“Fading into Unborn Photographs”: Narrativizing/Allegorizing the Historical Object in Michael Ondaatje’s Fiction
AbstractPhotography features prominently in the works of Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. Its presence is to be found at a thematic level, as a key to the advancement of the plot(s), and at the level of the writer’s idiosyncratic style. Photography often conveys odd elements and portrays the historically disempowered, who may, at certain moments, take on a voice that echoes their history of silence. In visual terms, historical objects, often immersed in darkness and oblivion, sporadically emerge into the light; in Ondaatje’s fiction, such an emersion interrupts and then re-channels, in crucial moments, the flow of history in alternative directions, re-imagining history against the grain. Despite its intense relation with its referent(s), photography is characterized by a series of distances and ruptures—both between the instant it portrays and the flow of time, and between its “thingness” and its possible uses and interpretations. In a somewhat paradoxical analogy between photography and allegory, it may be observed that allegorical modes of reading and writing are also grounded in distances and ruptures, especially in the acknowledgment of a temporal gap between the allegorical sign and its meaning(s). I suggest that Ondaatje’s literary engagement with photography—reread through Benjamin—may reconcile an allegorical tension with a historically materialist conception of art; this materialism emerges both in the attention devoted to the “small things” traversing history and in a consideration of art (informed by photography) as a historical agent in the material world. Ondaatje redeploys photography at the service of a “Benjaminian” conception of history—which is, in turn, substantially informed by Benjamin’s own reflections on the invention of photography and its consequences.
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