The Last Colonial
Sir Christopher Ondaatje is a man of many interests, talents and careers: an athlete, explorer, businessman, publisher, writer and patron of the arts. In Britain he has become celebrated chiefly for his patronage of the visual arts – in particular for his support of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the creation of a splendid new wing named after him at the National Portrait Gallery in London and his original private museum and gallery on the northern Devon-Somerset border. But despite these achievements, it is literature I suspect that remains his favourite art (one of his beneficiaries has been the Royal Society of Literature of which he is an honorary fellow).
This mosaic of essays, resembling non-fiction short stories, is probably the nearest we will get to reading a complete autobiography and it will be of considerable value to any future biographer. The book gives us glimpses of the author’s early adult life in Canada (revealing his passion for jazz and a wonderful Boys’ Own adventure as a member of the Canadian bob-sledding team which won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in 1964). There are vivid and dramatic sightings too from his childhood days in Ceylon which have imprinted themselves on his memory and imagination. We are also taken on his extensive travels, quests, explorations and discoveries – journeys which reveal the stories behind his full-length studies of Sir Richard Burton, Ernest Hemingway and Leonard Woolf, as well as his search for the source of the Nile and his famous book The Man-Eater of Punanai.
Non-fiction writers, we are told, tend to embellish or exaggerate their facts, slightly shifting time or place “so as to make a narrative more evocative or more exciting for the reader”. Sir Christopher does not indulge in such wayward devices, though he sometimes uses direct speech to make his effects more immediate. Essays and short stories have recently occupied an unjustly-neglected corner of English Literature. Many people have praised them, though few were to be seen reading them. But reading habits are changing – and changing fast. Those massive, well-regarded volumes of non-fiction scholarship which stood so proudly like galleons hugging the coast of Britain, as if defending her island culture from foreign vessels, have been becalmed and are retreating into harbour. In their place, moving with ease and elegance across the waves with the trade winds filling their sails, are fleets of smaller craft: fantastical and historical fictions, experimental hybrids and speculative non-fictions which travel with speed and ingenuity and are welcomed by other countries. We are less insular than we were.
In his Prologue, Sir Christopher tells us of the “carefree wilderness” of his childhood in Ceylon and how it was brutally followed by the unkind and gratuitous discipline of Blundell’s, the English public school to which he was sent in 1947 at the age of thirteen in the expectation of him being turned into an Englishman. In 1950, in what was to be his last year at Blundell’s, he received a letter from his mother in Ceylon, telling him that the family could no longer afford his school fees. “It was a shock,” he was to write in his book Woolf in Ceylon: “I had no idea of our financial troubles”. He had left home as a member of a privileged colonial family with his father, a charismatic figure who “could lead anybody anywhere” and “sell anybody anything”, presiding over the management of a prosperous tea estate. But in 1948 Ceylon won its independence from the British Empire and this had a disastrous effect on the export of tea. The end of a political era was to produce a family upheaval in which Christopher’s father sank into debt and alcoholism and his mother had to leave her husband. “I was obliged to start from scratch”, Christopher wrote. He found himself at the age of seventeen in a London bank and afterwards emigrated to Canada, not returning to Ceylon (which by then had changed its name to Sri Lanka) for forty years.
For his colonial childhood Sir Christopher retains an emotional sense of nostalgia though acknowledging that it is a lost world and that the dismantling of the British Empire was inevitable. The writer who now travels the modern world is a dedicated post-colonial, full of curiosity and a willingness to deal with the unexpected challenges. He is still the outsider who at Blundell’s learnt the wiles and strategies of cricket as a method of, and a metaphor for, escaping ill-treatment, overcoming inconvenience and transforming his outsider status into an asset. I do not know which team he supports these days when England plays Sri Lanka at cricket. What I do know is that he transferred his cricketing ingenuity to international finance, making good all that was so shockingly lost in his young adulthood. He has also, as it were, taken over the position of a beneficent colonial power in his role as patron. At Blundell’s he had learnt to find happiness though his love of English Literature. It is this happiness, illuminating The Last Colonial, which he has pursued all his life.