'Then I thought, Oh. This is a bit dangerous . . .'
It was a delight to choreograph the characters who danced into his latest novel, but naming one of them ‘Michael’ was probably too mischievous, says author Michael Ondaatje
‘A boy gets on a boat – and gets off a boat,” is how Michael Ondaatje describes the storyline of his new novel, The Cat’s Table. Happily for his readers a great deal happens in between. The boy makes two friends of his own age and the trio roam unchecked around Oronsay, a ship en route from Sri Lanka to England with an eccentric collection of passengers. In a series of short chapters, sometimes a page or less, we, too, roam the decks and hide in the lifeboats, eavesdropping on the dramas, decadence and dangers of shipboard life.
Like all of Ondaatje’s novels, The Cat’s Tableis gloriously readable and composed with infinite care; it also features his trademark narrative dislocation in the form of flash-forwards to the future. In both tone and subject matter, however, it is sunnier than its predecessors: In the Skin of a Lion,his study of immigrants in Toronto; Coming Through Slaughter, loosely based on the life of the jazzman Buddy Bolden; Anil’s Ghost,about a forensic anthropologist who carries out an investigation in Sri Lanka; Divisadero, a tale of star-crossed lovers; and the Booker prize-winning The English Patient,which is really a war novel.
Writing The Cat’s Tablewas more like writing a French farce, says Ondaatje. “Characters just started arriving. Doors opening, doors closing and stuff like that. It was a delight to choreograph them. Sometimes when I’m writing books I have three or four more characters who get dumped by the time the book is published, but I was too fond of these people to dump anybody. It was a more social book, in that sense, as opposed to some beleaguered soul in California or France or wherever.”
The book’s title refers to Table 76, where the boys sit down to eat with a botanist, a tailor, a pianist who has, in his own cheerful words, “hit the skids”, a retired ship dismantler and the enigmatic Miss Lasqueti, who may or may not be a spy. In the novel, it is she who comes up with the evocative phrase “the cat’s table”; in real life, Ondaatje heard the expression from a German publisher.
“She said, ‘I had a dream last night where I was at a very posh event, but I was at the cat’s table.’ I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ And she said, ‘Well, if you’re at some famous “do” and you’re sitting by the bathrooms or the kitchens.’ I had never heard the expression before, so I made a note of it. And it helped the book, actually, because I already had people sitting at a table, but suddenly there was a badge for this particular group.”
Ondaatje is amiable and easygoing, with a shock of white hair, dimples in his cheeks and a twinkle in his eyes. His speaking voice reflects his life’s journey – he moved from Sri Lanka to England at the age of 11, then to Canada at 19 – adding a mellow overlay of Canadian vowels to the crisp consonants of the Indian subcontinent. It seems entirely in character that he would call the boy in The Cat’s Table“Michael”, causing the reader to wonder whether the “I” of the first person narration is, in fact, the author. Was that a bit of mischief on his part?
He laughs. “It was probably too mischievous,” he says. “I had no idea I was going to have the name Michael in the book until I suddenly just put it in. Then I thought, Oh. This is a bit dangerous, and a bit nervy. But I sort of liked it because it immediately made it more intimate for the reader. Is this the writer? Is this not the writer? I don’t see it as the writer at all. Except for the geographical connections with places – Canada, Sri Lanka, London, Dulwich College – that I had as locations in my life.”
It’s a big exception. And, having read The Cat’s Tableimmediately after reading Running in the Family, Ondaatje’s exuberant 1983 memoir of family life in Sri Lanka, the new book might have been a sequel. “Yes. And somebody pointed out there was also a guy in that book who gets rabies and goes on a ship. And I’d totally forgotten this guy. Totally forgotten. I mean, I haven’t read Runningsince I wrote it, so who knows what I’m repeating, or playing with, you know?
“I do like that zone between fiction and fact, or fiction and nonfiction. Kinky Friedman once said, ‘There’s a very fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I think I snorted it in 1976.’ And in a way, it’s ludicrous to talk about fiction and nonfiction today, because your own persona is always at work. Even if you’re writing a historical novel about Plato or something like that, any writer is going to bring aspects of himself into that portrait. Or some very unlikely character.”
The Ondaatje family story is packed with unlikely characters: aunts ensconced in 18th-century Dutch mansions in Jaffna; parties where people danced until they fell down; innumerable affairs; a father who had an unfortunate tendency to wave a gun around on the train, or to strip off all his clothes and run naked into the bush, which is perhaps why they keep popping up in Ondaatje’s fiction. Even The English Patient, for all its angst, has some light relief in the shape of a burglar called Caravaggio, with a penchant for changing the day on the advent calendar of the people whose houses he breaks into and for making friends with their dogs.
“There’s nothing you can do in fiction that’s more sensational than the factual things around us,” Ondaatje says. “In Running in the Family there’s a sort of tone of the family. And when I go back to Sri Lanka, I keep hearing that tone in other stories in a slightly bizarre way. I remember going back a few years ago, and I heard someone saying, ‘You know that road where there’s an obstruction near Kandy? Whenever we get there my family always starts arguing about whether so and so is still alive or not . . .’ Well, that’s the kind of thing that could easily have been in Running in the Family.” He sounds, briefly, as if he’s sorry it isn’t.
