Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

Book 20

I was in the local section of a book store in the French Quarter. I should do a full post about the bookstores in the French Quarter. Michael Ondaatje is actually Canadian, and is most famous for writing The English Patient.

Coming through Slaughter is a much earlier piece. It was in the local section because it is a speculative piece of fiction regarding the mysterious life of Buddy Bolden, a rather famous musician at the turn of the century who is credited with pioneering, if not outright creating, jazz music. You know what? The book summary can do this better:

“At the turn of the century, the Storyville district of New Orleans had some 2,000 prostitutes, 70 professional gamblers and 30 piano players. It had only one man that played the cornet like Buddy Bolden. By day he cut hair and purveyed gossip at N. Joseph’s Shaving Parlor. At night he played jazz as though unleashing wild animals in a crowded room. At the age of 31, Buddy Bolden went mad.”

These appear to be the facts. Bolden was never recorded and there is only one, poor photograph existing of him. Ondaatje imagined the rest.

The other cool thing is that this piece appears to be an early attempt of a poet branching out into narrative fiction. So besides being not entirely linear, the perspective changes. There is also train of thought and script dialogue and lyrics. It is a short enough piece to pull off the effects rather well. From Bolden’s perspective:

“…me with a brain no better than their sad bodies, so sad they cannot afford to feel sorrow toward themselves, only fear. And my brain atrophied and soaked in the music I avoid, like milk travelling over the boarder into cheese.”

He was talking about the prostitutes. The end doesn’t tie things up very nicely, but that is both true to the history and true to the poetry. In the end, it just feels sad – in the “we missed out on something great” way.

One Comment on “Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

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