This essay proposes that Michael Ondaatje's novels develop an archival method that adapts the historical novel to the globalized era. Where Georg Lukács argued that the classical historical novel awakened national sensibility through the creation of psychologically complex characters (real individuals), I claim that Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Anil's Ghost explore the breakdown of that sensibility through the creation of characters as legends. The circulation of these legends, namely Billy the Kid and Sailor, turns the historical novel toward a disruption of national myth rather than the production of it. That disruption is made possible by Ondaatje's use of the archive as a formal paradigm for the novel—one that is open-ended, unsynthesized, and shape shifting. Using the archive as structure and style, Ondaatje challenges national mythologies not so much by demystifying their ideological structures but by immersing American and Sri Lankan legends, Billy and Sailor, in a proliferation of artifacts, genres, and contexts that traverse several national and supranational traditions. Archival form effectively subjects these national legends to defamiliarization and reinscription within transnational geographies of memory that both expand the number of groups that may lay claim to these legends and trouble the boundaries among those groups. In this way, Ondaatje's novels show us how to begin remapping communal pasts in response to the demands of global collectivity, a configuration in which many groups might be said to intersect but cannot be said to cohere.
Aarthi Vadde; National Myth, Transnational Memory: Ondaatje's Archival Method. Novel 1 August 2012; 45 (2): 257–275. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1573967
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