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Michael Ondaatje's 'Coming Through Slaughter'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3102 words Published: 1st May 2017

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Michael Ondaatje, the first Canadian writer to win the prestigious Booker Prize in 1992, is celebrated as a contemporary literary treasure. In his works he attempts a re-evaluation of history by focusing on relations between the margins and the centre, the personal and the public. As such his works readily lend themselves to post-modern and post-colonial approaches to literature. In addition, Ondaatje’s distinctive appeal is that of an experimental practitioner and stylish expert in creating sensuous and sensual effects. Ondaatje draws heavily from his personal experience of being at the intersection of cultures, which enables him to attempt a special review of reality. Born in Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, of Indian/Dutch ancestry, he went to school in England, and then moved to Canada. His multicultural roots and upbringing in multicultural society has provided him with a special insight into diverse positions and views. Acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost writers, Ondaatje’s artistry and aesthetics has influenced an entire generation of writers and readers. Although best known as a novelist, Ondaatje’s work also encompasses memoir, poetry, and film, and reveals a passion for defying conventional forms. From the memoir of his childhood, Running In The Family, to his Governor-General’s Award-winning book of poetry, There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning To Do (1979), to his classic novel, The English Patient (1992), Michael Ondaatje casts a spell over his readers. His works are characterized by a bleakly evocative narrative and minimalist dialogue, blending documentary and fictional accounts of real characters. The present paper attempts to trace and evaluate Ondaatje’s explorations of identity as retrieved from history and memory. The focus is on Coming Through Slaughter, in which Ondaatje recreates the forgotten story of Billy Bolden, transforming it with such ingenuity that it occupies the space between history and memory, reality and imagination. The novel explores the themes of alienation and infidelity that so often lead an individual to self-destruction, a typical element of the modern lifestyle.

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First published in 1976, the novel Coming Through Slaughter is a fictionalized version of the life of the New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Charles “Buddy” Bolden (September 6, 1877 – November 4, 1931) was an African American musician. He is regarded a key figure in the development of a New Orleans style of rag-time music which later came to be known as jazz. The novel covers the last months of Bolden’s sanity in 1907 when his music becomes more radical and his behavior more erratic. Ondaatje’s concern however is not as much with the actual life story of Bolden as with the world of the time, where, as he says, “There was no recorded history…History was slow…”(2,3).The novel portrays this historical figure in a way that draws on his actual life, but as Cynthia F. Wong succinctly points out, Ondaatje ” blurs the generic distinctions between poetry and prose, factual verisimilitude and fictional reconstruction” (289) in order to explore the novel’s central theme. The novel comprises of a series of events strung together as snap shots demanding from readers to imagine and retrieve the self of Bolden from them.

Ondaatje artistically and beautifully narrates the tale of the protagonist Buddy Bolden’s descent into his own hell. A blues musician, Bolden was unsurpassed in his time as his work influenced the music of several later generations. However in his time he struggled to transcend life’s miseries even as he frequently lapsed into despair, loneliness, and subsequently, madness. In this novel, Ondaatje touches the issue of infidelity with gossamer perfection and adds new dimensions and understanding to it. He raises pathos to such poetic heights that his genius matches with that of the great Greeks and does not falter when compared with greatest Bard of Elizabethan era- Shakespeare. There are no kings, no queens and no princes. There is nothing halo about the mega character. Neither there are gods nor ghosts to guide the hero. However, there is wisdom of the blood feeling on the hair tips and a wild passion that guides. The milieu depicted in the novel is lewd and lascivious. As he writes, “By the end of Nineteenth century, the Storyville district of New Orleans had some 2000 prostitutes, 70 professional gamblers, and 30 piano players.”(3) But it had only one man who played the cornet like Buddy Bolden – he who cut hair by day at N. Joseph’s Shaving Parlor, and at night played jazz, unleashing an unforgettable wildness and passion in crowded rooms.

The world that Ondaatje portrays is inhabited by people living at the margins of society; pimps, whores, barber, musicians playing in bars, etc. Through such a portrayal, he recreates the exciting world of jazz, as he describes how whores lay naked on the stage amidst a rendering of wild, loud and vibrant music- sensuous and passionate in the background. There is no talk of morality or other rules governing ‘civilized society’. Ondaatje takes us to the places where there are over 100 prostitutes from “pre-puberty to their seventies” (2). Music players are barbers. It is a dead crowd where money is the most living thing. They are neither Titans nor war wrecks or winners, but blacks pulsating with vigor, strength, passion and promiscuity. Ondaatje thus gives a presence to people who have always been deprived from occupying the historical space.

The novel is explicitly about Bolden’s identity as expressed in his music, but implicitly, it is about his identity as a black man whose musical insistence on freedom is thwarted by worsening racism in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet as Ondaatje observes, many interpreted Bolden’s subsequent “crack-up as a morality tale of a talent that debauched itself. But his life at this time had a fine and precise balance to it…” (7). Ondaatje portrays Bolden, an American of African ancestry as a tragic artist, a man whose musical genius isolates him from friends and family and eventually leads to his insanity. The black-white racial conflict however does not become the focus of the novel. Rather structured like jazz music, the novel presents a fragmented, multi-voiced, episodic narrative that draws even an unwilling reader into its passion.

