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Michael Ondaatje

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Michael Ondaatje Empty Michael Ondaatje

Post  eddie Mon Feb 20, 2012 12:20 am

My hero: Michael Ondaatje by Teju Cole

'Here's a celebrated writer who can't stop taking risks on the page'

Teju Cole, Friday 17 February 2012 22.55 GMT

Michael Ondaatje Michael-Ondaatje-007
Michael Ondaatje: 'shadowed and prismatic prose'. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

When you are starting out, each great writer gives you specific forms of permission. Michael Ondaatje's work taught me how to be at home in fragments, and how to think about a big story in carefully curated vignettes. All his books were odd, all of them "unfinished" the way Chopin's Études are unfinished: no wasted gestures, no unnecessary notes.

In Coming Through Slaughter, I encountered the use of photographs in a text in a non-straightforwardly illustrative way, long before WG Sebald did the same thing. Running in the Family was an exhilarating confusion of genres that I read and reread, and loved each time, and still couldn't decode. The English Patient was like a fine film by Chris Marker (quite different from the fine film Anthony Minghella made of the same book). And the latest, The Cat's Table, is fleet and gently magical, a book full of love.

For purposes of marketing, writers are designated as poets, novelists, or something else. But writing is about matchmaking, an attempt to marry sensations with apt words. Ondaatje makes language translucent – the exact word, the exact placement of a comma – and the reader has the uncanny feeling of encountering ideas directly. His work is about the things I care most about: memory, threshholds, solitude, work (usually the work of hands), dangerous loves, half-remembered songs and scars of all kinds. It is a particular constellation of thoughts and experiences, so particular to me, I sometimes feel, that I'm unsure if I'm reading or if I'm the one being read.

The kind of hushed attention that Ondaatje brings to his work isn't to everyone's taste. His lyricism leaves some sceptical. The shadowed and prismatic prose regularly runs into unsympathetic critics. But that is precisely what I value about it. Here's a celebrated writer, celebrated and loved by many, who can't stop taking risks on the page, who can't stop making one-of-a-kind books. To read him is to understand that he's very good at being free. No noisy certainties here. His ambiguities are quiet and precise. I want to be like that when I grow up.

• Teju Cole's Open City has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.
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