Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

Memories, Incidents and The Cat’s Table of Tall Tales

My favorite piece of short fiction to appear in The New Yorker last year was hands-down Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – a poignant and evocative piece about an eleven year-old Sri Lankan boy’s coming of age on the high seas while sailing on a rowdy cruise ship (The Oronsay) to boarding school in England. 

I was overjoyed to discover it was part of a larger novel released in October of last year.  I was puzzled to find the story that appeared in The New Yorker was not a straight excerpt and had instead been parsed and elaborated on in long form during the first half of the novel of the same name.  In this extended tale, the full twenty-one days of the early 1950’s voyage are realized and a parade of new characters traverses the decks. 

The Cat’s Table refers to the not-so-enviable table in the back of the dining room where the young boy (Michael) sat along with two other boys (the wild Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin) and a rag-tag team of adults including a jazzy wisdom-spewing washed-up musician (Mr. Mazappa) and a mysteriously quiet English bird-lady (Miss Lasqueti).  The unsupervised trio of rascals have the run of the ship, exploring every nook and cranny and soaking up every story and incident from the revolving door of worldly adults in the their midst.  Mystery and adventure, but also misfortune and melancholy soak the ship as it heads half-way across the globe touching on Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Continue reading