Parading the Underworld of New Orleans in Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter

By Deshaye, Joel | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Parading the Underworld of New Orleans in Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter


Deshaye, Joel, American Review of Canadian Studies


[A place] implies an indication of stability. [...]
[S]pace is like the word when it is spoken. [...]
In short, space is a practiced place.

--de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

On the unnumbered page following the opening dedication to his 1976 novel Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje presents three sonographs of dolphin "music." In a long caption, he explains that dolphins make "echolocation clicks (sharp, multi-frequency sounds)" and whistles that have a narrow frequency range and therefore a "'pure' sound" that can "identify each dolphin as well as its location." The caption concludes: "No one knows how a dolphin makes both whistles and echolocation clicks simultaneously." In effect, he begins the novel with an enigma. The sonographs, being poor substitutes for actual sounds, do not clarify the enigma, but become associated with the often unrecorded sounds of early jazz musicians--some of whom are characters in Coming Through Slaughter. The dolphin symbolizes the novel's main character, the ragtime/ jazz cornet player Charles "Buddy" Bolden (Kamboureli 1983, 118). He was a real person who had a significant influence on jazz when it first developed around the beginning of the twentieth century. Written into fiction in Coming Through Slaughter, Bolden cannot be understood without due consideration of his identity (related to his music, his "'pure' sound") in tune with his location: New Orleans, Louisiana.

In an apt musical analogy from S/Z, the literary theorist Roland Barthes suggests that literature often relies on mysteries (or enigmas) to pose and respond to questions ([1970] 1974, 17); he explains enigmas in a graph arranged like a musical score. Adapting standard musical notation, he depicts the enigma as a sustained note tied to implied others that the author will not signify (or play) explicitly (Barthes [1970] 1974, 29). Similarly, Ondaatje poses the enigma and sustains it without reiteration: How can the whistles (narrow-frequency sounds) and echolocation clicks (multi-frequency sounds) coexist? The literary theorist Northrop Frye might have understood such a "riddle" (Frye 1971, 220) simply as the effect of geography on identity, but even with the acknowledgment of the "important landscapes" in and around New Orleans at the end of Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje does not entirely explain the enigma.

Coming Through Slaughter is explicitly about Bolden's identity expressed in his music, but it is implicitly about his identity as a black man whose musical insistence on freedom is thwarted by worsening racism in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ondaatje portrays Bolden, an American of African ancestry as a tragic artist, a man whose musical genius isolates him from friends and family, eventually leading to his insanity. Ondaatje situates Bolden in a typically urban and often figurative geography To illustrate Bolden's mental landscape--"His mind became the street" (Ondaatje [1976] 1998, 37) and its deterioration, the novel parades before its readers the underworld of New Orleans its vice districts and poor neighborhoods) but without explicitly acknowledging the history of racism in that city Race can be taken, as the poet and critic Douglas Barbour takes it, as a given that needs not much explanation in Coming Through Slaughter, but Barbour is probably incorrect to suggest that blacks in turn-of-the-century New Orleans ''would not [tend to] be self-conscious about their color" (1993, 102). On the contrary, the novel suggests that Bolden is concerned about his race and place by beginning with the dolphin's call (in effect, his call), which both identifies and locates, and with "his geography" (Ondaatje [1976] 1998, 2), the first two words after the caption beneath the sonographs. As historical fiction, Coming Through Siaughter uses geography as the cipher for its cryptic racial subtext; the novel prompts readers to investigate how Bolden's identity is affected by the segregated geography of New Orleans at the time of his band's success, from "about 1897 to 1907" (Peretti 1992, 26), and how, as a character, Bolden tactically (often musically) attempts to counteract the racism that is an implicit catalyst for his madness. …

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