Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2021

Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

If you choose your partner-in-life wisely, then one of the great pleasures of combining two households is the rapid expansion of the home library. However, in the haste to unpack, it can sometimes happen in a household of many books that a treasure is overlooked, and thus it was not until 2016 that I noticed that — misclassified as a biography amid the jazz collection of The Spouse —  there was a novel, and it was by an author whose books I really like!

Coming Through Slaughter, by Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, was the first of what would be a remarkable oeuvre of award-winning books:

I was, however, mistaken in thinking that Coming Through Slaughter would have made a splash in the year it was published.  The Wikipedia entry for 1976 in literature doesn’t even list it amongst books and authors I’ve mostly never heard of since most of them are genre fiction.  However, what is interesting is that the first book listed features the fictionalised life of a real person with a mental illness.  Hocus Bogus (Pseudo) is a 1976 novel by  Romain Gary, published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar.  One of its critics said that Hocus Bogus is an utterly convincing impersonation of an artistically gifted schizophrenic …

Well, so is Coming Through Slaughter.  It’s a fictionalised life of Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden (1877–1931), an African American cornetist, considered by contemporaries as a key figure in the development of New Orleans jazz.  In Ondaatje’s novel, creativity and self-destructive behaviour are linked, culminating in Bolden’s breakdown in 1907 and his death in an asylum in 1931.

Coming Through Slaughter is not the kind of book you read to find out about Buddy Bolden’s place in the history of jazz.  From the jazz collection shelves, The Spouse very promptly came up with an authoritative bio: The Loudest Trumpet, Buddy Bolden and the Early History of Jazz by Daniel Hardie, (toExcel, iUniverse, USA, 2001).  Ondaatje’s book OTOH is a pastiche of fiction, non-fiction, trivia, photos, news reports, a playlist, gossip, imagination, legends debunked long ago and a (perhaps authentic) medical report.  It’s a book where the structure and style mimic Bolden’s music, syncopated into fragments that represent his fame as well as his descent into madness.  The witnesses to Bolden’s life are like soloists in a jazz band, offering quick glimpses of their personalities before they merge back into the collective.

The prologue begins with a water-damaged photo of Bolden in a band, but (until the reader reaches page 66 where the names are revealed) Bolden can only be identified by the cornet he is holding. The photo is accompanied by commentary from Louis Jones, whose interview comes from the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at the the Tulane University Library.

Buddy Bolden began to get famous right after 1900 come in.  He was the first to play the hard jazz and blues for dancing.  Had a good band.  Strictly ear band.  Later on Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard — they all knew he began the good jazz. John Robichaux had a real reading band, but Buddy used to kill Robichaux anywhere he went. When he’d parade he’d take the people with him all the way down Canal Street. Always looked good.  When he bought a cornet he’d shine it up and make it glisten like a woman’s leg.

(An ‘ear band’ plays by ear and improvises; a ‘reading band’ reads the notes to be played from arrangements that have only a few bars set aside for improvisation by the soloists.  Parading refers to jazz bands playing as they march along the streets of the city, where the audience is on the pavement.  They may join in to dance along, or to engage in a ‘cakewalk’, a competitive form of dancing where the winner defeats an opponent who gives up out of exhaustion).

On the next page there are three images of dolphin sonographs, with an explanation that the two outer images represent a dolphin squawk and a whistle, while the middle image shows how a dolphin can make both signals simultaneously, but no one knows how they can do this.  The implication is that no one knows how Buddy Bolden was able to make the sounds that he did…

Ondaatje depicts an extraordinary world with its own set of values, and he doesn’t spare his readers some very unsavoury details.  It’s an underclass of prostitution, opium dens, alcoholism and gambling.  It’s a world where the casual murder of women attracts little attention, and where ‘mattress whores’ with the pox have their ankles broken by pimps who don’t want the prices charged for their ‘girls’ undercut.  Nobody trusts Webb, who tries to track down Bolden when he disappears for two years: the porn photographer who has the only photo of him hands over a copy but then destroys the negative.

