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Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

House of Anansi, 1976

Reader Tina Flackshaw’s fantasy

She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.

-from The English Patient

My first was The English Patient. The novel and film. Just so romantic. Achingly so.

How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled.

-from The English Patient

Lives and deaths during wartime. I picture myself as Katharine, alone in the cave.

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

-from The English Patient

Brad Simmons looks back

I thought about our time in and around the woods, way the hell back when, the trouble we would find, trouble that would find us. We were like a pack of wild animals, stupid boys looking for ways to pass the time, seeing things we hadn’t seen before, doing things we probably wouldn’t have ever done if we weren’t so damn busy trying to one-up each other and prove who was top dog. It was my idea to spy on Miss Emma through her bedroom window. We saw her and Jack Thompson’s daddy from two doors down naked as skinny-dippers, with Miss Emma’s husband nowhere to be found (at work at that time of day). I hadn’t thought about that since I don’t even know when but I’ll be damned if that and a whole hell of a lot more didn’t come rushing back to me when I was reading about those boys getting into all kinds of shenanigans on the ship in The Cat’s Table. I remember those cigarettes Dale stole from his brother Paul. Boy, did we ever feel cool smoking them up, one after the next after the next until we were all dizzy and shit, puking our dumbass guts out behind the fort in the woods. Idiots, that is what we were. And I wouldn’t change a damn thing about any of it.

Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place.

-from The Cat’s Table

Unknown man at microphone

To my right, we have Buddy Bolden on cornet. (And away he goes, playing a virtuosic solo at a surprising volume.)

Bolden, Buddy Bolden. Who is Buddy Bolden?

He was the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. Unconcerned with the crack of the lip he threw out and held immense notes, could reach a force on the first note that attacked the ear. He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they revolved in his lung then spat out in the chosen key. The way the side of his mouth would drag a net of air in and dress it in notes and make it last and last, yearning to leave it up there in the sky like air transformed into cloud. He could see the air, could tell where it was freshest in a room by the colour.

-from Coming Through Slaughter

Dan LeBlanc researches Buddy Bolden

After reading Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter, I researched Bolden, but all trails seemed to lead to the same loose ends: There is no recorded music of Bolden left behind (except for a lost Edison cylinder of songs by Bolden and his band that more than a few folk are dreaming will one day resurface). His story is clouded in myth and legend handed down by those who knew of him or those he influenced, including Louis Armstrong, but by and large, the man credited by some as the founder of jazz, remained nothing more than a ghost.

There is the complete absence of him—even his skeleton has softened, disintegrated, and been lost in the water under the earth of Holtz Cemetery.

-from Coming Through Slaughter

From page 1 of notes from -G

Feeling a tangent coming on, I only ask that you stick with me here as I’m improvising a bit. It’s just that, of late, I have been giving a lot of thought to what is required when retelling a true story or even one based on a true story. This subject has come up a lot the previous year with Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and even the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. How important is preserving historical accuracy? Or the other way, how far is too far when granting creative license for entertainment purposes? With Rodriguez in Sugar Man and Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter, it appeared on the surface anyway as if I had gotten closer to both subjects, but I now wondered if I had only gotten closer to an artist’s brushstroke and nothing more. In each case, I couldn’t say with any degree of certainty whether I had come to a better understanding of the men or the myths.

The Cricket existed between 1899 and 1905. It took in and published all the information Bolden could find. It respected stray facts, manic theories, and well-told lies. This information came from customers in the chair and from spiders among the whores and police that Bolden and his friends knew. The Cricket studied broken marriages, gossip about jazzmen, and a servant’s memoirs told everyone that a certain politician spent twenty minutes each morning deciding which shirt to wear. Bolden took all the thick facts and dropped them into his pail of sub-history.

-from Coming Through Slaughter

After some deliberation, I concluded that there is a time and place to play loose with history. Riffing about a little known legend of early ragtime-infused jazz seemed as good a time as any.

Michael Ondaatje answers a question

There is a real focus out there you feel responsible to, and yet, you don’t want to simply record history.

-Michael Ondaatje, from an interview by Fionn Meade in The Second Circle upon the release of Anil’s Ghost.

Michelle Peters weighs in

His prose is poetic. It so easy to get swept away. As a teacher of writing, I appreciate his efficiency, what he does with words and structure, and how he is able to tell a story within a story without showing all his cards.

They used to bury dogs on First Street. Holes in the road made that easy. While in Holtz Cemetery the high water table conveniently takes the flesh away in six months and others may be buried in the same place within a year.

-from Coming Through Slaughter

From the final page of notes from -G

I think about fiction’s ability to revive the past, and how it wasn’t only Buddy Bolden who came to life for me here.

He try first to drink but he begin crying and he put the bottle in the sink. The tears came to my eyes too. I got to thinking of all the men that dance to him and the women that idolize him as he used to strut up and down the streets. Where are they now I say to myself.

-from Coming Through Slaughter

As historical document, Coming Through Slaughter lends great insight into the vibe of New Orleans around 1900 during the birth of jazz. As for distinguishing fact from fiction with regard to the exploits of Buddy Bolden, I am not sure it matters where the lines are intentionally crossed. No amount of embellishment to the legend can erase the plain fact that Buddy Bolden existed, just as sure as hell as you and I do now, experiencing the same real life emotions we all experience. From the surprise of love to the anguish of love lost, from joy to sorrow, melancholy, rage, and everything in-between, Buddy Bolden lived. Buddy Bolden lives.

I scribble these notes down to be entered onto a hard drive that will eventually vanish. My words, like my body, will one day be long gone when others are reading Ondaatje’s works and pondering reactions that may very well be similar to my own, as they were written here, once upon a time.