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Thursday, 25 June 2015

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje (1976)



Buddy Bolden is standing second from the left.





Charles Joseph Bolden (Buddy Bolden) is credited as being a principal originator of jazz, a new form of music that emerged in the dying years of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth. Bolden and his band played ragtime, added some blues and gospel elements and most importantly improvisation, which lies at the heart of jazz. This kind of historical knowledge about the origins of jazz, in particular narrowing it down to one man, is like finding the source of a great river that begins as a trickle before winding down the slopes of great mountains, through crazy rapids and into massive cataracts of water before spilling into a sea of infinite possibilities. Jazz truly is something wild and, even now, untamed; drawn deep from the inner creative soul of humankind. Ondaatje’s portrayal of Buddy Bolden and his milieu is like the above grainy black and white photo come to life and examined from multiple viewpoints.

Coming Through Slaughter is structured like jazz, with a narrative arc that is fragmented into vignettes that continually lead back to the main narrative motif. That motif is the life of of Buddy Bolden and his sudden disappearance. Bolden abandons both his life in New Orleans and his band apparently due to the onset of schizophrenia that eventually led to his incarceration in an old civil war asylum near the town of Slaughter in 1907, where he finally died aged 54 in 1931. Not a great deal is known about the life of Bolden accept a few fairly concrete facts coupled with a great deal of myth and conjecture. There aren’t even any recordings of Bolden and his band in existence, although there are rumors of recordings on cylinders that weren’t made for general consumption and ended up in the hands of collectors, although none have ever surfaced. Much of what occurs in the novel is therefore either exaggerated or fictionalized, however this benefits Ondaatje and allows Bolden and New Orleans to really come alive.

What Ondaatje offers is historical conjecture filtered through experiments with narrative form, such as switching without warning from a third person omniscient point of view to the first person point of view Bolden himself. Text from interviews (probably not real) and descriptions of films are some of the other forms used. To Ondaatje’s credit this narrative blend works well to give a fascinating take on Bolden and the birth of jazz. Central to the novel is the only surviving photograph of Bolden, along with his band, taken by E.J. Bellocq, the photographer known for his images of prostitutes (he’s portrayed here as a hydrocephalic). There’s an inferred connection between Bolden and Bellocq that seems to suggest that artistic brilliance is the domain of those who suffer, a tragic subtext that gives the novel emotional frisson.

Despite the brevity of Coming Through Slaughter and its unorthodox structure, it’s an absorbing read. The novel is regarded as one of the best jazz novels (is that a genre?) and jazz aficionados should certainly give it a read. I can’t help but feel that Bolden is too good to be true, a wild blower of the cornet, pioneer of the kind of inspirational improvisation that would establish jazz as one the great musical genres and sufferer of a mental illness that would be both his undoing and perhaps also his source of inspiration. If Bolden didn’t really exist then someone would have to make him up, and in a way that’s exactly what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

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