Tag Archives: Michael Ondaatje

The Venus Flytrap: Ondaatje’s Bibliography

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A few months before I finished school, due to a set of circumstances that don’t lend themselves to a brief explanation, my siblings and I stayed for several days at the home of a friend of our mother’s. I was 15. The house had what I recognise in retrospect was probably a mostly decorative library, but it contained real books, and I spent hours perusing them. Some lines from a novel I found then remain indelible to me, and they return now to describe my chance discovery of it: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Toward a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams.” I don’t know what made me open Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, what tempted me toward what was an unusual choice for my reading tastes back then, but I do know that it permanently changed those tastes – and me. That was a book that raised me. I became an adult as I turned its pages, emerging in new skin, freshly initiated, as I closed it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight. Like any Ondaatje after my first one, I came to it not with a sense of excitement but a sense of trust. Some books, and some bodies of work, are simply reliable that way. The time you spend with them is like seeing someone you share a long affinity with – sometimes you will speak of nothing special, but the point is that it is never transactional. Something caught my eye this time: on the page with the list of the author’s prior works, each title had a year in brackets after it. I’d read many of them, but what I’d never clocked was their chronology. Of Ondaatje’s 20 books, his first five – published between 1967 and 1976 – were obscure poetry collections. His life didn’t begin with his fame, and neither do decades of fame sum up his life.

Pondering that list gave me much for one of my current preoccupations: the deeply discursive questions of interior lives, and how, say, the volume of 20 books stands against every other method in which to measure 75 years of life. It reminded me of something my father innocently said when I signed a book contract once, for a work that wouldn’t be released for over a year later: “But what will the publishers do until then?” The same holds for what people imagine the author does, and this is true of everyone whose work requires a public presence. I nuzzle these contemplations often, applying them gently to everyone I encounter. This is bridge-work, for it helps me not only parse the lacuna between what is perceived of me and the true fabric of my days, but to also engage more meaningfully in those encounters.

These lines from Warlight say it all: “I could have entered and roamed within the story of their marriage as easily as I might have within the lives of others who had surrounded me in my youth, who were part of my self-portrait, composed from the way they had caught glimpses of me.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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Up until somewhere near its midway mark, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – the story, primarily, of a boy’s voyage on a ship from Colombo to England in the 1950’s – proceeds with a certain deceptive simplicity. The boy, named like the author as Michael but known to most of his fellow passengers under the nickname Mynah, is the 11-year old child of divorced parents on a migratory journey, being sent to reunite with his estranged mother. While this echoes, biographically speaking, Ondaatje’s own early background and departure from Sri Lanka, an author’s note insists that this is a work of fiction – and indeed, the events on board the Oronsay are fraught with such drama and intrigue that one would not necessarily imagine otherwise.

At sea for twenty-one days, Mynah befriends Ramadhin, whose troubled heart lends him a cautious nature, and the confident, thrill-seeking Cassius. The trio find themselves assigned the same table at mealtimes – the eponymous Cat’s Table, as one of the other diners calls it, far from the Captain’s and seemingly not of particular ranking or importance. Free of serious adult supervision for the most part, the boys enjoy the small autonomies of travelling alone – sliding on polished floors, dive-bombing into the pool and staying up late – alongside varying encounters with others onboard, who reveal, by their own examples or in direct interactions, numerous things about adulthood that will tincture their understanding of life for a long time afterward.

He remains friends with Ramadhin after they walk off the gangplank, and eventually becomes a part of his family, but loses touch with Cassius. Still, he never stops circling his old friend in some way: a successful writer in adulthood, Michael goes to an exhibit of Cassius’s paintings – inspired, he discovers there, by their time on the Oronsay – and signs the guestbook as ‘Mynah’ yet leaves no address. And although he says that he has rarely thought of the voyage, its impact on the way he understands consequence, relationships and change is profound, deeply sublimated.

And this is where something shifts in the narrative. About halfway through the book, the adult Michael’s voice becomes truly adult in its reminiscences. There is a kiss that “knocks the door down for the next few years”, “an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie”, and suddenly we are seduced – here again is the idiom Ondaatje is famous for.

While the sustained intensity of The English Patient or Anil’s Ghost, to name his two most acclaimed – and stunning – novels, never quite manifests in the same way, The Cat’s Table contains its moments of beauty. If the name Michael appropriated for a narrator who is adamantly fictitious is a sort of reverse red herring, then there are others that the devoted Ondaatje reader will recognize and delight in. On board the ship is a handicapped girl who had once become a trapeze artist, after tracking down a long-lost aunt in a troupe that performs in “a new village in the southern province every week”. Immediately evoked is a poem from his 1998 collection Handwriting entitled “Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus”. This is what it means when an artist, over the course of his career, successfully creates a whole world in his body of work – wandering it, the reader finds herself in familiar rooms.

Later, in the book’s most breath-catching passage, the one most reminiscent of the elegance of his earlier prose, Michael reads a letter from the hitherto incomprehensible Miss Lasqueti to his cousin Emily. Both had been on the ship: the former is the one who has so named the Cat’s Table, the latter is onboard by coincidence, but her presence affects and alters the young Mynah deeply. Lasqueti writes of a time in her past when she had fallen under the spell of a powerful man, just as Emily has, and of what the experience taught her and what had been taken from her as a result. In one luminous line, she mentions in passing the artist Caravaggio, for whom Ondaatje named a protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient.

What begins as an adventure story is thus revealed to be a novel about adulthood as disillusionment and the untraceable origins of damage. What happens to Mynah on the ship is not anything as obvious as trauma; he is simply an observer, and in this way the events of those three weeks influence him in a subtle but indelible way. And there are events aplenty: how could there not be, when his co-passengers include a prisoner, a botanist transporting an entire garden across the world and a businessman with a curse on his head, to name just a few.

Good books by great authors sometimes suffer on account of their siblings. Though by turns moving and delightful, The Cat’s Table is not Ondaatje’s most wondrous work, but it helps to keep in mind that this is a book by a master of his craft being compared to other pieces of his own oeuvre. It is not an opus composed at the height of his powers, but coasts on a pleasant, if modest, plateau.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.