Christopher Ondaatje is a true child of the British Empire. Born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter from a well-known island family, he was brought up on the plantation. Then as a teenager he was packed off to England to ‘get a decent education’ and to learn how to become an Englishman. But soon after Ceylon was granted its Independence in 1948 his family found themselves destitute, which forced the young Ondaatje to get a job.
He spent his seventeenth birthday in the City of London drudging in a bank. However, early 1950s England was no place for a penniless tiro financier born in the colonies. In 1956, following a hunch, he made his way to Canada with just thirteen dollars in his pocket. From this improbable beginning there followed a series of commercial triumphs until he abruptly abandoned high finance at the peak of his career and re-invented himself as an explorer and author, focusing mainly on the colonial period.
It is the curious encounters behind his often precarious adventures that make up The Last Colonial. The stories tell of childhood days in Ceylon; his lifelong pursuit of elusive leopards; his early struggles in Canada; his fascination with inexplicable events and local superstitions, including those of Exmoor in Devon where he now lives; and his sometimes perilous travels researching his biographies of Ernest Hemingway in Africa and Leonard Woolf in Ceylon. His two books on Sir Richard Burton, Sindh Revisited and Journey to the Source of the Nile, are perhaps the best known of his biographies, and in this new volume he turns to Burton in Syria.
The Last Colonial is perhaps the single book Ondaatje was born to write. As Michael Holroyd, one of England’s most renowned biographers, writes in his Introduction, ‘This mosaic of essays, resembling non-fiction stories, is probably the nearest we will get to reading a complete autobiography and it will be of considerable value to any future biographer.’
Complemented by the artist Ana Maria Pacheco’s magical, sometimes disturbing, images, the stories conjure up a truly unique portrait of a ‘colonial’ world that is vanishing forever.