‘If you don’t come to terms with the ghost of your father, it will never let you be your own man.’ Here Christopher Ondaatje (brother of novelist Michael) combines his voyage of filial discovery with another quest: to pursue his obsession with a story he heard at his father’s knee, of a man-eating leopard.
‘If you don’t come to terms with the ghost of your father, it will never let you be your own man.’ Here Christopher Ondaatje (brother of novelist Michael) combines his voyage of filial discovery with another quest: to pursue his obsession with a story he heard at his father’s knee, of a man-eating leopard. If the symbolism of this is not already smacking you between the eyes, consider also that this double narrative — which takes the form of a journal interspersed with memoirs — is set against a third unfolding context: that of a war-torn country where Tamil Tigers, like leopards, and memories, may lurk in every shadow. This is a book about going where it is dangerous to go (whether emotionally or physically), and being prepared to face what you may find there.
Born in 1934, Ondaatje was brought up in Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972). His mother was from a Dutch burgher family and his father’s family had been ‘associated with public service and private achievement’ on the island for three centuries. But their aspirations and values were English, and Ondaatje was duly sent to school in England, and subsequently lived most of his life in Canada. Whereas mother was always ‘outgoing, loving and attentive’, father was more of a powder-keg, a legendary (that proving a key term) drinker and gambler who lost the family fortune. The means by which Ondaatje is finally able to come to terms with his father’s memory (which would spoil the book to reveal here) may owe more to wish-fulfilment than anything, but is a satisfying conclusion, even if it suggests that sometimes we have to make peace with the unknowable by the only means we have.
The book’s other pleasures lie in the author’s preoccupation and fascination with the man-eater of Punanai, an exceptionally dangerous and audacious leopard which haunted a tiny village in Ceylon in the early 1920s. Over two years it killed and devoured at least 20 people before being eventually shot by an English tea-planter and sportsman, Captain Sheldon Agar, in 1924.
This is the perfect time of year to curl up by the fire and go on armchair safari, and we follow both Agar on the man-eater’s trail and Ondaatje as he hunts for leopards to shoot with nothing more offensive than a camera, assiduously collecting leopard stories as he goes. He tells in one place of the gallant little cow who, protecting her calf, repeatedly tossed and gored a leopard when it scratched its way through the thatched roof of her stable; and, in another, of a leopard which, in 1982 near Amparai, emboldened by its success in attacking first goats, then cattle, then village dogs, was frequently found prowling the maternity ward of the local hospital.
While the leopard reminds the author of human terrorists, it is human society that often seems to him, in comparison, truly ‘savage’. Ondaatje was an outstandingly successful businessman before turning his attention to writing and travel, and the occasional statements he makes on this subject resonate strongly with the intelligence, tenacity and tactical skill he admires in the leopard. ‘The trick of success is to be single-minded. You have to put all your ability and concentration into what you want to achieve.’ ‘Power isn’t a case of bossing people around. It’s a case of controlling the territory.’
This is an engaging and enjoyable read (enhanced by some astounding photographs) which attempts to fulfil several functions at once, yet one soon stops caring whether it keeps its promises, as the overall effect is rich and compelling. And although Ondaatje can be disarmingly candid about his feelings, one senses there is always a part of him concealed: like his father, the leopard, the Tamil Tiger, there (or not there?), just out of sight.
Appearances, we learn, can be deceptive. So take a tip from Ondaatje: don’t assume a yawning leopard is tired. It can mean it’s hungry.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 7, 2009Tags: Family, Memoir, Nature, Non-fiction