The Power of Paper

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

The Power of Paper

by Christopher Ondaatje

HarperCollins, HK$329

His younger brother Michael may be better known (for novels such as The English Patient) but Christopher Ondaatje has written nine books, several of them best-sellers.

Granted, he still writes longhand and covers (mostly) non-fiction subjects. But his courageous Journey to the Source of the Nile, for example, which saw him traipse through Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya in the footsteps of the great Nile explorers of the 19th century, sold tens of thousands of copies. His somewhat more dry-sounding The Prime Ministers of Canada, his first book, published in the late 1960s, has since shifted nearly three-quarters of a million copies.

So whether it's a biography of adventurer Sir Richard Burton, or Ernest Hemingway's time in Africa, or Jewish writer Leonard Woolf's tenure in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Ondaatje knows his stuff and - being a millionaire former publisher - knows how to sell his books.

Typically, he is attracted to writing about powerful, male figures of recent history and often includes autobiographical elements in his work. His own story reads a bit like a grown-up boy's own adventure: his Sri Lankan family was impoverished by a drunken father, forcing the son to make it on his own in the jungles of finance. Ondaatje made millions of dollars building a business empire in Canada before chucking it in for a life of exploration and writing, and has since given away a vast share of his fortune to philanthropic causes.

That same sense of daring, of urgency, crops up every few pages in The Power of Paper. Rather than write a conventional account of his own life (which he has yet to do), he has chosen to weave elements of his personal story into a thesis about financial markets, which ends with a powerful warning.

To set the scene, he goes all the way back to the use of papyrus in ancient Egypt and the invention of paper in ancient China; via Gutenberg and Caxton to the Bank of England's first issues of printed banknotes (redeemable, of course, for gold). It was the abandonment of the gold standard by Britain in 1931, and of dollar convertibility to gold in international monetary dealings in 1971, that he sees as the crucial turning points in the debasement of finance through the creation of credit and wealth backed by paper only.

Ondaatje weaves elements of his own story into all this: how Pagurian, his publishing firm, became a vehicle for corporate finance, which industries he entered, where he invested and so on. As he has said elsewhere, it was a powerful desire to prove his worth to his dead father, as well as a desire to drag the once-respected Ondaatjes back to prominence, that lay at the heart of his fanatical drive.

That said, The Power of Paper is not as powerful or simple a work as some of his previous efforts. It flits from economics to history to his own story and back, somewhat uncomfortably. It is also heavy - in the literal sense. As befits the subject, the work is printed on thick, expensive paper. But there is a genuine message of importance. At the end of the book, Ondaatje's words crystallise. He forecasts that the American housing bubble, based on reckless mortgage lending, will burst, with repercussions for us all. And while The Power of Paper was at the printers, it did.

Apparently the 74-year-old swashbuckling financier feared his warning of economic meltdown would come too late, so he wrote faster and faster in his hectic longhand, predicting that the present abuse of money in the financial world could cause the global economy to collapse, creating chaos and confusion from America to China.

Ondaatje blames not paper, but the 'get rich quick' mentality of us all for these problems. We would do well to pay attention.