The Cat's Table/Michael Ondaatje: Reflections

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What is it that I want from a Michael Ondaatje novel?  What is it that I get?  Why, in a week of grave disappointments and disillusionment, did I feel that little could save me from my own dark sink except for this man and his words?

Does he write perfect novels?  No, perhaps not; wouldn't that be a bore?  Does he write atmospheric, human ones—books that, with their slow spill of language, their lush So So So, their abutted chapters and strange place names, their oddities of plant life, their sacred spectral skies, swoon beneath the reader's eye?  Yes.  He does.  Has Ondaatje himself always been there, right beneath the lines—so close you can hear him breathing?  God, yes and absolutely.  Michael Ondaatje is that rare, rare thing:  a writer crushingly alive. 

I don't care if he gets the plots right.  I don't care what the plots are.  I will let someone else tell you about the voyage that is his brand-new book, The Cat's Eye.  How it is a first-person story with a narrator named Michael who comes from a place called Ceylon.  How it is fiction nonetheless, a story about three boys, 11 of age or so, who spend 21 days on a boat called the Oronsay.  They eat at the Cat's Table, where the lesser among the passengers sit.  They make trouble of their own and find the trouble others make.  It awakens them.  It crushes and folds and shapes them. It lives with them, later—close to the surface or buried deep.  There are mysteries involved.

Let others tell you this.

All I want is to say that, yes, Michael Ondaatje saves me.  It is the way he conducts his portrait-making.  The simple. The exotic. The yearned after.
What was I in those days? I recall no outside imprint, and therefore no perception of myself. If I had to invent one photograph of myself from childhood, it would be of a barefoot boy in shorts and a cotton shirt, with a couple of friends from the village, running along the mildewed wall that separated the house and garden in Boralesgamuwa from the traffic on the High Level Road. Or it would be of me alone, waiting for them, looking away from the house of the dusty street.
It's the way he captures, in all he writes, the power of the word:
I would visit that smoky room if the day was dull, and he would at some point begin reading to me. It was the anonymity of the stories and the poems that went deepest into me. And the curl of a rhyme was something new. I had not thought to believe he was actually quoting something written with care, in some far country, centuries earlier. He had lived in Colombo all his life, and his manner and accent were a product of the island....
It is the way he teaches that we can all rise again. That we can reshape ourselves and be reshaped.  We can be reborn:
...because in a breaker's yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade.  You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.


Lindsey said...

Ondaatje is probably my favorite novelist, and his words stick in my head and haunt me, in the best possible way. I need to read this one! xoxo

aquafortis said...

He's one of my absolute favorites. I read The English Patient for a class and found myself re-reading passages that completely took my breath away. I'm so glad to see he's got a new one out! And you're right--the plot almost doesn't matter sometimes.

Anna Lefler said...


Especially for that last sentence, which hit me like a bowling ball.


~ A.

Beth F said...

Now you're making me think I should give this a try. I started English Patient twice and couldn't get through it. I finally skimmed it because my book club picked it.

I fell asleep during the movie.

I never tried him again. Perhaps I should.

Lilian Nattel said...

I can love a book that is weak in plot but gorgeous in words. I can't read a book that is strong in plot but cliched in its writing.

Mandy said...

I haven't had time to start this one yet. Lucky you. I think I might set it aside for this weekend. :)

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