Michael Ondaatje‘s words resonate for me in ways unlike any other living English language writer. In my perfect world daydream, I am always accompanied by Ondaatje, like a translator or a tour guide for the world’s many mysteries. His vision and his use of words is simply unrivaled. The Cinnamon Peeler is no exception!
In Ondaatje’s poetry as in his prose — even in his unrehearsed, spontaneous conversation — music, meaning and perception are inextricably intertwined. He speaks as a chorus with layers of voices, layers of stories, harmonizing and enveloping the reader, the listener. I can imagine no finer companion for a walk in the woods, a long train trip through a snowstorm or a tin of tawny port by a popping campfire!
I happened to meet Michael Ondaatje about fifteen or sixteen years ago in New York City. Accident. An embarrassing accident, in fact. I’d been invited to “crash” a filming of Literati in the Playbill Suite at the Algonquin Hotel. I was fresh out of college, and I was trying to decide whether to follow my undergraduate studies in Spanish and Latin American literature with a doctorate. Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman was being interviewed on Literati, and I’d convinced World Affairs Executive Producer Larry Shapiro to let me ask him some questions in the green room after filming. I’d studied in Santiago, Chile while Patricio Aylwin was reinventing Chilean democracy, and I’d read (and/or seen performed) everything Dorfman had written up until that point. I was certain he could advise me on my studies…
Today I remember virtually nothing about my conversation with Dorfman. But while sitting in the green room, waiting and rehearsing my questions, I chatted with some of the crew who were setting up for the next filming session. A bearded fellow sitting next to me asked why I wanted to speak with Dorfman, and then chatted lightheartedly about Literati and his interview. His interview? Yes, it turned out he was being interviewed next. He introduced himself as Michael Ondaatje. I’d never heard of him. He talked about working with Anthony Minghella on a film adaptation of a novel he’d written called The English Patient. Unfortunately my mind was so focused on Dorfman that I mostly enjoyed the magic of Ondaatje’s voice. I recall telling my girlfriend later that I would have been happy to have him read me the phone book.
A couple of years later I would see the film and remember my conversation with Ondaatje. The film was spellbinding. I watched it twice. And then I went out and bought the novel. And read it twice. And then I bought and read In The Skin of the Lion. Twice. And so on until I’d read all of his fiction, nonfiction and poetry. My appetite has endured through Anil’s Ghost andDivisadero and I’m looking forward to The Cat’s Table which will be published this autumn.
A warm thank you to Michelle Rummel (@shellartistree) for bringing this video to my attention. And thank you to Tom O’Bedlam who’s YouTube channel SpokenVerse offers up many more delicacies if you’re interested. And thank you also to Roger Ebert who chronicles the bizarre backstory for this video.
If you would prefer, you can also watch Michael Ondaatje reading The Cinnamon Peeler.
- On a Mystery Voyage with Michael Ondaatje (nybooks.com)
- Michael Ondaatje: “The Cat’s Table.” (newyorker.com)
- Russell Banks, Anne Enright highlight Festival of Authors(theglobeandmail.com)