Jane Ridley

The call of the wild | 27 August 2011

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.

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.

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.

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