Bolden himself, like many of the men portrayed, sleeps around with other men’s wives and only has to see an attractive woman to be lusting after her.  Even when the reader’s sympathies lie with this very troubled man, it’s hard to suppress schadenfreude when Bolden returns from a long absence during which he’d often thought about how sad his wife Nora would have been, only to find that she’s been living with another musician.  His discomfiture doesn’t last long: the pair head upstairs to the bedroom while the newly bereft musician plays sad piano downstairs.

The end, when it comes, is brutal.  In his first parade after returning from absence, Bolden gets into a ‘cakewalk’ with a dancer and plays on, louder and faster, until he breaks blood vessels in his neck.  From hospital he is taken to an asylum, where he dies many years later.

I read Coming Through Slaughter for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book.

Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: Coming Through Slaughter
Jacket design by Bob Antler
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.  1976
ISBN: 0393087654, hbk., 1st edition, 156 pages
Source: Gift to The Spouse, purchased from the International Bookshop, Elizabeth St., Melbourne


Responses

  1. Michael Ondaatje is such an interesting writer – I pick up one of his books never knowing where he’ll take me, but always knowing the ride will be worthwhile. (Bit like the late Beryl Bainbridge). Would like to recommend to you, and other readers, his semi-autobiographical ‘Running in the Family’ and ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’, which I’ve seen described as a verse novel but it’s quite likely that it simply cannot be described – poetry, prose, collage, photos, a contemporary newspaper report, etc. It’s a head-spinning whole.

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    • Thanks for the suggestion, Sandra, I had noted Billy the Kid but hadn’t realised that it is a pastiche/collage too…

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  2. Great choice for the 1976 club. How great that you remembered it from 2016, or did you have it in a list.

    BTW It is now in Wikipedia’s 1976 in Literature, with a link to Wkipedia’s page on the book.

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    • LOL Sue, I didn’t really ‘remember’ it. I’ve got all the TBR listed at Goodreads and when these ‘clubs’ come along, I simply sort it by date published. I had four to choose from and this was the obvious choice!
      And thank you for fixing Wikipedia!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wondered if you had a list you’d sorted. Why do you list them at Goodreads rather than on your home system? I would do it at Goodreads if I could get them in by reading barcodes, as I did for my read books at LibraryThing (the read books that had barcodes, anyhow). I suppose it’s still faster to list them at GR than hand key them into a spreadsheet. I should put my Aussie TBRs in there at least.

        I’m still not fully invested in GR but I do fix or enter books at times. Once a librarian…. !

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        • I love adding to/correcting the records there as well, WG; I’ve been concerned that, as time passes under the Ama*on umbrella, they’ll remove the community contribution features (e.g. Librarian status) and I’m concerned that I care about that too. Hehehe

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          • I thought that might happen too, but then… why wouldn’t they want to take advantage of free labour helping them keep their db up to date?

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        • You can add them by barcode… you just scan it into the search box at the top. It then brings up all the editions there, and if you care about that, you choose the one you want, and if you don’t you don’t, you just choose ‘Want to read’ from the drop down menu. Most books will already have the year of first publication so you can sort by that, or e.g. for Novellas in November you can sort by the number of pages because most books already have that entered in the db too. You can add other shelves, and I do so that I can bring up a book from a given country for example, but there’s no need to.

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          • PS In the beginning the Australian books, especially older ones, were often missing, but over time librarians like me have added them, and scanned in cover images and typed in blurbs and so on, and it’s much more comprehensive. You do a great job for OzLit at Wikipedia, and I’m doing my little bit at Goodreads.

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          • Thanks Lisa … I do sort my lists in GoodReads, and I do mark a few books as Want to Read every now and then , but I hadn’t realised you could scan the barcodes. I might have a go as I’d like to at least re-sort my Aussie TBRs. LibraryThing was the only one to offer scanning (and I bought a little device to do it before we had phone apps etc) when I started. I haven’t kept up with progress at GoodReads. LibraryThing was also the only one to let you export your file (good for backup) but I think GoodReads does that too now.

            (I have now tried the scanning … I should have checked this potential a while ago!! This will be my clean-up Monday morning job next week!)

