The author talks about the artful work of survival and the enjoyable challenge of working with words.
Author Christopher Ondaatje talks about his latest book, The Last Colonial
Sir Christopher Ondaatje arrived in Canada with only a few dollars in his pocket, but a wealth of talent at his fingertips and courage in his heart. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1933, into an illustrious family who managed a tea estate, he was sent to England at the age of 13 where he recalls his school days.
"I was this thin, sallow, frightened figure with a shock of black hair," he says. "If you wanted to survive you either sank or swam."
He proved his flair for survival at an early age, for when his family lost their fortune with the collapse of the colonial empire, Ondaatje had to start from scratch, and chose to do so in Canada.
His compelling new book, The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures & Stories from a Vanishing World, beautifully illustrated throughout by Ana Maria Pacheco, captures a wealth of experience from his eclectic life and literature and offers an immensely evocative snapshot of the colonial era in a series of haunting stories and vignettes.
Early on in the book, there is an epiphanic moment: it is Christmas 1958, deep drifts of snow lie over Montreal, where Ondaatje had moved from Toronto after giving up his stockbroking job.
"For the first time I was totally alone," he writes. "I knew then that whatever I would do in my life I would have to do for myself."
He went on to do an exhilarating array of things, from finance to fiction, experiences that enrich The Last Colonial.
Ondaatje muses on the different forms of knowledge he has drawn on: from formal education (he fondly recalls the teachers who inspired in him a love of literature) to the lessons that life teaches.
"The decisions are all yours: what are you going to do?" he asks. His is the stoic attitude of the true adventurer. "If you make a mistake, you pick yourself up and dust yourself off," he says.
After making a fortune in finance, he left to devote himself to a life exploring the world - and the world of words. Thus, the landscapes filling this book range from the Syrian desert to the summits of Kilimanjaro. A prolific author with a passion for journal-keeping, he has published 10 books, including the acclaimed biographies of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Sindh Revisited, and Journey to the Source of the Nile.
"I figured that when I die, no one will be able to tell these stories; I am the last of the breed of colonial," he says of the impetus behind capturing the peculiarities of the colonial era he experienced. "I literally saw the British Empire disappear from under my nose," he says, as the 200-year run of power ended in the 1940s, with India being granted independence in 1947 and Ceylon in 1948.
He notes the very different lives his grandchildren will have and makes acute observations on the rise of power in the East on our postcolonial world. A one-time member of the Olympic bobsled team, he writes that he was "conscious of being an immigrant" and speaks insightfully about identity.
While having a great wealth of experience, Ondaatje nevertheless retains an openness to learning: with refreshing honesty, he describes not only the twists and turns in the world's surface, but the great learning curves during the writing process.
"I had to learn all over again," he says about writing the deftly structured book that, in the end, is for him the most satisfying he has written - as well as a great pleasure to read.
The best advice he has been given was from an editor who asked: "'Why don't you write the way you talk because then I can edit it?' So I learnt to connect the way I speak with the way I write." Like Hemingway, he "honed and honed and honed". Yet, despite the effort that went into its construction, the book glides from place to place and time to time, transporting the reader to captivating worlds.
The photographs scattered throughout are pillars for the book, sparking off the imagination. They include haunting images of leopards, creatures that prowl throughout the pages as Ondaatje recounts journeys through Africa, hunting for the elusive creatures.
Safari, he points out, means "journey" - but as well as the literal journeys, also captured in these stories are intimate emotional and psychological journeys.
Ondaatje hails from a renowned family of writers: his brother is the novelist Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, who wrote part of that book in the Devon house where his elder brother now spends his weekends. Christopher Ondaatje speaks of how writing feels natural to him, yet also insightfully illuminates the challenges inherent in the process. "You live in this inkwell of frustration that you are bursting to get out of in some way or another," he says.
Now that he has "hacked" his way through the "jungles of finance", he is now hacking his way through words.
"It's like taking your skin off and bleeding on the page. It's how I really want to express myself; if you get a chance to do this stuff, don't screw up; you must go the extra yard and clean it up and put it down. These are not just stories; they are highly personal, emotional outpourings of myself. That's what I'm trying to do. They are expressions of myself." And indeed, there is a beguilingly raw, intense quality pervading the prose.
He speaks fascinatingly about his time in finance and is such a reservoir of knowledge that by the end of our conversation he has touched on not only a potted history of colonialism but also the history of paper and paper money in a "paper world". (He is the author of the book The Power of Paper, as well).
"It's going to be painful for six to eight years," he says, referring to the global economic crisis. "What is important is that we survive in an orderly fashion. You have to survive. It's very important that you have water and food. You have to be in a safe haven and be able to look after yourself when everything goes wrong. One thing I learnt when I was shoved around is learning to survive - everyone should learn to survive."
The book is filled with the perilous moments he has survived, encountering steep clifftops, hungry leopards and treacherous humans, but the adventurer and author reveals one fear: "Dying before your journal is published," he says. "You write it as if this is the last thing you're going to do."
Christopher Ondaatje will be discussing his writing and travels with Romesh Gunesekera at the DSC South Asian literature Festival on Friday at 6.30pm at the British Library in London. Tickets cost £7.50 (Dh43). Visit www.dscsouthasianlitfest.com for more information