Michael Ondaatje: ‘The Cat’s Table’

‘He was eleven years old that night,’ reads the excerpt in The New Yorker, ‘green as he could be about the world, when he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life.’ The lines from ‘The Cat’s Table’ appear right on time – going by his usual publishing schedule, Michael Ondaatje is just about due for a new novel. (His last one Divisadero was published in 2007.) Announcing a date in early October, his publishers described the book as Ondaatje’s ‘most thrilling yet,’ and ‘the best thing Ondaatje has done,’ but as the author notes wryly, “they are after all my publishers.” Still, ‘The Cat’s Table’ is quite different from his other books, Ondaatje tells me in a phone interview – “It’s a bit more light-hearted, perhaps but also intimate, hopefully.”

Michael Ondaatje delivering the keynote address at the Geoffrey Bawa Awards night recently

Set in the 1950s, the story follows an eleven-year-old boy who boards a ship out of Colombo bound for England. As he steps onto the dock, he is dazzled by the sight of it: ‘It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, more brightly illuminated than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching the path of his feet – nothing ahead of him existed – and continued till he was on the other side of the ship, facing the dark harbour and sea.’

Though he begins his journey seemingly isolated, aboard the ship the boy meets two other young sailors – Cassius and Ramadhin become friends and partners in crime.

At mealtimes, the group, made up of other nobodies like themselves, is seated at the ‘cat’s table’; far away from the captain as is befitting their humble status on board. As the ship ploughs across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys find much to entertain them – ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury,’ they fall into adventure and mischief. Around them conversations abound as adults discuss jazz and women. But out of sight is a deeper mystery – a shackled prisoner whose crime and eventual fate the three young men can only guess at.

Ondaatje, who has been a literary landlubber for most part says he was drawn to the idea of setting a story aboard a ship. “I thought I would limit myself because in some ways the other books have been towards different landscapes, leaping around here and there. I thought I would try to write in one location,” he says adding that he enjoyed the contradiction in which his universe was limited to the constrained spaces aboard a ship, while the ship itself was in constant motion. You’re there with all these other people and you have to discover yourself in them, he says. “It’s interesting because it could be a French farce or it could be a tragedy.”

The author has confessed to a decided reluctance to plot his books well in advance. He began this one with “the image of a young boy getting on a ship and going to a place he had never heard of and knew nothing about.” The plot that follows, very naturally arose out of the questions the image provoked. “Does it become an adventure or does it become something scary or does it change him? It’s all of that really.” It’s essential to his process, says Ondaatje that it takes him 3 or 4 years to write the book and nearly another 2 to simply edit it down. “It’s partly because I’m discovering the story in the first draft and all the other drafts are really about fine tuning it and hopefully making it more exciting.”

With six novels, one of them the Booker Prize winning ‘The English Patient’, Ondaatje has learned to be philosophical about the book’s eventual reception. He’s still not immune to nervousness though, and says he feels it well before the publishing date arrives. “When I’m writing the book, I’m writing it in complete privacy so that no one ever really sees any of it. The really scary part is when you start to show it to family and to friends and to get their responses. They might say it’s completely crazy or that they like it. That’s the time when it’s really nerve wracking.” As he continues to work on the book, his focus he says is on tightening that first draft, testing everything so that it actually makes sense to everyone.

Listening to him one cannot help but notice the plainness of his speech and its directness; the sounds are in sharp contrast to his writing. On paper, Ondaatje can startle you into seeing language afresh – so much so that his prose often reads like pure poetry, oscillating between the past and the present, between emotion and intellect, between myth and documentary. It is also unapologetically dense, made intense with rich, fresh metaphors and intricate imagery. For those who quail at the thought, his new book might just prove easier reading; while there is the odd challenge to chronology, the author describes ‘The Cat’s Table’ as a “bit more normal.”

As he waits to see what his readers will make of it, he’ll be taking a break from fiction, perhaps even shifting gear to writing non-fiction or poetry. He has admittedly been more prolific in the latter format – publishing 12 volumes as opposed to five novels and winning the Governor General’s Award for ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’ (1970). Now the author who lives in Toronto, Canada says he would like to return to penning the odd stanza.

Perhaps he’ll be inspired by his brief sojourn here in Sri Lanka, the island which he called home for the first 11 years of his life and whose influence can be felt in beautiful pieces like ‘The Cinnamon Peeler.’ “It feels very good to be back,” says the author, explaining that it’s his first visit in just under four years. He was here to speak at the Geoffrey Bawa Awards, 2011 but Ondaatje, who will turn 68 this September, has also been immersing himself in family. “It’s been a long time and it’s just wonderful to be here with them. They’re a very important part of my life.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on August 7, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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