Sunday, November 6, 2011

2011.10.23 — The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje — finished 2011.10.17

Began 2011.09.27.
Michael Ondaatje.
The Cat's Table.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7710-6864-5.

Michael Ondaatje is one of the true masters of English poetry in prose. But when I learned that The Cat's Table was in the style of a memoir, I was slightly disappointed because, with some exceptions, I have not been fond of memoirs as such. However I felt curious and expectant that he would convert me. He did. He exceeded expectation because he managed, again, to convince me while reading his latest book that the one in my hands is my new Ondaatje favourite.


And to describe it as a memoir is an accurate description, but only in the same way that to say the sky is blue is accurate: it misses the complexity of the experience. The arc of the story is a memoir of a pre-pubescent boy sent to England on a ship with scant adult supervision. Some critics I've read found that to be a stumbling point, but my childhood spent with scant adult supervision for extended periods of time is eerily echoed in how Michael interacts with the adult social marginals he and his new found friends are assigned to sit with at the cat's table, which is, I learned in this book, that one table in a public space that no one wants to be seated at. Thus he is lumped in with the ship's other dining room undesirables and comes to learn that what does not glitter may very well yield gold and beyond that the even more valuable stuff of a lived life.

In the Q&A portion of the reading I attended, Ondaatje insisted that the book is not a memoir. He claims that, even though he did take a ship from Columbo to England as a child the age of the protagonist, Michael, he has little if even any memory of it. Ondaatje avers that his unremembered childhood trip sparked an idea for a story, that evolved as it was written, to include unexpected characters moving downstage into significance that
he had not imagined.

Regardless memoir or fiction, Ondaatje's writing here is as beautiful as anything he has written:
A peculiarity of Miss Lasqueti was that she was a sleeper. Someone who at certain hours during the day could barely stay awake. You saw her fighting it. This struggle made her endearing, as if she were forever warding off an unjustified punishment. You'd walk past her in a deck chair, her head falling slowly towards the book she was attempting to read. She was in many ways our table's ghost, for it was also revealed that she sleepwalked, a dangerous habit on a ship. A sliver of white, I see her always, against the dark rolling sea.

What was her future? What had been her past? She was the only one from the Cat's Table who was able to force us out of ourselves in order to imagine another's life. I admit it was mostly Ramadhin who coaxed this empathy from Cassius and me. Ramadhin was always the most generous of the three of us. But for the first time in our lives we began to sense there was an unlairness in someone else's life. Miss Lasqueti had, I remember, "gunpowder tea," which she mixed with a cup of hot water at our table, then poured into a thermos before she left us for the afternoon. You could actually see the flush enter her face as the drink knocked her awake (p74).
Sleep is a prison* for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship. We could not wait to continue exploring this universe. Lying in my bunk I would hear Ramadhin's gentle knock on the door, in code. A pointless code, really—who else could it have been at that hour? Two taps, a long pause, another tap. If I did not climb down and open the door I would hear his theatrical cough. And if I still did not respond, I would hear him whisper "Mynah," which had become my nickname (p24).
*I read the evocative phrase Sleep is a prison the day after I finished reading the play A Sleep of Prisoners. The uniqueness of both phrases — I hadn't read either one anywhere that I remember — has prompted me to include this as a fushigi. Or at least close enough for me to blog it as such. [Addendum: The Cat's Table is also loosely entangled in another, 'future' fushigi, involving cats. See The Cat & the Camel blog.]

Beyond the sheer beauty of the writing Ondaatje seamlessly moves through the story using various voices. He has captured with perfection what I remember as the feelings of childhood wonder and acceptance of the process of being alive through Michael's eyes. Things simply are: the trip, the people, the intense life changing friendship that lasted for only 21 days. But Ondaatje also brings to the telling the reflectiveness of an adult considering a particular childhood passage. And he does this with a grace and lightness of touch that manages to keep the child's feeling of life's magic fully alive. And then he plays the omniscient writer's role to elaborate the background of two of the characters.

And Ondaatje brings to fruition a mystery that is introduced, invisibly, quite early, that becomes a mystery well into the book, and closes with human simplicity and gentle, quiet satisfaction.

All seamlessly. A breathtakingly beautiful and fulfilling read.

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