Reading The Cat’s Table
The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2011, HB, 269 pp. $32.00
I like Michael Ondaatje. Unless you want to talk Leonard Cohen, an argument can be made that’s he’s written the most compelling poetry written by a Canadian. Yet he’s known these days not for his poetry, but as the author of best-selling literary novels characterized by florid prose, plots of diaphanous logic and characters moved by oblique motivations that are understood by English professors, romantically-inclined ladies of a certain age, and few others.
Ondaatje and I never been what you’d call friends, but our social circles intersect at enough points that we’re occasionally in the same places, and I’ve become aware of how thoughtful and unassuming he is in person, and how loyal and protective his close friends are. Unassuming thoughtfulness is something that’s nearly impossible to fake, and the loyalties he enjoys, it’s pretty clear, are earned. So, when you admire and like another writer, you read their books.
I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to The Cat’s Table. Since the publication of Coming Through Slaughter (1976), which seemed to promise a new range in Canadian fiction, I’ve had reservations about all of Ondaatje’s novels, which have struck me as increasingly mannered and progressively less compelling, almost to the point where they’ve begun to feel like commercial self-parody. The best of the post-Slaughter novels were the first ones: In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992). Both struck me as accurate commercial moves, and both were successful—the latter, as everyone knows, wildly so.
But both novels, and the subsequent ones more so, have relied heavily on skills those of us who’d followed his maturation as a poet knew he’d mastered: an exotic and rich sensorium, and an emotional obliqueness that put readers (and in the novels, his characters) into situations most people are culturally and temperamentally unfamiliar with. But it seemed to me that increasingly, Ondaatje’s gifts as a poet were being deployed in ways best described as “tamed” if not quite dumbed-down. Since The English Patient, he’s become the poster-boy for “poetic fiction” a strain of novel-manufacturing heavily coached up in the Creative Writing Department, and signaled by an utter sublimation of verity to sensory effusion. Nobody else can do it quite as effectively as he does, and a whole generation of Creative Writing Department products would like to, and so he is at the top of the heap not entirely to be envied. It’s a soothing sort of heap for certain kinds of readers, but it is an increasingly marginal one, and a contributor to written literature’s fade from cultural relevance.
I don’t begrudge Ondaatje the fame and fortune gained with these novels, either in Canada or internationally. As a private person, he’s handled it without cynicism or show, and equally so as a public figure. But since I’m a writer, I’m not obliged to be intellectually submissive to commercial success, and where it concerns Ondaatje, I haven’t been, even though I don’t have a clear view of what he might have achieved had he pursued the experimental trajectory promised by Coming Through Slaughter. Yes, I’ve been disappointed by the books since. But, as one should when a writer one respects is merely disappointing one’s own expectations, I’ve said little, and written nothing.
The Cat’s Table isn’t like the last four novels. It is more readable and engaging, and it is marvelously subtle and intelligent. And so I’m delighted to break my silence.
What seems to be different from his last three and maybe four novels is that most of the fine detail in The Cat’s Table is evocative without having to carry either the symbolic or poetical loads the other novels have been, well, larded with. I can’t say whether this is because Ondaatje is working from private memory or whether he’s decide to break up with the Creative Writing Department that seemed to have wormed its way into his head somewhere between the Canadian success of In the Skin of a Lion and the international acclaim reached by The English Patient. The Cat’s Table isn’t going to get him many course adoptions, and it’s unlikely to make for much of a movie. But it puts this reader back in his camp, and it is, as Cyril Connolly would say, a small masterpiece.
The Cat’s Table begins as if it is a memoir, which it is clearly rooted in: Ondaatje did travel from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England by ship in the mid-1950s and he was roughly the same age as the young narrator of the novel. Thus, clarities of physical fact—or at least memory—are at work. Among the pleasures of the book is tracking the adult Ondaatje through his 11 year old character’s memories as he boards ship on the liner Oronsay and learns the world as it presents itself on the ship. The boy seems very much like the man I’ve met: curious, observant, and reserved.
Ondaatje provides the central mechanism for the story’s actions and for its narrative system in the book title. The “cat’s table” on an ocean liner was the first-in-status table in the ship’s dining room. The “best” people sat at the Captain’s table, with several empty chairs—at least in my one experience of that long-gone mode of travel—kept for those who distinguished themselves during the voyage. The tables around it sat the First Class passengers, and so on down or distant according to the status designations on the particular ship. The “cat’s table” was where the stewards collected the near-feral passengers: social orphans, outcasts, misfits. One suspects, on the Oronsay, that included those of mixed race or—another way—Asians without enough money. Ondaatje’s 11 year old is at that table, with two other South Asian boys roughly his own age, and a collection of more elderly eccentrics. It goes without saying that this is a society of the relatively-privileged, and that there are in the world a lot more tables for those who don’t have assigned chairs or even food: the myriad Rats’ table, as it were.
Never mind that, because that’s my obsession, not Ondaatje’s. On page 74 of The Cat’s Table, he presents the organizing logic of the book this way: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”
This was, now that I think it through, the theory behind much of mid-20th century literary fiction, and its truth, in the fiction of the late 20th and early 21st century remains pretty much unquestioned. Whether it is true or false, good or bad is a subject of a grueling and possibly violent debate which I’ll reserve for some other occasion. Since here, its demonstrably and charmingly true, it’s enough to simply enjoy Ondaatje’s play on it.
Through the first 100 or so pages of The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje remains in that ship-bound present of late summer 1954, and one follows him as the narrative fills with things and people seen and wondered at. Then, almost exactly at the point where one begins to recognize that the little on-ship world is too full of things brilliantly perceived and presented, and that the quiet essentializing that is part of every readable fiction has been under weigh, so to speak, for some time, Ondaatje breaks from time-present and reintroduces his narrator as having a life beyond that voyage. It is a stroke elegantly timed, as are dozens of other passages in the book: one sees only the framing and the construction wires as they pass—rare in an age in which most conventional fiction is so predictable that one can generally see the wires and the staging before, during and especially after the action.
You understand that you’re truly in the hands of a magician when the Oronsay’s semi-erotic murals are first mentioned, painted deep in the ship’s hold by soldiers during World War II while the liner was being used as a troop transport. You realize that the magician is also a master when the murals, in a later passage, are only brushed by in passing. They are a detail, like many others in the book, that haunt the narrative as it moves along in its seemingly effortless and slightly aimless pace, affecting not so much the characters as constituting a half-visible background through which the reader sees that the reality the characters believe themselves to be in isn’t quite the whole story, and setting up a wish that, god, if only they understood its richnesses, etc. Only a truly gifted poet can make this sort of set-painting give such depth to action. And here, under Ondaatje’s hand, it functions with exquisite economy—and without drowning us in poetical chocolate: there is, in both the conceptualization and the detail of this book, the slightly wistful modesty I encounter each time I run into Michael Ondaatje.
I think the second half of the novel, where the three boys accordion out into adult identities and their fates, is inevitably less successful. I don’t want to give away the details or the plot-points, such as they are, because they are pertinent and interesting enough to keep readers interested, and the diminution for the first half of the novel is moderate. Ondaatje is now more on constructed ground, and he is exposed by his slight diffidence about knowing precisely what a fictional character thinks or feels. It is, I realize, an intelligent diffidence, that one can’t presume to know so firmly, and a courtesy to both the reader and the world. It is also the act of a poet. From where I stand, it’s his best book since Coming Through Slaughter.
1654 words, March 15, 2012