Sunday, September 21, 2008

With Apologies to Michael Ondaatje

Several years ago I read Michael Ondaatje's most famous novel, The English Patient, as part of a course on the depiction of romantic love in Western literature. One of our assignments was to write a short piece of fiction in the style either of Ondaatje or of Hemingway, another author we read. I picked Ondaatje because I thought he was more of a challenge--Hemingway, though I love him, is too easy to turn into a punchline, what with the annual Bad Hemingway Contest.

Though I didn't intend this piece as an all-out parody (i.e. I did not exaggerate things for the sake of humor), rereading it does make me laugh, because I managed to cram most of Michael Ondaatje's stylistic tics into 1300 words of prose. These include:
  • Lush descriptions of the natural world
  • Similes/metaphors relating to landscapes and cartography
  • Focus on sex and romantic love...
  • ...including heavy-handed sexual symbolism relating to the natural world
  • The POV switches between multiple characters...
  • ...including a narrator who interrupts the story to expound on arcane knowledge or quotations
  • Dialogue sometimes enclosed in quotation marks, and sometimes not, seemingly arbitrarily
  • Switching between present-tense and past-tense narration
  • Characters with extreme knowledge of and respect for famous works of art
  • Characters who have pithy-but-deep conversations within moments of meeting
  • A sudden lashing-out of physical violence
  • Not every step of the narrative is described; reader must work his/her way through the metaphors and symbols
  • Therefore, a tendency toward the abstract rather than the explicit
So, chuckle if you like, but note that this was written in a spirit of affection rather than meanness. (Though after reading Divisadero I feel rather more snarky...)

Here Be Dragons
By Marissa Skudlarek, 2004

She lies in the grass, face down, one hand dabbling in the pool of sunlight near her forehead. In its proximity to her unblinking eye, her skin looks as rough and mazelike as an old map. Tiny beads of sweat gather in its creases, its canals, shimmering like green lightning in the afternoon sun. She slides her hand away and blindly strokes a blade of grass. Instinctively, she can feel where the juicy white root flattens and develops edges, becoming a green spear. At one time, she spent too long caressing plants, running her fingers along the smooth emerging tip of a potted amaryllis, or weighing pendulous tomatoes in her palm.

She pushes those thoughts away and twists her neck to the left. Her other hand, as minutely sparkled as the first, rests on the base of the old stone statue. She squirms over and presses her cheek to the warm granite. It is as broad and flat as the plain of his shoulder blade. Yet his flesh, against her face, was always slightly clammy, boiling underneath. She still can see the blue flames that licked the creases of his skin, intermingled with a brown as rich as that of an aged parchment map. She imagines meandering her fingers along one of these scribbled, feather-thin canals.

Here be dragons, she whispers.

* * *

There are many kinds of dragons. There are the hydra and amphisbaena, with their multiple vigilant and snapping heads. Their opposite, the ouroboros, a round and balanced hoop to match his rounded name. The Indian nagas, the knowing shape-shifters. The Oriental lungs shake their silken manes over river and tide, over floodplain and misty mountain. The Aztecs with their feathered serpent, their Quetzalcoatl, their supreme deity. All of these snake-bodied figures can lurk at the edges of old maps, as a warning to those who venture off course.

But then there are other dragons, not so exotic. The drakes and wyrms and wyverns coil through the barrows of England, or knot themselves to fit into wells. Somehow, people have been lulled into coexistence with them. The fire they breathe has become nothing more than a cheerful blaze, and when villagers find sheep carcasses littering the mountainsides, they attribute the death to wolves instead.

Anton was that kind of dragon. He had muted the fire that ran in his mouth and through his skin, subsuming it until only traces of it shimmered on the hottest summer days. He had pretended to dull the edges of his teeth, and walked from the frayed edges of the map into its hectic center. Meanwhile the dangerous blue bolts coursed beneath his brown skin.

