The Last Colonial Christopher Ondaatje

Thames & Hudson, pp.256, 19.95

Christopher Ondaatje is best known as a member of the great and the good and a generous patron of the arts, notably the National Portrait Gallery. The pieces collected in this book give glimpses of another, quite different life as a traveller and writer.

Ondaatje’s family were long-established Dutch tea planters in Ceylon. In 1947 Christopher was sent to Blundell’s School in the West Country, a ‘sallow, thin, frightened’ 13-year-old; transplanted from the ‘carefree wilderness life’ of his father’s tea plantation, he was lonely and bullied. He had been banished from the Garden of Eden. Independence for Ceylon came in 1948, and his father’s descent into alcoholism and debt followed soon after. He never saw his father again. Ondaatje survived, he claims, through reading the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Aged 22 he took the plunge and emigrated to Canada. He spent some time in Toronto as a hanger-on of a jazz band — as one of the stories implies, if he had been better at jazz, he might have drifted into that way of life. Then he broke out and moved to Montreal, arriving quite alone with only 20 dollars one frozen Christmas Eve — the subject of another story in the collection.

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Ondaatje made a fortune out of publishing, but he writes little here about his 30-year business career. His quest for the prelapsarian life on his father’s tea plantation gives one spur to these essays.

Ondaatje has published a book about his search for his father — The Man-Eater of Punami — and some of the Sri Lanka stories here are by-products of that project and of his book on Leonard Woolf in the Ceylon civil service before 1914. A recurrent theme of the Ceylon stories is sudden or violent death. There’s a haunting tale about a ghostly scream in the house on the island paradise where the 12-year-old Ondaatje spent his last summer with his parents. Several stories revolve around real-life murders or evil omens, reflecting the violence and civil war of post-independence Sri Lanka. For Ondaatje, the days of British rule represent a paradise which can never be regained.

Another recurring theme is leopards. There is a Sri Lankan myth that Kuveni, the banished wife of the first king of Sri Lanka, returned as a leopard to prey on the people. Man-eating leopards inspire terror in Sri Lanka, and Ondaatje tracks down old men who tell stories about them. In Africa, a continent which Ondaatje is insistently drawn to, the leopards are not mythical but real.

In his fifties, Ondaatje sold his business interests in Canada, moved to England and devoted himself to a career of literature, travel and adventure, as well as patronage of the arts. Aged 65 he thought nothing of leaping onto an aeroplane and enduring intense discomfort in search of a sighting of a rare black leopard in Kenya. He jumps onto aeroplanes a lot. On his quest for the true source of the Nile — the subject of another of his books — he lies in his tent listening to a leopard breathing outside all night. From his author photo, he seems even to look rather like a leopard. No wonder he was drawn to write a book about Ernest Hemingway and his engagement with the African continent.

Ondaatje is working with a form he calls the non-fiction short story, and he moves freely between autobiography and fiction. Some of the stories stretch credibility. I don’t believe his tale about the ghost in his West Country home. He reveals very little about his private life. But these essays, superbly illustrated by Ana Maria Pacheco, are a delightful holiday read.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Non-fiction, Short story, Travel, Travel writers