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            • A “clean-up Monday morning job” … Maybe I should try to develop the self-discipline for that!

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              • We’ve had it in our calendar for about a year now. Sometimes we get stuck properly in and sometimes not – the focus is “decluttering” not housework, but organising my books comes under that radar I reckon. The next job, really, is photographs, cards and letters!

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  3. Oh and I’ve read The English patient, Anil’s ghost, Divisadero.

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    • I have yet to get a copy of Divisadero, it’s a case of ‘I ought to read what I’ve got first’ but of course it I see it in an OpShop, well… you know what happens, eh?

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  4. Intriguing. I always thought he was more prolific than this, but I’m guessing he’s got many more books that are poetry etc.

    Thanks for linking to my review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought that too. But yes, WP says, lots of poetry books…

      Liked by 2 people

  5. As you know, Ondaatje is my favorite author. This book… I read it many years ago, and even so, there are parts of it that I can remember very vividly. He really took the biographical, historical, fiction genre to a totally different level with this book, and if you ask me, no one has come close to it since – until, I think, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Now, you should also read his Billy the Kid book, even though it is classified as a book of poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds a fascinating way to create fictionalised biography. It made me think of JacquiWine’s recent review of The Years by Annie Ernaux, where the author has taken a fragmentary, layered approach to her own story. It sounds such an effective way of capturing some of the experience of a life, I had no idea Ondaatje had done this in his fiction so long ago.

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    • Yes, it’s not so uncommon now, but back then it must have been really innovative. Even now, I don’t know of anyone else who’s captured the rhythm of jazz in the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Of interest to Ondaatje fans, but perhaps not highly publicized in all corners of the reading globe is Brick Magazine. It’s like Granta or Paris Review, international in flavour, and his having been at the helm for more than a couple decades is probably a good part of why his list of publications is a tad slimmer than some writers of comparable stature. I absolutely love Brick and have managed to keep a subscription intact for many years–which sometimes required a lot of rice and beans but was worth the scrimping for it.
    https://brickmag.com/

    How did I forget the ending of this one? I must have blocked it out! :o

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  8. Gosh what a find and i’m so glad it turned out to be good! I’m finding that the list of 1976 books online are a bit thin and actually it’s taking a lot of digging to find variety. Thanks for bringing this one to the club! :D

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    • I’m pleased you like it!
      I’ve got three others that sound interesting and a bit ‘different’ on the TBR for #1976, but I won’t have time to read them for the club. Perhaps someone else will?
      Doctor Copernicus by John Banville; The Communist by Guido
      Morselli, and a Lifetime on Clouds by Gerald Murnane.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t feel qualified to join this comment stream, but have you or [LH Edit] The Spouse compared this book with the straight biog.?

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    • Not in any systematic way…

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  10. Haven’t read this particular Ondaatje. Having just watched Don Cheadle’s film about Miles Davis, Miles Ahead, can see quite a lot of similarities in behaviour between Davis and Buddy Bolden, even though he was several decades later.

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    • There does seem to be a link between creativity and self-destructive behaviour, though in Bolden’s case how much that is due to drugs and/or alcohol is difficult to know.
      I believe that medical research has established a link between taking marijuana and the onset of bipolar…

      Liked by 1 person

      • And Miles Davis was into heroin, cocaine. alcohol…you name it. And very violent, but such a talented musician.

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        • I didn’t know that… sad.

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  11. I’ve only read The English Patient and I didn’t really take to it but this sounds like an interesting first novel, and the comments seem to suggest that his novels can be quite different.

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    • Ah. I loved that one. But it might have partly been because I saw the film first, and images from that wove their way through my reading.
      Thanks for dropping by:)

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  12. Gosh, sounds like a tough read – but a good one (and how serendipitous to find it lurking on your own household’s shelves!) I’ve only read Anil’s Ghost, which I remember finding a bit gory for me to cope with.

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    • Thanks for dropping by, Simon, I’m guessing you’re catching up with dozens of reviews from the #1976Club, what a great success it has been—thanks to you and Kaggsy for organising it!

      Like


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