* * *

She continues resting on the warmed stone of the statue, feeling around to the patches of velvety moss. The summer sun has dried it out now, so that it flakes off in her hand. When they met, it had been late wet spring in the garden; the moss’s fur sodden, the rosebuds still curled in their pink secrecy.

* * *

What he first noticed about her was her fingers, delicately caressing the statue’s lichened nose. Then he saw the way the gentle fingers flowed into arms that moved with vigorous industry. And how she balanced on the statue’s narrow base, her feet wedged between Saint George’s legs, her knees hugging his lozenge-shaped shield. When she turned her body to face him, he could see the damp patches that the moss had caused on her pants and shirt. It did not strike him at this time how odd the suddenness of her turn was, as if she had expected him or heard his approach. Though he always went through gardens reverently and without calling out to the souls he saw among the foliage.

Now the soul of this strange girl, teetering on the edge of her granite platform, had felt his presence. And as she drew him in, he found himself translating her from a woman into an image. In every sense, she was about to fall and break like an ice sculpture dropped from a precipice. She seemed quite unconscious of her own fragility, and greeted him with a wave.

“Donatello,” she said. “I can’t see him get dirty.”

“It’s a copy,” he said.

“I don’t see why that matters.”

“It’s a very fine copy, though.”

She drew herself up as best she could, bracing herself against the saint’s slender bulk. Her eyes burned gold with hurt pride. “I knew you would say that. I knew that’s all that matters to you. Craftsmanship! It could be the worst copy in the world yet I’d still be up here. Since at bottom, it is art.”

He padded forward a few more steps, pasting a serious expression on his face as he walked. He drew his lips over his teeth, refrained from jutting with his elbows. “Of course,” he said. “Since even a copy tells something about the person who copied it. Since every setting gives it a new context. I was just trying to make conversation.”

She hopped down from the base of the statue, wiping her hands on her jeans. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m glad you understand.”

“I’m Anton,” he said. He was walking forward again, once more concealing the danger in his tread. He tried to concentrate on this girl’s bedraggled clothing, her moss-green eyes, the way her red hair made a vulgar frizz against the statue.

But all he could see was Saint George looking down at him balefully. Those damned noble eyes, that earnest brow. Still, no matter. What good could a fossilized saint do against a living dragon skilled at shielding his fiery breath?

* * *

I don’t mind you like this, she says.

They sit in the late-summer grass beneath the statue, her ear resting on his shoulder.

Yes? he says. He is drowsy.

Here. Lying here. I can see exactly who you are. The blue threads shining in your skin, you can’t hide them. But you can’t do anything to me, either. I have made you powerless.

No you haven’t, he says. I’m just hibernating.

She doesn’t want to believe him, but dragons never lie. They hoard knowledge as they hoard treasure; they mock and belittle and bite, yet never falsify. She suddenly flings herself against him, slamming him off balance and into the hard granite.

She cries, I wish to God that I’d married Saint George when there was still time.

* * *

And after that, George had returned as suddenly as he left, spent three days vanquishing the dragon, and marched away again.

Now, months later, she can finally think about them both with peace. She even respects what Anton did to her, his ability to destroy things with such dazzling grace that no one else can tell they have been destroyed. He balanced things out, redrawing her boundaries according to what she needed and deserved, not what she wanted. And after she had learned enough from him, and green had begun to thread her own skin, George had swooped in as rescuer.

Left alone with her statue and the garden, she can return to picking the lichens off the granite, or stroking the surfaces of plants. Now, when she raises her head to look at the statue, all she can see is the dullness of his stone, his stiff idealism, his ridiculously chaste shield. She peers at her hand one more time. Green lightning and unexplored pathways. She rolls violently onto her back, presses her hand to her breast and looks down at herself. She has become a being lined with fire. A being that hoards knowledge and cannot lie. Squeezing her eyelids shut, becoming the only thing in her world, she invokes her new self with a shout to the sky.

Here. Be. Dragons.

Image of Donatello's St. George from Wikipedia.

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