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ondaatjeIn English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it.

But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner. In politics and business, the cat’s table is reserved for the office that exists but has lost the authority to act. It is also the title of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel.

The Cat’s Table opens in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was formerly known) in the early 1950s with an eleven-year-old boy boarding the Oronsay, a liner bound for England. At mealtimes he sits at Table 76 – “the least privileged place” in the dining hall – with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an eccentric array of adults: among them a frequently tanked pianist who teaches the boys dirty lyrics; a botanist who tends an Ayurvedic garden in the ship’s hold; and a quirky spinster who consumes crime novels and houses pigeons in her jacket.

While the doyens of the Captain’s table “constantly toast one another’s significance,” the boy learns that all that is interesting happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. “It would always be strangers,” the adult narrator reflects, “at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”

Seemingly The Cat’s Table courts a biographical reading: both the author and the narrator are named Michael, both were born in Colombo in 1943, both emigrate from Ceylon to England in 1954, both relocate to Canada as young men, and both become feted writers. In his “Author’s Note”, however, Ondaatje insists his “imagined rendering” is fiction, not memoir. It is an unnecessary disclosure: anyone familiar with Ondaatje’s oeuvre will know his project has long been to dissolve the boundaries of fact and fiction. But given the felonious events that transpire on board the Oronsay – sorcery, larceny, murder and more – perhaps a distinction was thought legally prudent.

Whether the author and the narrator share an antipathy toward authority or not, Ondaatje has been dining at the Captain’s table since his second novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize in 1992. Or more precisely, given the cinematic prejudices of our age, Ondaatje was ushered into literary “significance” four years later when Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation by the same name won nine Oscars, two Golden Globes and six BAFTAs.

The skyrocketing effect Minghella’s English Patient had on Ondaatje’s career cannot be overstated. The film became compulsory viewing for the fashion set, stimulating the book’s sales in excess of two million copies worldwide. Both the book and the film, Ondaatje muses in a 1997 interview, acquired “a slightly sacred fog” in the public imagination.

Not surprisingly The English Patient also became a target for satire. Shortly after the film’s release a popular Seinfeld episode pilloried its worthiness, deeming people who didn’t like the movie – as Elaine didn’t – “flinty hearted” and “untrustworthy.” For her aesthetic insurrection Elaine is punished with a trip to Tunisia (the filming location of The English Patient) where she must live in a cave in order to save her job. Similarly in Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Damned (2011), hell is a place where The English Patient plays on eternal loop.

But before afflictions of fame, Ondaatje enjoyed the relative obscurity afforded a poet. Beginning with The Dainty Monsters in 1967, Ondaatje has published a total of eleven books of poetry, earning him the steady admiration of critics and a select but ardent trove of readers. In 1991 The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems assembled twenty-five years of Ondaatje’s greatest lyric poems in a tour de force: the title poem – “The Cinnamon Peeler” – which would surely stand among the best erotic love poems in English, as well as the much anthologized “To a Sad Daughter”, “White Dwarfs”, “Last Ink” and the extraordinary elegies for his mother and father, “Light” and “Letters & Other Worlds”, to name a small handful.

Ondaatje’s poetry – like his novels – often intersects with history. His second book, an imagistic suite of poems entitled The Man with Seven Toes, was inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser series of paintings (1947-57) and Colin MacInnes’s brief account of Eliza Fraser’s fascinating but tragic life: shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836, she was captured by aborigines and rescued by David Bracewell, a convict whom she betrays upon arriving in civilization. (Fraser is also the subject of Patrick White’s 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves.)

But Ondaatje’s career wasn’t underway until his second book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) – a grab bag of poems, prose, photographs and fictional news stories about sociopathic William “the Kid” Bonney and his gang of killers – fell into the wrong hands.

“The ex-Prime Minister [of Canada] John Diefenbaker was essentially out of a job, but he was a very cantankerous, wonderful old demagogue,” Ondaatje recalls in a 1997 interview. “He read the book, and he just hated it. So he called all the cameras in for a news conference, and he said, ‘This is disgusting!’ There was a picture of me on the front page of the newspaper.

“Only about eight people had bought the book, so it was quite sweet in some way for him to read it,” Ondaatje laughs. “I wasn’t so upset by him disliking the book, but it put me into a tailspin about being semi-known. Even on a small scale, it was difficult not to be self-conscious about being a writer.”

