On a Mystery Voyage with Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje; drawing by David Levine

Art is like life: some fiction writers are familiar to us, in the way some physiognomies are familiar; while others—the misfits—prove always strange. With them, each new creation is like the unfurling of an undiscovered flower, the shape and color and scent of which must surprise. It is naturally safer to be—and to read—writers of the former sort; but infinitely more exciting to encounter the latter. For those of us who also write, the eccentric imaginations are not simply a focus of admiration, but a source of inspiration, even awe.

Each book by Michael Ondaatje is, thrillingly, a departure, in some way unclassifiable. He is by no means a fantasist, but in the manner of a lyric poet (which he is also), he deploys juxtaposition and silence, as well as language and narrative, to create new worlds and new thoughts out of the real. Books like In the Skin of a Lion, Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, and Divisadero are fictions that provoke and unsettle as much as, and even sometimes more than, they delight. In Ondaatje’s work, predictable boundaries are always in question: Is this poetry or prose? Fact or fiction? Real or imaginary? He writes from the space where memory, history, the dreamed, and the imagined converge, even while remaining respectful of the unknowable interstices between character, author, and reader.

In a rare, distinctly essayistic moment in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje articulates his position thus:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they: we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves…. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

This view, almost an authorial ethics of representation, explains some aspects of Ondaatje’s literary style: his prose, while gorgeous, is on occasion quite oblique, and his narratives—as is true of The Cat’s Table—can be strikingly fragmented. (It is wonderful and, in these fundamentally homogenizing times, increasingly rare to encounter a writer who does not shape his art to a known and satisfying form, but instead fashions the form around his content.) His goal is to reach toward that elusive complex we might call experienced human reality, and in so doing, precisely to grant each of his characters his own wisdom and autonomy. In an Ondaatje novel, there is much that we do not directly know, much that we cannot know for certain. It is one of the traits that link all his books.

In The Cat’s Table, we are both certain and uncertain of our narrator’s identity: that’s to say, Ondaatje toys with the degree to which the narrator resembles…

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