Jaipur : The art of collage, memories and the multiplicity of voices inspire Sri Lanka-born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, the Man Booker prize winning author of “The English Patient” into story-telling.
“I am still somewhat influenced by collage, art, east and the west. An important piece of information about a character can make a connection. History is collage,” the 69-year-old novelist said about his craft at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival Friday.
‘The English Patient’, which was made into an Academy award winning movie in 1996 starring Ralph Fiennes, Kirstin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, William Dafoe and Colin Firth, came about by a fragment of a story that Ondataaje heard perchance.
“The parents of one of my friends who worked in Egypt told me about a man called Amashe. It was a small fragment of an image,” Ondaatje recalled.
He wove his 1992 war-time drama about a Hungarian count with burn injuries, a Canadian nurse, a Canadian-Italian thief and his Indian sapper closeted in an Italian villa at the end of World War II around this image.
“I do a lot research when I am writing, but quite lackadaisical research when I want to know something. It always helps – to create this odd mix of non-fiction, real place, real time, non-fictional landscape and important voice at the centre of it,” the novelist said.
Ondaatje said when he is alone in his office, he is surrounded by fictional characters all day.
There is a “thin line between fiction and non-fiction” which the writer made out decades ago, he said.
“Politically, I don’t believe that one can have one voice to the story but many voices,” Ondaatje said.
For Ondaatje, western and the eastern novels are distinct in their structures. “The western novel is organised and logical in chronological progression. There is safety in that,” he said. But as one who grew up in Sri Lanka, his novels have been about “profound truths and collages”.
The novelist was discussing his latest book, “The Cat’s Table” — a fictional journey of three boys, unescorted, on a ship from Colombo in Sri Lanka to England. They sit on a table far away from that of the captain’s and watch life pass by.
The author, as a boy of 11 had been on a similar journey aboard the liner ‘Oronsay’ from Sri Lanka to England alone for 21 days, he said.
He nicknamed a character resembling his own self ‘Mynah’ — short for Michael — in the book.
“It is a story of my generation, about a whole tribe of people. I was obsessed with how they would eventually land, where they would go to in England. I began my book with a very small fragment of an image,” Ondaatje said.
“I didn’t remember the journey very much. It was like being given an episode in life that could fan into a novel. I had to invent every character,” he said.