Ondaatje invents and collects scraps, comments and impressions and arranges them in his multilayered narratives. “I like to have a group of characters in a novel instead of a single voice,” he says. “It’s true of Skin of a Lionand English Patient– and, to a certain extent, Anil’s Ghost. And for sure in The Cat’s Table,where you don’t just have one perspective. For me that’s often the problem with a book: there’s, say, some manic guy driving a car at midnight, and that’s it. That’s what the novel is about. I like to have a group of people moving in a tentacle-like way over a period of years.”
Ondaatje attributes his literary modus operandi to the fact that his first two published books, The Dainty Monstersand The Man With Seven Toes, were books of poetry. “So there you have a random 45 poems that you have to kind of shape to make a book of poetry out of it. When I wrote The Collected Works of Billy the KidI wrote all these poems and then some prose and a fake interview and all this stuff. I reshaped it so that it would be more like a collage. I’ve always loved collage: to me, it’s one of the great art forms.
“So that happened with Billy, and it has always been in my other books. In the early books it was using fragments, putting pieces of glass together to make a bigger shape. In the more recent books they are, kind of, scenes. One jostles against the next one, either in contrast or they continue in some way. Often the problem when you have more than two plots going, like in The English Patient, if you’re going back to, say, the desert, it has to be a bit more interesting than what you’ve just done. Otherwise the reader will miss the last scene.”
With 11 published books of poetry, compared to six novels, he should, arguably, be better known as a poet than a novelist. It’s a discipline that allows him to take liberties with time and space. “You don’t say everything in a poem. You say two-thirds, and you leave the other third for the reader to infiltrate in some way. I think that’s one of the things I try to do.”
In Running in the Family, he included some poems in the middle of the prose. Was he not afraid of losing the reader by interrupting the narrative flow? He chuckles. “You know that little book The Ginger Man, by JP Donleavy? It ends with a poem. I hadn’t thought about that book for years. When I wrote Running In the Familymy American publisher was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re gonna lose 50 per cent of your audience. If they see the poetry in the bookshop before they buy it, they won’t pick it up.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. That’s the way I do it.’ ”
Taking his novels as a guide to Ondaatje’s interests in life, the list would include the following: gambling, music, circus, burglars, dogs. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “dogs, definitely. Not gambling. I know how to play poker, but I don’t. In fact a very good friend of mine who does play poker was very upset that I didn’t talk to him before I published Divisadero. He said, ‘You published a whole section on poker without talking to me?’ He was very angry.” Did the friend approve of the poker chapters in the novel in the end? “Yeah. He said he would have had Coop bet more money than he did in the book, but it was okay. I had actually talked to a magician who was a very good card player and also a gambler . . .
“Burglary? Yes. I’m interested in thieves, though not personally. I think it allows some anarchy to take place in the book because, you know, it’s not an honourable profession. But it’s not as bad as some. So what else? Circus. I think at one time I was gonna write about a guy who ended up in a circus and it didn’t work out. So maybe it comes in now and then. I love music. Jazz, country and western, some classical . . .”
Small wonder that Ondaatje’s books have such a lively diversity of subject matter and location: New Mexico, Italy, California. The gold rush; the work of sappers in the second World War, the natural history of Sri Lanka.
Does he know what his next book will be, or what it will be about? “Haven’t a clue,” he says calmly. “I feel I’ve just climbed out of this book, so . . .” So we can all climb in.
The Cat’s Tableis published by Jonathan Cape
Variety: The spice of Ondaatje's writing
“The Gentile shuffles and deals quickly and angrily, listing what he loves in the world he has left – espresso, plots in Donald Westlake novels, the flavour of chipotle chillies – and Cooper keeps watching the deal. If he accuses The Gentile and he is wrong, he forfeits a thousand. ‘Just a thousand,’ Axel says. ‘Normally if we are falsely accused we pick up a handgun and blast your shoulder off.’ ”
“We approached the canal in darkness, at the stroke of midnight. A few passengers camped on the decks to take in the experience, were half asleep, scarcely conscious of the clangs and bells that guided our ship into the narrow eye of the needle that was El Suweis . . .”
– The Cat’s Table
“Lucas Cantley’s wife Jessica almost died after being shot by an unknown assailant while playing croquet with my grandfather. They found 113 pellets in her. ‘And poor Wilfrid Batholomeusz who had large teeth was killed while out hunting when one of his companions mistook him for a wild boar’.”
– Running in the Family
“She and the Englishman had insisted on remaining behind when the other nurses’ patients moved to a safer location in the south. During this time they were very cold, without electricity. Some rooms faced onto the valley with no walls at all. She would open a door and see just a sodden bed huddled against a corner, covered with leaves. Doors opened into landscape . . .”
– The English Patient