Fiction Reads: Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

First published in 1976, this is a remarkable debut by Ondaatje, for Coming Through Slaughter uses jazz music, multiple narrator-perspective, selection of factual records and the gift of flowing yet cropped prose to add bones, veins, blood, skin, myth, poetry and soul to Buddy Bolden’s largely unknown life.

Buddy Bolden was for real. From whatever little is known about him, and dissipating the myths that have cemented themselves, one thing is certain – Bolden was a famous cornet player at New Orleans in his band from 1900 to 1907. He is considered to be a jazz pioneer, a musician who constantly improvised as he played, consistently touching high decibel levels. Unfortunately, Bolden was never recorded.   

Bolden – second from left, standing. The sole surviving photograph of Bolden’s band is used to strengthen
‘the truth within the lie’, as good fiction is often referred to.   

Ondaatje gives us an enjoyable, tragic myth, breathing in characters, jazz lyrics, shackles of fame, fear and destruction. In this fictional novel, Bolden is a barber, publisher of gossip by day, drunkard by afternoon and musician by evening. 

He was the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. Unconcerned with the crack of the lip he threw out and held immense notes, could reach a force on the first note that attacked the ear. He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they resolved in his lung then spat out in the chosen key. The way the side of the mouth would drag a net of air in and dress it in notes and make it last and last, yearning to leave it up there in the sky like air transformed into cloud. (COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER / PAGE 11)

Other characters Ondaatje conjures to create a mysterious haze around Bolden include Nora Bass as Bolden’s wife, Webb – his close friend, now cop; Bellocq – a photographer specialized in taking pictures of whores; and Robin – the other woman in Bolden’s life. The non-linear arrangement also keeps us hooked. A little gem of a book, raw in some ways, yet astonishing for the control a debutant novelist (Ondaatje was 33 then) displays. 

Recommended Edition
The image displayed below is the front cover of the concise Bloomsbury Classics edition – handy to carry around, the hardcover ensures durability.
(Article by Snehith Kumbla

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