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Babel Series continues with Michael Ondaatje

There is no central unifying theme in the work of Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje.  His work resonates with a polyphony of voices, a collage work of perspectives.  He is less a self-appointed truth teller than a narrative anthropologist sifting through the boneyards of memory or a map maker searching for correlations between what our senses tell us and how we choose to project that information upon the world.

There are only a handful of contemporary authors who bring as compelling a mix of artful storytelling, historical nuance and keen awareness of both the richness and limitations of language to their work as Ondaatje, who visits Buffalo to read from and discuss his work in the Babel Series at 8 tonight in Asbury Hall at Babeville, 341 Delaware Ave. The subscription series has been sold out for months.

Ondaatje, who was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943, but emigrated with his mother to England, and later Canada -- where he became a Canadian citizen in 1962 -- is best known in the United States for his 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film by the English director Anthony Minghella in 1996. Minghella died unexpectedly this past March at age 54.

For those who haven't read it, Ondaatje's novel set in the Italian countryside during the closing months of World War II differs significantly from the Minghella film -- which, you'll recall, was the target of satire in a classic Seinfeld episode shortly after its release. The novel doesn't focus nearly so closely on the two parallel love stories (Almasy with Katharine Clifton and the Nurse Hana with the bomb defuser Kip), but rather on the lyrical qualities of loss, memory and space.  It's a beautifully written book and deeply moving in its poetics of trauma, but it's hardly a page-turner.

In Canada and much of the rest of the English-speaking world, Ondaatje is more widely recognized as the author of Coming Through Slaughter (1976), loosely based on the life of New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden; In the Skin of a Lion (1987), a novel that introduces several characters that continue on into The English Patient set among Toronto's working-class immigrant population in early 20th century; Anil's Ghost (2000), set in his war-torn native Sri Lanka; and last year's Divisadero, a meditation on broken families and divided family narratives.

As is the case with most Toronto-based writers, he is no stranger to the Buffalo area. Several times back in the late '70s and early '80s when he was considered primarily an avant garde Canadian poet (see his There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978), Ondaatje appeared in Robert Creeley's "Walking the Dog" series of readings and talks at the University at Buffalo. I was a graduate student at UB at the time.

Creeley was a strong supporter of Ondaatje's work, and his endorsements are still featured on the covers of all the Canadian's early works, including his groundbreaking The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970), a genre-stretching book of what was subsequently called "historiographic metafiction" comprised of poetry, prose and images incorporating quotations from and pastiche of, both historical and pop-culture sources of information about the late 19th century American outlaw William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.

--R.D. Pohl 

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