National Treasure #93: Michael Ondaatje

Philip Michael Ondaatje came to Canada at age 19 from Sri Lanka via England, and has become one of our most renowned living writers, working in poetry, fiction, autobiography, and film.

He is, perhaps, most famous for his novel, The English Patient (see the NY Times review here), which won the Booker Prize, the Canada Australia Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. The 1996 movie adaptation won nine Academy Awards including one for best film at the 69th Academy Awards.

Backward into memory, forward into loss and desire, “The English Patient” searches for answers that will answer nothing. This poetic, evocative film version of the famous novel by Michael Ondaatje circles down through layers of mystery until all of the puzzles in the story have been solved, and only the great wound of a doomed love remains. It is the kind of movie you can see twice–first for the questions, the second time for the answers. – Review by Roger Ebert

Now 73, Ondaatje is a companion of the Order of Canada and recipient of Sri Lanka’s highest award for foreign nationals. A new species of spider, discovered in Sri Lanka, was named for him.


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2 Responses to National Treasure #93: Michael Ondaatje

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    I didn’t respond earlier, because I wasn’t sure that I had anything to say. But it occurs to me that Ondaaje is one of quite a few renowned authors who were not born and bred in unilingual English nations — England, Canada, the U.S…. I remember, in the mid-1960s, listening to a bunch of speeches at a UN summit of some kind. The standout speech was Nehru’s: superbly crafted, organized, expressed. It made the native-English speakers sound awkward, bordering on illiterate. And I wonder if one of the overlooked virtues of the late British Empire was inculcating a skill with the language that the rest of us, who think we speak it naturally, have lost. (That’s not defending the British Empire as a whole — it certainly had its downsides — just one aspect of it.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Language skills might also be just the product of an upper-class education (whether acquired by scholarship kids or by wealthy kids): I have no American or Canadian elites in my acquaintance to make the comparison. I was in high school with an Australian immigrant who knew rules in English that the rest of us had never heard of. His father was a university professor, but I don’t know where they fit on the socio-economic scale. There can be a lot of difference between relatively high earnings and generations of family wealth. In any case, as someone says, nothing is all good or all bad. We don’t need to approve of colonialism in its entirety to appreciate the communication (and thinking, mayhap) skills that were a part of their educational culture.

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