Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (2011).
I have to confess that I’ve “struggled” with Michael Ondaatje’s novels over the years. It took me a long time even to get a rudimentary idea of what he was up to. I first had to figure out that his books are as much genre novels as they are “general fiction” — the latter term is, admittedly, a vague category, but it suggests writing not bound by the conventions of a more restricted form that limits the exploration of “reality.” I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out since critic Philip Marchand notes early on in his astute critique of Canadian literature, Ripostes (1998), that Ondaatje essentially writes Gothic fiction. After that, I was still left with the puzzle of what a nice chap like Ondaatje was doing in such a disreputable genre.
Gothic Romance, as anyone within the vicinity of a teenager knows, is currently experiencing one of its recurrent revivals of wild popularity, thanks largely to Stephenie Myer’s Twilight Saga series of vampire and werewolf potboilers. Usually we don’t think of Michael Ondaatje’s “poetic” prose as bearing much relation to bloodthirsty bodice-busters. However, just go down the checklist of standard Gothic elements in such books, and Ondaatje’s novels, albeit Gothic Romance for Higher Brow Readers, are easily recognizable within the genre.
For those who skipped their Cultural Studies lectures on the creepy-crawly pleasures of horror, Gothic, and non-sci-fi paranormal writing, here’s the Wikipedia short version. The Ursprung of Gothic romance in English literature is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Spooky castles and desolate moors or their equivalent (the ruined Italian villa in Ondaatje’s English Patient, or the sere northern California rural landscapes in his Divisadero, for instance) tend to feature prominently in such books, as do remorseless villains, fainting heroines, seedy specialists up to no-good, ancestral curses, discovered documents, and threatening mysteries. In short order, the Gothic was assimilated into the 19th century Romantic movement (Byron knocked off a couple of Gothics) and other-worldly creatures were making their appearance as early as John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819).
Although Toronto-based Ondaatje is one of those writers who is “critic-proof” and prize-prone (he’s won the Booker and snatched every Canadian literary bauble in sight), his work is occasionally mildly scratched at by would-be literary lions and lesser critical cats, but their clawings have nil effect on Ondaatje’s faithful legions of fans. A glance at the “goodreads.com” website, with literally hundreds of 4- and 5-star reviews of Cat’s Table, should persuade just about anyone of the passion of Ondaatje’s followers. Philip Marchand was a rare and early doubter of Ondaatje, but there have been at least a few subsequent revewers who complained of such things as the over-preciosity of seahorse-shaped-sleeping-penises (I seem to recall that this lyrical appendage turned up early on in The English Patient) and other romanticized characters and landscapes (wasn’t there a perpetually waving field of grass populated by a seductive guitar-plucking gypsy in Divisadero?). The criticisms extend from Ondaatje’s rococco sentences to his portentous didactic pronouncements about life and love. The complaints have mostly been drowned out by near-unanimous choruses of critical and reader praise, as in the present instance.
I was about to report that The Cat’s Table is mercifully free of most of the distractions that have irritated a few critics, and is certainly the most “accessible” of Ondaatje’s novels (at least for the first 200 pages; I’ll get to what happens in the denouement later). For the most part, it’s a straightforward coming-of-age, quest-voyage, Boy’s Own Adventure narrative of an 11-year-old lad making an unsupervised sea journey in the early 1950s from Colombo (in what is now Sri Lanka) to rejoin his long absent mother, who lives in distant England. It’s the immigrant journey that mirrors the one Ondaatje himself made from his native Ceylon. Once aboard the Oronsay ocean liner, the young Michael (nicknamed Mynah, a first hint of his future literary occupation) finds himself at the lowly “Cat’s Table,” the most distant point in the ship’s dining hall from the Captain’s Table, where he joins forces with two other agemates, the physically frail but thoughtful Ramadhin, and brash, angry Cassius.
