Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finding the power underneath (Books - The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje)

Two qualities are evident in Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table right at the outset. The book involves the memory of a writer named Michael, originally from Sri Lanka, who at age 11 travels without a guardian on a ship across the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean to reach his mother in England, where he will start a new life. On that ship he spends his time with two other boys - Ramadhin and Cassius. The first quality of the story is an instantly elegiac nostalgia, a wistful tone that says - I was never as innocent and happy as I was then.

The second quality is an isolation, the sense that this world exists unto itself. The twenty-one day journey is nearly free of adult supervision for the boys. It seems the ship has its own rules of relating to others and it stirs the emotions of all the passengers, bringing them cauldron-like to a boil. Although a ship is a real place, it seems a fantasy world in this novel. There is a prisoner with two keepers who walks the deck in chains late a night, a millionaire dying of rabies who is attended by an ayurvedic doctor, a botanist who keeps a garden of rare and poisonous plants, a kennel, a jazz pianist with two names.
It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet - nothing ahead of him existed - and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there. Stewards began handing out food and cordials. He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk...

I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper of little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
This is The Magic Mountain on water, but instead of dying in this rare place. Michael grows up. He learns of love for others, of secrets, of responsibility. The experience gives birth to a certain vision of the world, driven by unanswered questions of events he witnesses on that ship that go underground but that fuel the voice that he develops to record the mysteries of the world around him. It is on that journey that Michael is formed as a writer.
Sometimes we find our true and inherent selves during youth. It is a recognition of something that at first is small within us, that we will grow into somehow. My shipboard nickname has "Mynah." Almost my name but with a step into the air and a glimpse of some extra thing, like the slight swivel in their walk all birds have when they travel by land.
The pleasures of The Cats Table are soft and tinged with reminiscence. They are found not so much in the action of specific adventures the boys have - although these can be funny, and a few of them quite intense, as when Ramadhin ties Cassius and Michael to the deck during a storm. The novel has the rhythm of the 21-day sea voyage it recounts. The greatest pleasure I experienced in reading The Cat's Table was the way Ondaatje found to be simultaneously the boy on the ship and the adult writer long after the events, but permanently marked by them. This book is built on layers of memory and even though Michael the character doesn't perfectly understand them, Michael the writer has learned to navigate the world by painstakingly observing the details and recording them, and that in doing so he can make art that reveals even more than he knows.
"But art is never safe. All of this is only one small room in a life." For a man who supposedly loved art, I felt he was scorning it.

"Come with me." And he took my elbow carefully, precisely, as if this was on place on the anatomy which was socially acceptable to touch and therefore take part ownership of. He walked me down the hall until we were in the Grand Rotunda, where a sixty-foot tapestry hung. He lifted a corner and held it up so I could look at the underside, where the colours were suddenly brilliant and forceful.

"This is where the power is, you see. Always. The underneath."

He walked away from the tapestry to the centre of the circular hall, knowing his voice would carry to the perimeter as well as up towards the distant ceiling.

"Probably more than a hundred women worked on this for a year. They fought for the chance to work on it. This thing fed them. This kept them alive in the year 1530, during a Flanders winter. That is what gives truth, depth, to this sentimental tableau."

1 comment:

Gavin said...

This is a wonderful review! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.