"It was a new winter and I was already dreaming of Asia." With a dozen crisp words, Michael Ondaatje goes to the core of what it is to live in a cold country while yearning to return to a world of color and light. Born in Sri Lanka and irrevocably shaped by it, Ondaatje gives voice to what many people feel and are unable to articulate. With memories, vivid descriptions and poetry, he catches the shimmer and fragrance of a place that he loves and then gives it to those who struggle to do the same, and fail.
Ondaatje's family is so rooted in Sri Lanka that "everyone was related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations." "God alone knows, your Excellency," was the reply given to a British governor who asked one of them his nationality.
These are people whose stories fill an island, whose names are chiseled in the stone of a church built in 1650, whose exploits still linger in houses first inhabited in 1700, and who continue to tell about the remarkable end of an ancestor who was "savaged to pieces by his own horse."
"There are so many ghosts here," Ondaatje says and then brilliantly brings them back to life: his grandmother "who died in the blue arms of a jacaranda tree," his parents who whirled through the 1920s in a dazzling chaos of cocktails, dancing, and gambling, a forebear who kept biological notebooks cataloging "at least fifty-five species of poison" that could be found in this island paradise, including "ground blue peacock stones."
Sri Lanka was the breeding ground for these beautiful, reckless and mythic people; it claimed them and held them in the same way that it claims and holds this book. A country with "eighteen ways of describing the smell of a durian," where a monitor lizard's tongue, when it is cut in half and swallowed whole, will give the child who ingests it the gift of brilliant speech, if it doesn't kill him first, Sri Lanka is, Ondaatje says, "a place so rich that I had to select senses" while observing it.
Through his eyes and voice comes the scent of cinnamon, rich on the skin of the wife of the man who peels it for a living, the darkness of a jungle "suddenly alive with disturbed peacocks," the shadowed figures of men standing by the side of a road, "urinating into darkness and mysterious foliage," the warmth and the smell and the feel of "slow air pinned down by rain."
"We own the country we grow up in," he tells us, while offering the one he owns to us, so generously that we can feel it in our skin and so vividly that whatever part of Asia inhabiting our memories is suddenly alive in every one of our skin cells. Throughout the coldest winter, this book will bring the gift of heat, of flowers that "flourish and die within a month" and are instantly replaced by more, of "the lovely swallowing of thick night air" and the dreams that it carries. It's a gift wholeheartedly given by a man who can evoke a world and make it breathe forever with his wondrous and lovely words.