation. This simply means that when you read a utopia–for example, the society in Divergent–it says more about the society that imagined the utopia than it does about the possibility of actually realizing it.
Looking at Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I speculate that it is partly Rushdie’s reaction against the fatwa uttered against him by Ayatollah Khomeni for his writing of The Satanic Verses, which he published just before Haroun. Are we talking about a utopian society more accepting of fable, dreams, and the value of untruth? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, on the other hand, might be a comment on the utopian horizon India imagined for itself at the beginning of the rise of its national film industry, which is nowadays in competition with Hollywood.
Both Rushdie’s book and Ray’s film are works that celebrate culture and imagine the greatest possible society will arise in a world that tolerates, sponsors, and embraces the arts and all that art represents. But in the unequal distribution of power in the global market and between the classes of society, can cultural utopia–not the existence of one but the existence of a representation of one, which might be all that is possible with the concept of utopia–change our lived, socio-economic reality?
I highly doubt that it can do so on its own. But by inspiring people to be agents of change, I think these authors are trying to suggest that it can.