In this ordinary world, Ondaatje takes up the issue of infidelity. There are no accusations, no cold revenge, no plotting, no cursing, no murdering; but silent suffering- an ache in the soul-a sublimation and pouring out of the heart in the art i.e. music. As Ondaatje portrays, the cruelties of external world pervade the personal one too. Shakespeare’s Hamlet could rightly aver, “Frailty- thy name is woman”. But here both men and women are frail. Why so? Not an easy question to answer. In an unjust world where the primary struggle is that of survival, pure bonds of love are impossible to forge. Infidelity has remained curse of all ages, civilizations and tribes. Wounds and woes of infidelity lead to unbearable pain that becomes difficult to express. Why one falls in bondage, why seeks solace in this bondage, one does not realize. Why man and woman wish to break this bondage? Perhaps no one can ever describe. Buddy has learned that Tom Pickett is having an affair with his common-law wife, Nora Bass. Pickett is an extremely handsome pimp in the city of New Orleans. Bolden’s wife, Nora, was formally part of Pickett’s business endeavors. After Pickett boasts about his relationship with Nora, Bolden doubts the stability of his construction of Nora, “If Nora had been with Pickett. Had really been with Pickett as he said. Had jumped off Bolden’s cock and sat for half an hour later on Tom Pickett’s mouth on Canal Street. Then the certainties he loathed and needed were liquid at the root” (75). What emerges in the novel thus is the murky world at the very “rag and bone shop” of society where alcohol and sex make up for pain and love, and music exudes ineffably from the fabric of blasted lives. Bolden’s musical progress is differentiated from that of his contemporaries and followers as clear and even transcendental, particularly at the point where he becomes irretrievably insane. But why such a talented and pure spirited man should linger on in the mental asylum for all his life and die anonymous. Herein lies the true ache of novel and its genuine pathos. Buddy is neither killed or murdered nor crucified but is slaughtered on the altar of infidelity.

When Bolden meets Robin Brewitt, Ondaatje observes that he “nearly fainted” (27); he loses control of his senses, and, perhaps in more romantic terms, his heart. The early stages of Bolden’s relationship with Robin are marked clearly by an ongoing loss of control or, more accurately, by the loss of the balance that characterized his life with Nora. Robin seems to represent an alternate ‘other’ for Bolden – a second chance, as it was, for his constructing a kind of truth for himself. It is stated repeatedly that even though Bolden has numerous women throwing themselves at him, he truly loves Nora. However, after Bolden runs from New Orleans, he finds himself without Nora. As Ondaatje portrays, Bolden does not really love Robin. Robin is his outlet. She blurs into Nora- and Nora is not his. He is completely alienated and devastated- devoid of everything- including his kith and kin. Only a slow and anonymous death is his destiny- a destiny of every modern man. The story is told in many fragments and many voices: Actual accounts of Bolden’s life and performances, oral history, lists of songs, biographical facts, narrative, dialogue, interior monologues, psychiatric reports, bits of poetry and lyrics, the author’s own voice through which Ondaatje weaves a series of brilliantly improvised ‘sets’. There are blues, there are the hymns, there is rhythm, there is free jazz, there is melody, soul, mood, wild aggression with notes flung out in pain and hurt and it all creates an atmosphere, an environment. New Orleans’ whores, pimps, drugs, booze, clarinets and cornets, jazz and jazzmen, ship builders and photographers and love and lunacy.

Buddy also breaks the boundaries of love; he sacrifices his wife and children in order to pursue something more with Robin. In the Parade on fifth morning, Buddy gives his last performance. In the Liberty-Iberville concert, during the performance, Bolden is fascinated by a dancing girl who follows the rhythms and dances to his tunes intoxicatingly. Bolden’s self is completely immersed into music, so much that he even forgets the audience. The mounting tension between Bolden and the girl is reflected in the prose of the passage as run-on sentences break into fragments and then continue to the climactic point of Bolden’s complete immersion into music: In fact, the following passage reads much like a metaphor for the act of sex. Bolden’s love life is revealed when he describes the beautiful dancer as a culmination of his lovers. Then with the gorgeous dancer at the parade who pushes him to further limits leading to his destruction: “All my body moves to my throat and I speed again and she speeds tired again, a river of sweat to her what her head and hair back bending back to me, all the desire in me is cramp and hard, cocaine on my cock, external, for my heart is at my throat hitting slow pure notes into the shimmy dance of victory . . . feel the blood that is real move up bringing fresh energy in its suitcase, it comes up flooding past my heart in a mad parade, it is coming through my teeth, it is into the cornet, god can’t stop god can’t stop it can’t stop the air the red force coming up can’t remove it from my mouth, no intake gasp, so deep blooming it up god I can’t choke it the music still pouring in a roughness I’ve never hit, watch it listen it listen it, can’t see I CAN’T SEE. Air floating through the blood to the girl red hitting the blind spot I can feel others turning, the silence of the crowd, can’t see” (131-32).

