The Last Colonial, By Christopher Ondaatje


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Technique is what you fall back on when you run out of inspiration," said Rudolf Nureyev, a quotation used by Christopher Ondaatje as a chapter epigraph in this curiously exhilarating collection of travelling tales. They offer an evocative portrait of the late-colonial era, interwoven with beautiful illustrations by Ana Maria Pacheco. It's a "mosaic of essays, resembling non-fiction short stories", as Michael Holroyd says in the introduction. But Ondaatje considers not only literary but life technique with a question at the book's core: how best ought we to live?

Over a highly eclectic career, Ondaatje's ten books range from acclaimed biographies of Sir Richard Burton to a study of paper. But it is in this latest work that we come to know the author best. Ondaatje, elder brother of novelist Michael, was a "sallow, thin, frightened thirteen-year-old" when he was despatched from the "carefree wilderness" of life on his father's tea plantation in the Kandywan foothills of Ceylon to a boarding school in the West Country of England – uncertain of where he was and why he had come. He recalls in vivid detail the painful experience of senior boys whipping juniors' bottoms with toothbrushes dangling from string. Two things saved him: cricket and English literature.

Ondaatje began his globe-trotting when his education ended abruptly when his family lost their fortune and became destitute during Ceylon's independence. He arrived in Canada with only a few dollars in his pocket, before going on to make a fortune as a business man.

Ondaatje's adventures take him as far afield as Mount Kilimanjaro, the Syrian desert, and back to Exmoor, where he currently lives and writes. Leopards prowl throughout the pages as he shares his lifelong pursuit of the elusive creatures. The juxtaposition of animal and human allows insight into what it means to be human at all, with the kinds of nostalgia and yearning peculiar to mankind. This is a collection in which the whole is greater than the individual parts. Not only the geographical landscapes intrigue, but the landscapes of the human mind and heart which Ondaatje charts in moving detail.