Sir Christopher Ondaatje arrived in Canada with only a few dollars in his pocket, but a wealth of talent at his fingertips and courage in his heart. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1933, into an illustrious family who managed a tea estate, he was sent to England at the age of 13 where he recalls his school days.
"I was this thin, sallow, frightened figure with a shock of black hair," he says. "If you wanted to survive you either sank or swam."
He proved his flair for survival at an early age, for when his family lost their fortune with the collapse of the colonial empire, Ondaatje had to start from scratch, and chose to do so in Canada.
His compelling new book, The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures & Stories from a Vanishing World, beautifully illustrated throughout by Ana Maria Pacheco, captures a wealth of experience from his eclectic life and literature and offers an immensely evocative snapshot of the colonial era in a series of haunting stories and vignettes.
Early on in the book, there is an epiphanic moment: it is Christmas 1958, deep drifts of snow lie over Montreal, where Ondaatje had moved from Toronto after giving up his stockbroking job.
"For the first time I was totally alone," he writes. "I knew then that whatever I would do in my life I would have to do for myself."
He went on to do an exhilarating array of things, from finance to fiction, experiences that enrich The Last Colonial.
Ondaatje muses on the different forms of knowledge he has drawn on: from formal education (he fondly recalls the teachers who inspired in him a love of literature) to the lessons that life teaches.
"The decisions are all yours: what are you going to do?" he asks. His is the stoic attitude of the true adventurer. "If you make a mistake, you pick yourself up and dust yourself off," he says.
After making a fortune in finance, he left to devote himself to a life exploring the world - and the world of words. Thus, the landscapes filling this book range from the Syrian desert to the summits of Kilimanjaro. A prolific author with a passion for journal-keeping, he has published 10 books, including the acclaimed biographies of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Sindh Revisited, and Journey to the Source of the Nile.
"I figured that when I die, no one will be able to tell these stories; I am the last of the breed of colonial," he says of the impetus behind capturing the peculiarities of the colonial era he experienced. "I literally saw the British Empire disappear from under my nose," he says, as the 200-year run of power ended in the 1940s, with India being granted independence in 1947 and Ceylon in 1948.
He notes the very different lives his grandchildren will have and makes acute observations on the rise of power in the East on our postcolonial world. A one-time member of the Olympic bobsled team, he writes that he was "conscious of being an immigrant" and speaks insightfully about identity.
While having a great wealth of experience, Ondaatje nevertheless retains an openness to learning: with refreshing honesty, he describes not only the twists and turns in the world's surface, but the great learning curves during the writing process.
"I had to learn all over again," he says about writing the deftly structured book that, in the end, is for him the most satisfying he has written - as well as a great pleasure to read.
The best advice he has been given was from an editor who asked: "'Why don't you write the way you talk because then I can edit it?' So I learnt to connect the way I speak with the way I write." Like Hemingway, he "honed and honed and honed". Yet, despite the effort that went into its construction, the book glides from place to place and time to time, transporting the reader to captivating worlds.