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This review is taken from PN Review 209, Volume 39 Number 3, January - February 2013.

Confronting History michael ondaatje, Handwriting (Jonathan Cape) £10
philip terman,The Torah Garden (Autumn House Press) £13.95

'We began with myths and later included actual events,' Michel Ondaatje states at the beginning of Handwriting, reissued to coincide with publication of his new novel The Cat's Table. Returning to his native Sri Lanka, Ondaatje addresses his country's long history of sectarian and political violence, mourning a loss of culture and language in the medieval times of Indian conquests and moving right through to its more recent troubled past. We get the news of history here in a country exotic enough to the Western eye and ear that reporting facts in a few brushstrokes is often, as I suspect Ondaatje knows, art enough. How wonderful to learn of 'Cormorant Girls / who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds', and 'Bamboo tubes cut in 17th century Japan / we used as poem holders'. How terrible to hear of 'Girls with poison necklaces / to save themselves from torture'.

Sometimes simply juxtaposing real things is all that's needed: 'Men carrying recumbent Buddhas / men carrying mortars'. At other times Ondaatje paints the slightest of images onto the historical picture. With 'a saffron scar of monks' we simultaneously know tragedy and hear echoes of Spice Route glory. It is the monks who are central here. In 'Buried' and 'Buried 2' their flight to forests needs little or no embellishment ('Above ground, massacre and race'), and the occasional image stares hauntingly like the emerald eyes of a buried Buddha unearthed:

The lost monks
who are ...


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