‘Quien es?’ The last words of William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, have obsessed many people. ‘Who is it?’ is a simple enough question to ask in a darkened room where you think a friend is sleeping, but really your death lies hidden and holding a Winchester which will spread your brains all over the floor… ‘Quien es?’ The words hang in the air long after the body has fallen. They obsessed William Burroughs even before he shot his wife, trying to emulate William Tell at a party with a .357 Magnum. They completely sum up the existential choice of the gunfighter as he faces the stranger in the saloon who has insulted him, and begins to go for his Colt. Who is it? The answer is always the same for somebody and nowhere has the spirit of the question been captured better than in Michael Ondaatje’s revolutionary book.
The book is revolutionary because it is a collage of poetry, newspaper reports and reminiscences the author has woven together to produce a result one can call a novel, in the sense that the character of Billy is examined and developed and placed expertly in a totally believable landscape. Ondaatje uses that familiar technique of drawing in the background so as slowly to reveal the enigmatic hero, who even counts the birds he shoots during target practice, alongside ‘One man who bit me during a robbery./ Brady, Hindman, Beckwith…’ and all the others he blew away. A man who remembers and regrets the birds he kills cannot be just a psychopathic machine.
Billy, in Ondaatje’s interpretation an exuberant cheerful soul who likes dancing, also shoots a rabid cat through the floorboards of a friend’s house in a scene which is as funny as it is chilling. On one hand is the boy willing to please. On the other is the obsessive adolescent,