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Ondaatje, Michael

sri lanka lives patient

(Canadian, 1943– )

Born in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje moved to Britain in 1953, and now lives in Canada. He is well known as a poet, and his fictional prose is intensely poetic. The English Patient (1992, joint Booker Prize winner) tells the story of the entanglement of four damaged lives in a crumbling Italian monastery as the Second World War comes to an end—the exhausted nurse, Hana; the maimed thief and spy, Caravaggio; the wary Sikh sapper, Kip. Each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless burn victim who lies dying in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue gradually unfold. Most of these memories are of Egypt just before the start of the war. Ondaatje captures the atmosphere of both the Egyptian desert and the bombed Italian monastery with great vividness. Coming Through Slaughter (1976) is based on the life of cornet player Buddy Bolden, legendary jazz pioneer of early twentieth-century New Orleans. The novel takes the form of a documentary re-creation of Bolden's life, expressed through a collage of fragmented memoirs. In the Skin of a Lion (1987) is the story of Patrick Lewis who arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns a living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunnelling beneath Lake Ontario. Patrick's life intersects with the lives of characters who reappear in The English Patient. The novel vividly captures the Canadian wilderness, and explores the boundaries between myth and fact. With Anil's Ghost (2000), Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka, but a Sri Lanka now torn apart by civil war. Forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera has been sent by a human rights organization to investigate murder campaigns in Sri Lanka, but meets with numerous obstacles, both official and emotional. Favourite Ondaatje themes are here—memory and how we use it, human passions set against often harsh historical backdrops—and as ever the writing is exquisite.

Gita Mehta, J. G. Farrell, Kazuo Ishiguro. See CANADA, HISTORICAL  DJ

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