LONDON, England / The Economist / Books, art and culture / September 21, 2011
The Q&A By Prospero
MICHAEL ONDAATJE, now 68, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist, has spent his career depicting the lives of misfits and migrants; people often absent from official histories. With poetic language, he has inhabited the world of Toronto’s eastern European bridge-builders in the 1920s—in his early masterpiece “In the Skin of a Lion”—and of a Sikh bomb-disposal expert during the second world war in his more famous “The English Patient”, a romantic epic that was turned into a successful film.
His latest novel, "The Cat's Table", appears to be his most autobiographical (reviewed by The Economist - below). Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of an 11-year-old boy's journey on a ship called the Oronsay travelling from Sri Lanka to England (Ondaatje made just such a passage himself). During the voyage the young boy—also named Michael—befriends two other boys of the same age: a tough guy called Cassius and the timid, philosophical Ramadhin. It's a coming-of-age story, written in the sensuous prose typical of Ondaatje's fiction, a richness of language that betrays a poet's eye and ear.
Michael Ondaatje spoke to More Intelligent Life about building a novel from a single image, his preference for prose over poetry and why he believes there is an ultimate truth in fiction writing.
Click here for full interview
The Cat’s Table
By Michael Ondaatje.
Jonathan Cape; 293 pages; £16.99
A good spin on it
Dreams within dreams
For his sixth novel, Mr Ondaatje offers a more personal story of dislocation. Using the “colouring and locations of memoir” (as noted in an afterword), “The Cat’s Table” charts the 21-day sea voyage of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, who travels from Ceylon to England in 1954 to join a mother he has not seen for years. Mr Ondaatje made such a journey, before emigrating to Canada aged 19. His fictionalised portrait of the artist as a young man is recalled by an older, disillusioned narrator. What begins as an enchanted adventure of youth becomes freighted with trauma and loss.
The ocean liner, the Oronsay, is a floating microcosm of 1950s social mores and hierarchies. Michael dines at the “cat’s table”—the “least privileged place”, farthest from the captain (who, it transpires, is “not fond of his Asian cargo”). This is where he befriends two other Ceylonese boys and escapes the supervision of an almost-aunt in first class. Such social invisibility lets the boys observe any drama unseen. Events on the ship will ultimately seal Michael’s distrust of the “authority and prestige of all Head Tables”.
The ship affords a rich array of characters, from a “brutal financier” suffering from rabies (a half-comic lesson in the impotence of wealth) to a jewel thief who swans about in first class. Michael and his friends spy on board a manacled convict, rumoured to have killed an English judge in Ceylon. Yet a plot to free the prisoner—involving Michael’s distant cousin Emily and a troupe of Indian acrobats—forever changes the children.
In a novel superbly poised between the magic of innocence and the melancholy of experience, Mr Ondaatje probes what it means to have a cautious heart. Children may learn to protect themselves against vulnerability. But in deflecting trust and intimacy, such “cold-blooded self-sufficiency” can also wreck lives.
Picture credit: Kanaka Menehune (via Flickr)
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