The boys will get into every michief-making corner of the ship available, uncover the secret lives of various adults, and learn something about class, power, and the era of incipient post-colonialism. We’re in familiar territory here, in the tradition of Kipling’s Stalky & Co., and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam books. In addition to boyish daredevil adventures (spying on the prisoner who’s allowed shackled deck exercise at midnight; abetting a “gentleman thief”; and nearly drowning when they lash themselves to the deck during a major storm), we’re also introduced to the other characters at the table, who tend to be raffish “characters” in a picaresque tale rather than the figures of “realist” novels. The book is further layered in time by the narrator, a man of Ondaatje’s age and literary reputation, who is not only re-imagining the voyage out, but is able to provide an account of the subsequent fates of several of his fellow passengers.
When the affable Ondaatje is invited by panel moderators and audience questioners — the most recent performance I witnessed was in Berlin this February on the occasion of the publication of the German translation of Cat’s Table — to expound on the themes of rites of passage, identity quests, post-colonialism and the like, he’s invariably modest and direct. He treats the grand themes as of scant interest or as obvious, and instead explains that he works not from a novelistic plan or schematic but from the emergence of the characters and landscapes. In this case, the landscape is given -– a castle-like ocean liner — but the voyage, although mirroring the real one Ondaatje made long ago, must be imagined. As Ondaatje genially explains, he’s pretty much forgotten whatever happened aboard ship a half-century ago, and so he dreams it up, working more in a poetic than a narrative mode. One thing, metaphor, image exfoliates into another.
Judgment of Ondaatje’s lyrical novels hangs on a peculiar question of believability. In the case of Cat’s Table, Ondaatje unambiguously points out that while he made such a voyage, the events in the novel are completely imagined, and though the incidents of the story are intended to have a sort of realistic (or perhaps Gothic) plausibility, the principal purpose of the writing is not the verisimilitude of realism. Rather, what the prose, characters, actions and apercus aim at is “poetic truth.” We’re familiar with this kind of truth in more purely fantastical stories, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, although we’re rightfully dubious about the “truth” of Stephenie Myer’s concoctions (even if her fans aren’t).
In works like Ondaatje’s English Patient, set in World War II, the real history of events, as critic Terry Rigelhof has pointed out (see related articles), is so bollocksed up that the question of plausibility never even arises. While Cat’s Table has a few ancestral curses and spells, disappearing dogs, and a poisonous garden at the bottom of the boat, its characters are meant to be believable and interesting, at least as refracted in the mirror of Gothic romance. The question comes down to, does the reader find the whole to be metaphysically and/or poetically true, does the reader believe that the story tells us something meaningful about life in all its variousness and improbability?
This reader doesn’t, but for a couple of hundred pages I was willing to be charmed by the rite-of-passage voyage — though for coming-of-age tales I’m more partial to, say, Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, where I didn’t doubt the truth/”truth” of it for a moment. In the frantic denouement of The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje leans toward all-out Grand Guignol: the handgun glimpsed slipping into a purse in Act 2 predictably goes off in Act 3; the escaped prisoner clutching his half-deaf daughter leaps off the bow rail into the icy, dark waters; and a 20-or-so-page purloined letter is plunked down entire. The letter, allegedly penned by one of the shipboard characters to another shipboard character, is written, oddly enough, in exact imitation of the more rococco style of earlier Michael Ondaatje novels, and reveals a Gothic sexual scandal perpetrated by a heartless villain, appropriately named Horace. So, no, I didn’t “believe” it.
But I notice I’m more diffident these days about my literary judgments. Rather than having any inclination to savage Higher Brow Trash, I’m more likely to just say, I don’t get it. In this case, I think I’m abashed by that fan base that does get it. Who am I to say otherwise when every literary judge in Canada has voted once or more for an Ondaatje title, to say nothing of those hordes of postings at “goodreads”? At the full-house Ondaatje reading I recently attended, during the Q-&-A, one woman prefaced her question, something about the author’s working methods, with the declaration that her reading of The English Patient had “changed my life.” I resisted the urge to cry out from my cramped balcony perch: “For better or worse?”
Berlin, February 26, 2012.