Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ondaatje, abridged

Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion got the ribbon-cutting treatment last week, getting enshrined next to the Bloor Viaduct, the book's central symbol:
No Toronto author has done a better job of breathing life into our landmarks than Michael Ondaatje. His iconic 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, tells of the lust and muscle that built Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. An immigrant himself, Mr. Ondaatje worked up his own sweat weaving fiction and truth as he imagined the back story of such landmarks as the Bloor Street Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant.

Yesterday Mr. Ondaatje returned to the scene of his masterpiece, in a little parkette on the east end of the bridge, to unveil the first plaque by Project Bookmark Canada. The brainchild of Toronto-area writer Miranda Hill, this project aims to post pieces of prose next to geographic features all over Canada, thus inspiring us to read our stories about our landscape.
I'll just pass over "no Toronto author has done a better job of breathing life into our landmarks than Michael Ondaatje" for now, but the bit about being an immigrant writer "who worked up his own sweat weaving fiction and truth" is just plain offensive. Does Kuitenbrouwer think Ondaatje showed up with nothing but a dream, a pen, and a steamer trunk full of memories? I must have skipped the chapter in Running in the Family where Ondaatje describes the years he spent living with twelve other guys in a dirty squat near Queen and Lansdowne, eating nothing but hamburger buns and Cheese Whiz, showering at the Y, and working for a shady contractor.

Yes, he toiled in fiction's sweatshop, stitching together the prose-garments that would clothe this city in myth. He drove our storytelling taxicab, politely ignoring our drunkenness or horniness and chatting the passing streets into the stuff of legend before dropping us off curbside at the doors of literature. He washed our fictional dishes, scraping off the symbolically rich leftovers and rinsing each plate until it gleamed with new literary light.

I also have to take some exception to this:

Mr. Ondaatje, now 66, looked great in a suit jacket and red wool scarf. He posed as Mayor David Miller snapped the inevitable Twitter photograph and bantered easily with the hundreds of fans who flocked to hear him speak and thrust tattered copies of novels for him to autograph. And he embraced the project, noting that we too seldom blow our own horn.

“I remember being told when I began to write that it was commercial suicide to set a thriller in Toronto or any Canadian city, as opposed to New York or Miami or Kiev. Even Delhi, they said, was better than ­Toronto!”
"A thriller." Hmm....*

* those of you who have read my novel can probably suss out my own feelings about ITSOAL.


Emily D said...

Did I miss the part where you attribute this silly-ass quote? Who the hell is Kittenbrewer [my sic]?

nathan said...

Ewps - forgot to include the link.

Fixed now. Sorry, Em.