Christopher Ondaatje has been trying to outdo his brother Michael in the author and novelist department for a very long time now, though without much success. However, recently, the former went on overdrive and launched something of a fusillade of a perhaps thinly veiled get back campaign at his brother Michael at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia.
Christopher said, delivering a lecture at Macquarie, that his book Man Eater of Punani (which is little more than a coffee-table table offering), sold some 7000 copies at the beginning, and has sold thousands now after a reprint. He may have mentioned that Hustler and Penthouse sales are in their tens of thousands as well.
Both Ondaatje brothers seem to remember that while in the process of growing up in Sri Lanka, they were abandoned as children. Michael wrote the book Cat’s Table which is supposed to be based on his own voyage as a child from Colombo port to London. Christopher gives you virtually the same offering, albeit with far less creativity and originality than Michael can muster.
He says that the first Ondaatjes came to Sri Lanka many centuries ago, and that Ondaatje burial grounds bear testimony to the fact that his ancestors were laid to rest there from the 17th century onwards.
What Ondaatje does offer at Macquarie however, is the screening of a travel advertisement for Sri Lanka, and that is a far cry from producing a Booker prize winning work of fiction as his brother did. He says that on his sojourn to Yala this time around in Sri Lanka, he was always in pursuit of the Black Leopard as the animal signified the unattainable. May be he should put the stamp of one of those creatures upon the remains of his relationship with his brother and be done with it, as, try as he might, the literary accomplishments of his brother are to him, unattainable.
During the Macquarie screening, he takes the viewer on what he sees as a personal journey across the island, because in his memory the last time he met his father was when this hat-loving gentleman who loved to dress up as an Englishman, took him on a trip around Sri Lanka including a bushman’s visit to Yala sanctuary, the place where Ondaatje says he inculcated his fascination for leopards.
It seems that he endured a love-hate relationship with his father which he has not got over as yet. He says that the old man was given to mood swings and there were times when things fell apart, and as a family the Ondaatjes were dysfunctional. Perhaps, this entrepreneur’s brooding and rather trenchant manner can be traced back to this insecure upbringing of his.
The guy is an accomplished businessman of course, and he claims he identifies with the predators in the wilds because he was one of them in the business world, as he did not want to become prey and be eaten up in the concrete jungles of Canada. It is a matter of fact that sometimes some of these returning gentleman who are haunted by a past that they are nostalgic over, are overburdened by a sense of history. They want to build buildings in the old country, or purchase important pieces of real estate etc. and claim some sort of physical ownership of a part of their lives that they can never quite get over. Chris Ondaatje, and come to think of it, his more famous brother Michael, seems to be in that same mould.
Michael Ondaatje never bought any real estate of note back in Sri Lanka, however, and when he had his own tryst with his past and visited Sri Lanka to make peace with the old country, he put down his prize money from wining the Booker, to creating an award for creative writers. No harm in that, and it sure beats purchasing the location for one of Colombo’s most venerated clubs artists and thespians used to frequent, to house a knife collection. Never mind that…
Talking about the Booker, even as I write this, the Man Booker shortlist is to be announced and there is much speculation as to who would be in the final five. It is quite alarming to know that somebody writing for the British Guardian had predicted that all five shortlist entries would be from the United States, and this is just the second year since the prize was opened to entries from the US.
Speaking about his father during his Macquarie screening, Christopher Ondaatje recalls that on one occasion the family was taken to watch the Kandy perehera, and while the elephants were in procession, his father who had thrown a tantrum after a war of words with his mother, promptly prostrated himself before the lead elephant. Perhaps the part that he left out in his talk was about how his father was then marched off to the nearest police station, which I imagine he would have been.
Be that as it may, talking about the Booker, it is curious why Michael Ondaatje who wrote Running in the Family, and then based his more recent novel Cat’s Table on his voyage from Colombo to London, did not base any novel upon this incident of paternal petulance before the pachyderm. Perhaps there is still time and he could beat those guys south of the border for a second Booker if he made an effort writing on the subject of a father who seemed to have set a bad example, to the elephants even .
It’s better to be writing authentically about your father’s ghost — that is Christopher’s term, not mine — than about the ghost of some imaginary character by the name of Anil.