Ondaatje’s early style is challenging but the effects are stunning. Ever evading a master narrative, he tells stories through pieces of song, faded photographs, snatches of conversation. The pieces don’t always meet at the edges, sometimes they overlap, and it’s left to the reader to make the meaning and provide the glue. Ondaatje’s writing never seems to move in straight lines. As Pico Iyer says, “It circles and slants and echoes and returns.”

In 1970 Ondaatje published a monograph on fellow Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen. The two writers share more than an emotional climate – a moody often erotic reverence for violence and beauty – they feed from the same lexicon of wounds, scars, madness, dreams, broken glass, bones, chaos, and kindnesses. Ondaatje offers a description of Cohen’s künstlerroman, The Favorite Game, that could easily serve as an artistic statement for his own practice:

“It has the effectiveness of a long prose poem,” he writes, “with each scene emerging as a potent and enigmatic sketch, rather than a full blown detailed narrative. As in a poem, the silences and spaces, what is left unsaid, are essential to the mood of the book.”

Ondaatje’s novels would, in time, surpass his mentor’s in ambition, sophistication and reach. Alongside The Man with Seven Toes and Billy the Kid, his poetic novel-of-sorts, Coming Through Slaughter – a jazzy, syncopated riff on the short, mad life of legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden – all stand as amphibious texts bridging Ondaatje’s poetry and prose.

In 1982 Ondaatje’s masterwork in prose appeared in the form of a memoir, Running in the Family, which chronicles his return to Sri Lanka to grapple with the lives of his parents: his father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was a tea and rubber-plantation superintendent afflicted with alcoholism; and his mother, Doris Gratiaen, a part-time radical dancer inspired by Isadora Duncan. Both were prominent inhabitants of what once comprised Ceylon’s flamboyant if frivolous colonial society. Ondaatje writes:

I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.

Despite his earlier prose works, Ondaatje calls In the Skin of the Lion (1987) his “first novel”. It is also one of his best. Set in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s it imagines the lives of the Macedonian immigrant community who built the city’s bridges and waterworks. Ondaatje’s attentiveness to beauty, despair, and lives lost to official history builds a searing narrative even as its language and circular structures pull its telling towards poetry.

Increasingly since The English Patient, Ondaatje’s novels have become less experimental, the shifts in perspective less dramatic, the language more denotative. Anil’s Ghost (2000) follows the life of Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan and forensic anthropologist, working as a Human Rights investigator during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Divisadero (2007) divides its attention between a family in 1970s California and an author in pre-World War I southern France. Both novels are skillfully drawn but neither quite manage the magic of his earlier works.

And so it is with his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table. Ondaatje’s preoccupations and signatory motifs are present in abundance: dogs, thieves, acrobats, tapestries, wounds, dreams, jazz, and poetry. And his eye for the cinematic moment still pulls off a splendid stillness. Each morning of the 21-day passage, the boys wake at dawn to spy on an Australian roller skater who races the perimeter of the deck and showers fully clothed: “When she left we followed her footprints”, the narrator confesses, “which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them”.

A study of one’s childhood is not uncommon in late-career writers. Perhaps having lost much of his childhood to the desperate antics of his parents, Ondaatje is compelled to return to the puzzle of his early years. If Tolstoy, Conrad and Coetzee had not pre-empted him, he says, he would have called his novel Youth.

Yet in stripping back the sophistication of his narrator’s voice to accommodate a child’s perspective, Ondaatje has deprived The Cat’s Table of the force of language that largely carried his earlier works. And in attempting a more straightforward telling, he has exposed his inherent weaknesses with narrative. One wishes he’d held his nerve and stuck to his earlier rhythms that, while difficult, were dazzling.

Ondaatje admits he doesn’t remember the day in 1954 that he arrived as an unaccompanied minor in the port of London. In his novel, he imagines Michael is met by his mother but he’s not sure he will recognize her face. He is wearing his first pair of long trousers, socks, and a thin cotton shirt. “You must be cold, Michael,” his mother says, pulling him to her. He can see part of the world to the side of her, the figures rushing past barely aware of him in his mother’s arms, the borrowed suitcase with all he owned beside him.

A reluctant guest or not, Ondaatje has earned his place at the Captain’s table – if not for this novel alone, but for what came before it, and for what we hope might follow.

Originally published under the title ‘The Cat’s Table’. Rev. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Australian Literary Review (October 2011): 23.