Durham Book Festival – The Last Colonial: Sir Christopher Ondaatje
A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals Sir Christopher Ondaatje to have enjoyed a somewhat varied career, encompassing city finance, publishing, and Olympic bobsleighing. It was in his capacity as a writer, however, that he appeared at the Durham Book Festival, presenting his first collection of short stories, ‘The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures and Stories from a Vanishing World.’ The twenty seven stories are all based upon Ondaatje’s own eclectic experiences, covering a huge chronological and geographical scope: tales of his childhood in colonial Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, sit alongside episodes from his extensive travels throughout India and Africa.
Ondaatje highlights two tropes as resonating throughout ‘The Last Colonial’, the first of which is a preoccupation with superstition, witchcraft and magic. This striking interest in the uncanny is accounted for as a result of his Ceylon upbringing, which Ondaatje believes has instilled in him an appreciation for the unexplainable. The second motif is that of the leopard, a creature which has clearly been a source of a lifelong fascination: a story picked by the author to share with the audience tells of a close encounter with these elusive predators, set against the backdrop of revolutionary upheaval in Zaire. This fixation threatens to take a turn for the farcical when, during the question and answer session, an earnest audience member asks “Did you choose leopards or did leopards choose you?” (a question which I will leave the philosophically minded amongst you to grapple with.) Moreover, such tales are possibly something of an acquired taste, undoubtedly absorbing for those who already possess an interest in Ondaatje’s favoured fields of travel and exploration, but perhaps more difficult to digest for the rest of us.
However, it is when Ondaatje moves away from discussion of ‘The Last Colonial’ to the wider considerations of the short story as a narrative form, as well as his own practise as a writer, that he is truly engaging. Short story writing, an often overlooked craft, is something which he is clearly passionate about, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for masters of the form, such as Henry James and Guy de Maupassant. It is for Ernest Hemingway, subject of Ondaatje’s 2004 publication ‘Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari’, that he reserves the greatest praise, describing his work as coming close to possessing the elusive “accident of genius” which all writers strive for: effortless twists of narrative which subvert the reader’s expectations. ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ is cited as a particular inspiration due to Hemingway’s striking use of symbolism (involving, you guessed it, more leopards). The two writers appear to share several artistic principles, laying particular emphasis upon the importance of a clear purpose in storytelling, but Ondaatje seemed unwilling to draw any comparisons between his own work and that of Hemingway. For someone who has enjoyed considerable success in such a wide range of disciplines, he appeared refreshingly humble, implying his literary efforts to be the result of long and arduous toil.
As temperatures steadily decline and an inevitably freezing Durham winter sets in, the rainforests, savannahs and deserts of ‘The Last Colonial’ may seem a pretty attractive prospect. Whilst his traditional storytelling is unlikely to set the literary establishment on fire, surely there’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism once in a while?