Thus the instrument and the player become one. Diffusing himself, rather melting himself, blowing out himself through the cornet, his body, nerves, veins, sperms and aches of the soul find release. The whole scene is so built; the pitch of the music is raised to such sublimity that everybody is purged of his or her sin. The pathos of the jazz turns lyrics into hymns. The dancing girl appears to be a nymph and Buddy becomes the mystic piper. The appearance of a dancing woman who reminds him of both Nora and Robin releases his latent insanity, which is manifested in a stroke that he suffers while playing his cornet. Bolden spends the rest of his life in an asylum in nearby Jackson, returning to New Orleans only for burial in 1931. It is devastating to watch him confined, suffer abuse and gradually slip into madness.

Jon Saklofske recognizes that Ondaatje rescues Buddy Bolden from historical obscurity by elevating and complicating the musician’s largely forgotten history with a self-conscious and largely fictional synthesis of memory and imagination. The liberties Ondaatje takes in Coming Through Slaughter with his subject to achieve this re-presentation and the ownership of the portrait that results, exposes this type of authorial activity as a problematic appropriation. As a collector, Ondaatje becomes the owner and an essential part of this transformed and personalized image of Bolden. Further, Saklofske rightly argues that Ondaatje preserves Bolden’s presence, actively confronts historical exclusivity, and interrupts his own authority over his subject. Although his interaction with actual historical figures decreases with successive novels, Ondaatje’s personal encounter with the impersonal machine of history continues, asserting itself repeatedly as a successful strategy against destructiveness or authoritative exclusion.

Ondaatje tells of Buddy Bolden’s descent into his own hell, unwittingly or self-created, we do not know, but, in the process generating a level of art and beauty unsurpassed in the postmodern era. It is a story of despair, madness, loneliness, of the viciousness of life affecting high art, of art struggling to transcend life’s miseries, not always successfully, but ultimately a tale of aching lyricism. Ondaatje’s language is innovative and appropriate and his strong theme is rich with universal implications. Ondaatje uses technique of Repetition with regards to the title. Twice in the book, Ondaatje includes references to a town north of Baton Rouge called Slaughter, through which Buddy passes twice. The most concrete theme is the idea of the setting as slaughter. The acceptance of promiscuity is a major cause of conflict and downfall. Ondaatje includes a description of “the mattress whores” who have been kicked out of Storyville for showing evidence of having sexually transmitted diseases. They are literally rotten. Promiscuity also seems to “rot” Bolden. By the time he has had his gratuitous fun in Storyville, married Nora, abandoned Nora, and had an affair with another woman, Bolden has lost his passion for jazz and is obsessed with sex. “I desire every woman I remember” (99), he says while he is isolated outside New Orleans.

Ondaatje thus explores the connection between creative talent and self-destruction. He however does not try to answer any questions for his readers. He gives the facts, filling in where needed, and lets the reader decide what to think. After Bolden’s return to New Orleans, he is driven into deeper madness than before until he eventually experiences a climactic breaking point during a parade. Some say it was the result of “trying to play the devil’s music and hymns at the same time.” Others say it was from too many general excesses. Whatever the cause, Ondaatje makes it clear that, for Bolden living in New Orleans in the early 20th century, the road to anonymity was much more difficult than the road to fame.

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To sum up, Ondaatje attempts to retrieve the story of Buddy Bolden which lies hidden beneath layers of time. He draws as much from history, as from memory, re-mixing facts with fiction, reality with imagination, even reinventing the self of Bolden by mixing him with what he terms in the postscript as ‘personal pieces of friends and fathers.’ In the novel thus, Ondaatje grapples with the intertwined notions of history, memory and identity portraying how memory affects history, to preserve, as also to distort. Identity as such has to be retrieved, reinvented and restructured from the obscure and impersonal discourse of history. The novel however leaves that task to the readers.

Works Consulted:

Deshaye, Joel. “Parading the Underworld of New Orleans in Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter” American Review of Canadian Studies. ( December 22, 2008).

Emmerson, Shannon.”Negotiaing the Boundaries of Gender: Construction and Representation of Women in the Work of Michael Ondaatje”. A Thesis in The Depanment of English Presented in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts at Concordia University. Canada ,November 1997.

Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. London: Bloomsbury,2004.

Saklofske, Jon. “The Motif of the Collector and Implications of Historical Appropriation in Ondaatje’s Novels.” Comparative Cultural Studies and Michael Ondaatje’s Writing. West Lefayette :Purdue Univesity Press,2005: 73-82.

Vander,Kristin “Coming Through Slaughter: The Destruction of a Man,” Catapult. Vol.2, Num.4:2003

Wong, Cynthia F. “Michael Ondaatje”. Asian American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source Book. Ed. Emannuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Zepetnek,Steven Tötösy de. Comparative Cultural Studies and Michael Ondaatje’s Writing. West Lefayette:Purdue Univesity Press, 2005.


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