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On a Mystery Voyage with Michael Ondaatje

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 the author himself. His name is Michael; now in his late sixties, he is a writer; he speaks to us on occasion, as in the quotation above, as if he were at the podium at Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival. He relates the story of his three-week crossing by ship from Ceylon to England, in 1954, at the age of eleven—which is, indeed, the year in which Ondaatje traveled to Great Britain, and the age he was when he did so. How much the young Ondaatje resembled, in reality, the heedless and exuberant wrongdoer he describes—who with his two friends Ramadhin and Cassius “established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden”—is ultimately an irrelevance; just as it is irrelevant, really, whether the ship Oronsay of Ondaatje’s childhood actually carried a rabid millionaire cursed by a monk, a troupe of acrobats, a ladylike spy, or a prisoner in chains. The reality that Ondaatje creates on the page has the force of life itself, and that is all that matters.

Centrally, this novel is a fine example of that most deceptively simple of art forms, the bildungsroman. The rite of passage here is literal: a ship’s journey from Asia to Europe, via Aden and Port Said, passing in the night the port of El Suweis (Suez): “Cassius and I perched precariously on the bow railing, where we could witness the fragmentary tableaux below us—a merchant with his stall of food, engineers talking by a bonfire…. A dockworker held up something, a plant or an animal….”

In the space of a few short weeks, Michael, nicknamed Mynah, and his two close mates, young boys also temporarily orphaned for the duration of the voyage, experience an education as intense as it is various: the trio thieves, deceives, battles nature, solves mysteries, discovers plants, animals, music, and women. They smoke “twigs broken off from a cane chair that we lit and sucked at” and, with Mr. Daniels, who has an extraordinary greenhouse in the hold, they smoke a stronger herb. They race the decks at dawn, leap into the swimming pool, plunder the First Class breakfast buffet. Unsupervised, Peter Pan–like, they live out any child’s fantasy, and experience ineffable emotions for which, more than fifty years later, the narrator has still only the most circumspect of explanations: “And was it a pleasure or a sadness, this life inside me? It was as if with its existence I was lacking something essential, like water.”

This distance—the pressure of a lifetime between “then” and “now”—is also crucial to The Cat’s Table. These pages don’t simply capture viscerally the eleven-year-old’s joy at discovery, or his unspeakable fears, or his first stirrings of desire—although to do that successfully is in itself a rarer achievement than one might wish to believe. They also emanate, like a scent, the melancholy of age, the tender wistfulness with which a man over sixty sees again the vistas of his childhood. Through his use of a loose and fairly fragmentary form, in which some chapters are titled and others are not, Ondaatje is able to move fluidly between an immediately rendered distant past and the events, much later in life, that have ensued from that past.

Ondaatje enables us to see, thus, the interlacing of these shipmates’ fates over the years. The effect is rather like a condensed (and less humorous, although by no means humorless) version of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time: teachers and friends resurface intermittently, sometimes with unexpected revelations, altering our understanding of what has gone before. The dramatic secret history of the mild Miss Lasqueti is eventually disclosed, almost as a digression; as is the unexpected, sorry story of Asuntha, the deaf girl who travels with the acrobats of the Jankla Troupe. With the wisdom of distance, Michael will help us to piece together into a story the disparate, unreadable incidents witnessed on board ship, and thereby to construct a fate for the shackled prisoner in the Oronsay‘s hold.

The lifetime between the journey and its recounting allows also for the simple unfolding of the future: the boys are fathers to the men they become, and we are saddened but not perhaps surprised at the fate of the sensitive, delicate, and thoughtful Ramadhin, “the saint of our clandestine family,” who will prove, rather like Beth in Little Women, too good for this world. Even as a young adult, Ramadhin lives, for Michael at least, in the past:

So once again I entered their home on Terracotta Road…. It was a time capsule of our youth—the small television set, the same portraits of Ramadhin’s grandparents in front of their home in Mutwal. The past his family had brought to this country would never be given up.

Bearer of their Ceylonese history, Ramadhin is also possessed of a dangerously lovable sister, Massi—more like Cassius than like her brother—whom Michael will eventually marry. In this and many other ways, his influence upon Michael is abiding: “Ramadhin’s heart. Ramadhin’s dog. Ramadhin’s sister. Ramadhin’s girl. It is only now that I see the various milestones in my life that connected the two of us.”

We learn, too, with a sense of inevitability, that the reckless outlaw Cassius, responsible for their most daring schemes on board ship, has become an artist renowned for his rebellious spirit, the lost boy to whom Michael is connected by his art. Although he has not seen Cassius since their parting when the Oronsay docked in London, Michael recalls an exhibition of Cassius’s paintings in London fifteen years thereafter:

What I saw in the paintings was Cassius himself…. They were all about that night in El Suweis…. I even found Ramadhin’s small dog gazing up at the boat. All this enlarged me, and I did not know why. I suppose it clarified how close Cassius and I had been, real brothers. For he also had witnessed the people I saw that night, with whom we had felt so oddly aligned, whom we would never see again. Only there.

The alignment of their brotherhood has always remained strong: “I suppose [Cassius] changed me during those twenty-one days, persuading me to interpret anything that took place around us with his quizzical or upside-down perspective. Twenty-one days is a very brief period in a life, but I would never unlearn the whisper of Cassius”—so much so, indeed, that he announces the following dedication, near the end of the book: “I have no idea if Cassius reads, or if he scorns reading. In any case, this account is for him. For the other friend from my youth.”

There is certainly, throughout, the unstated assertion that this is the voyage that shaped Michael’s future self, that marked him more indelibly than, at the time, he could have understood. These people, most of whom he would never see again, altered his future outline in the world—even if they did so only in hindsight:

The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.

The novel is, then, a construction, a reconstruction, and a reflection upon the nature of reconstruction. The Cat’s Table is alluring, and delectable, because of this duality, which enables us both to stand with the adult Michael and to run with Mynah the boy.

For Mynah, the ship is a cabinet of wonders. Some delights, like the Australian girl who roller-skates on the decks before daybreak, are easily discovered; others are perforce more hidden, such as Mynah’s period of service to the mysterious Baron C, who smears the boy in motor oil in order that he might shimmy through stateroom windows and unlock their doors, thus enabling the Baron discreetly to remove certain objects of value. “What the Baron gave me was another self, something as small as a pencil sharpener. It was a little escape into being somebody else, a door I would postpone opening for some years….” The Baron disembarks “prematurely” at Port Said, thus putting an end to Michael’s life of juvenile crime, and his other self into prolonged abeyance.

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