Proving his literary worth: The return of the adventurer

The writing career of Sir Christopher Ondaatje – financier, philanthropist and Olympic gold medallist – has been overshadowed by the success of his brother Michael. Now he is forging his own path to literary acclaim

Emily Dugan@emilydugan
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:16

"It's taken me a long time, more than 20 years, to get the name in literature that I have always craved, but I think I'm finally there," says Sir Christopher Ondaatje. The multi-millionaire philanthropist and financier has written an impressive stack of books, but he is still touchingly desperate to prove his literary worth. And, more importantly, to step out of the shadow of his younger, more successful, brother.

An international man of mystery, a financier and adventurer who has homes in Canada and London, he has even taken Olympic gold – as a member of the 1964 Canadian bobsleigh team – but what he wants to be remembered for is his writing.

Speaking to The IoS from the high-ceilinged splendour of his Chelsea flat, the 76-year-old explained: "It's very hard to step back into the world of letters after having been successful in the world of finance because when you start writing you're known as the financier."

Ondaatje's autobiographical book, The Man-Eater of Punanai, is being published for the first time in the UK this week.

For years the literary success of his brother Michael, who wrote the critically acclaimed The English Patient, has been a source of considerable envy. "I felt incredible jealousy [of Michael], mainly because he was doing things that I would like to have done", Sir Christopher said.

So, when he began his writing career it is perhaps not surprising that his successful sibling was the last person he turned to. "Oh no, I didn't talk to Michael about the book: we Ondaatjes are quite a strange family. We hold our cards very close to our chests. We don't share anything; particularly about ideas, because we do our own books and do things in our own ways, but I've always written and I've always wanted to write."

Born in 1933 to a wealthy Dutch colonial family in what was then Ceylon, Ondaatje came to London with his mother in 1952 under the cloud of his father's bankruptcy, alcoholism and divorce. His latest book is an account of his first return to Sri Lanka in the Eighties, ostensibly in search of his favourite animal – the leopard – but really to seek out memories of his father, whose sudden death in obscurity from a head injury sustained while drunk had been a source of sadness and shame.

"I saw my first leopard in 1946 when I was with my father in the Yala game sanctuary in what was then Ceylon, so I've always associated my first sighting of a leopard with my father and Ceylon. The book was about going back and picking up the pieces and the ghosts of my father and his tyranny and dealing with the sadness of it all. It was cleansing and it was hard to write. There was blood on my skin because I told the truth about how I felt."

Ondaatje, who spent 30 years building a vast financial empire in Canada before selling everything and setting himself up as a writer and philanthropist in London, said the decision to return to Sri Lanka for the book was a hard one.

"In 1988 I plucked up enough courage to go back and pick up the pieces. By now I was fairly successful and a relatively big-name man and thought it was finally time to go, because for a long while I didn't go back because of shame."

But after years of refining himself as a literary man, he soon became heavily involved in politics, making headlines after defecting from the Conservatives in 2001 and donating more than £1.6m to the Labour Party. But now he has abandoned politics altogether. "I never want to get involved in politics ever again," he barks, glowering and kicking a heavy metal travel trunk piled high with glossy adventure books. "I will not back either party now; I've got other things I want to do in my life."

It was trying to persuade the Government to give tax breaks to the art world that finally left him disillusioned with political life. "It was frustrating in the extreme. I was on a committee with Sir Nicholas Goodison trying to get the Government to give tax breaks to donors and the arts world and it came to nothing. It was a failure and one of the most frustrating things in my life. I was hitting my head against a brick wall."

It was not these frustrations that led him to abandon donations to Labour, however, but the departure of Tony Blair. "The situation has changed. I backed Tony Blair because Blair was not a left-wing politician, whereas all the current Labour politicians are. It was a very different scenario and he was a very different person to Gordon Brown."

But after dabbling in politics he is now returning to his first love: adventure. This weekend he began yet another expedition – to Syria in search of the female explorers of Britain's colonial past – and he has no intention of making it his last. "I dropped my entire life in finance to follow in the footsteps of explorers. This is the life I want."

The Man-Eater of Punanai by Christopher Ondaatje is published by Rare Books & Berry on Thursday, 8 October (£9.95)

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