The Philanthropic Geographer: Born on a Tea Plantation in Ceylon, Sir Christopher Ondaatje Represented Canada at the Olympics Then Made His Fortune in Publishing, before Settling into Life as an Explorer and Writer. Miranda Haines Talks to Him about How His Love of Africa Inspired Him to Write about Ernest Hemingway in His Latest Book
Haines, Miranda, Geographical
Frequent visitors to the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) will need no introduction to Sir Christopher Ondaatje. Since first lecturing there in 1996, he has gone from an unknown in the UK to one of our leading philanthropists. As a travel writer, he specialises in the great Victorian explorers. He gives energetic lectures to packed houses, often in the Ondaatje Theatre, which was recently renovated thanks to his donation. Last year, he was awarded a knighthood.
The tall, thin explorer welcomes me warmly into his penthouse flat in Chelsea and introduces his wife Yana. She makes us fresh coffee as we settle into an impressive room decorated with Asian sculptures and paintings. First-editions line the bookshelves, art books are piled high on the ottoman. An accurate drawing of Ondaatje, in which he looks almost cross, perches on a table full of family photographs. As we talk, the telephone rings and Ondaatje springs up to answer it, wincing a little as though he forgets that he's 70 and suffers from arthritis. Despite the stiffness in his joints, he appears agile and fit as be moves quickly around his luxurious surroundings.
His latest book, Hemingway in Africa, is as surprising as meeting the man himself. As in several of his previous books, such as Sindh Revisited and Journey to the Source of the Nile, Ondaatje set out in his protagonist's footsteps, this time through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. However, in this case, following a literary giant has yielded a book of unusual romantic and poetic qualities; there is less of the modern-day explorer in this book and more of the artist.
Ondaatje believes that although Africa only features in two of Hemingway's important short stories The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber--and his non-fiction book Green Hills of Africa, the continent is in fact vital to his oeuvre and inspiration as a writer. "I know because I've been there, lived it," says Ondaatje passionately, waving his arms around his head.
"The question is, why Hemingway?" he says. "There is a quotation from The Snows of Kilimanjaro that I have always kept in mind whenever I have written a book. It is perfect, a metaphor for living." He quotes from memory: "'Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain, 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called Ngaje Ngai, "the House of God". Close to the western summit, there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No-one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.'"
He takes a deep breath. "You see, I was going to write this book about my life," he says, "about falling off the edge, all the frustrations, going down. But when I started to do it, I couldn't get away from this quotation. I decided that instead of trying to explain about myself and my soul in Africa, it would be much easier to do it with Hemingway, because nobody else had done it."
This has always been an important justification for Ondaatje's books, which he only began writing relatively late in life. He likes to be the first at whatever he is doing, whether it be success in business, sporting prowess (he competed in the 1964 winter Olympics as part of Canada's bobsleigh team) or in his role as a philanthropist. His persona is larger than life, his story one for Hollywood.
"I came from a privileged family of tea planters in Ceylon and was sent to school in England," he tells me. "My family became destitute following the decline of the colonial period in 1948, and I had to leave school because we couldn't pay the fees. I then worked in the City of London for five years in order to learn about finance. I did not go back to Ceylon; instead I went to Canada in 1956. I was in the right place at the right time during 25 great years of growth in North America."
The right place at the right time is one way of saying that he amassed an enormous fortune in publishing. …