Michael ondaatje: a lion at the cat’s table

Review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

In 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.

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.

The peeping tom and other voyeurs

First published in Griffith Review and reprinted in The Age

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds—not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below.

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds — not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below. The courtyard walls were not that old, perhaps fifty years at most, but having been rubbed with cow dung and mud they blazed with lichen and stood, in their slow decay, with the silent presence of another age. Orchids and ferns grew from inside cracks, taking moisture from the air and nourishment from the crumbling rock, and draped their massive root systems down the sides of the wall. I was somewhere about here in my observations when a scalp of black hair rose inches above the wall’s rim, followed by a forehead, eyes, and then an entire face. I remember thinking, before considering its intent, that it was a nice-looking face, not just in the sense of it being attractive, but also in the sense that its owner would seem, by its gentle features, to be a nice person. I lay motionless in bed, but it took only seconds for his eyes — for the face belonged to a man — to lock with mine and then the face was gone.

The shock of seeing that face registered like a slap that shook me from illiteracy into the world of language and difference. If I had been at home in my own bed, I might have jumped up to confront the owner of that face — if for no other purpose than to assert some control or to dole out, for what it was worth, a measure of shame. But I was not at home, and in any case the large wooden doors of the bungalow were padlocked each night and not unlocked until breakfast. And this, being dawn, meant that breakfast was several hours away. But there was another reason I hesitated to act: I had already observed that punishments in this country often exceed their crime. Political instances aside — and they are many and brutal — a servant at the Estate where I am staying had recently been fired for the infraction of ‘dancing his way back to the kitchen’. In fairness, his dance was merely an instance of his broad-spectrum indifference to work, but I have to say when I heard the news my sympathies were with the dancer. I had seen animals, too — normally protected by the Buddhist precept of nonviolence — suffer the harsh consequences of their actions. In order to ease the minds of the Estate’s foreign guests, the staff are on order to kill any snake, poisonous or not, that winds its way into the vicinity of the bungalow. I regretted that I had already been the cause of two snake deaths: one, a thin black snake that I was certain was harmless, had run across my foot and coiled beside me on the verandah. I was trying to shoo it, when two men arrived and poked it with a long stick, so that the snake raised its diminutive head, spread an impressive hood, and was whipped to death. The other one, which I was uncertain as to whether it was a viper or a garter snake, drifted into my courtyard one morning, seemingly unconcerned that I had been there first (or at least I hoped I had). When I asked that the snake be removed, despite it being identified as harmless, it received the same treatment as the cobra. And so I made a vow, which thankfully has not so far been tested, that I would suffer the next snake I encountered in silence. And so this was my thinking in the long minutes after the face appeared and disappeared above the courtyard wall. I knew that if alerted my hosts to the Peeping Tom, as I came to think of him, he would not have been beaten or anything that Medieval, but he would possibly lose his job — as might his family, who were also employed by the Estate. Given the egregious poverty and unemployment in this country, that seemed something I couldn’t risk.

So I lay in bed, feeling the bile rise to my throat, yet unable to act. As a foreigner, I felt altogether too powerful — like a giant whose disgruntled yell could flatten a village. The Peeping Tom had maleness on his side, for I admit the possibility of rape had crossed my mind (it was difficult not to think about it, knowing that two female tourists had recently been raped at a nearby beach). Nonetheless, my foreign passport and more money in my pockets than most people here earn in a month seemed a lethal combination. For a moment I felt sorry for the Peeping Tom, feeling myself succumb, perhaps, to a mild version of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim falls in love with, and then protects, the kidnapper. But the feeling, as it arose, dissolved when I remembered what has since become the ‘sickening’ smile that rose with the face above the wall. I had that odd feeling people sometimes get when they have not been the victims of violence exactly but feel, nonetheless, violated. I had seen it once in the face of a friend, who returned home to find her house broken into and, although nothing had been taken, her underwear drawer had been rummaged and the knickknacks on her dresser rearranged. She felt sick, she said, and would rather the burglar had taken the television than have touched her underwear and personal possessions. Of course she quickly recanted: ‘well, not the plasma screen but maybe the CD player.’ She waivered again so I suggested the clock radio, and we both dissolved into laughter. But it was nervous laughter and that, too, soon dissolved. ‘It just makes me feel a little sick’, she said scrunching up her face.

And that’s how I felt as I dressed, brushed my teeth, and looked out at the lichen flaring on the courtyard wall: a little sick. But the truth is, the fact of the Peeping Tom didn’t really come as a surprise. The Lonely Planet had advised modesty for women travellers in this country and warned in the earthy register emblematic of that publication: ‘the sight of a woman, foreign but not necessarily, is enough to make a few men masturbate on the spot’. And there was another reason that it was not surprising, one that had to do with the bungalow itself. Situated inside three acres of jungle, it had been the private residence of a prominent architect, who had established a trust so that, upon his death, artists might stay here and work (which was in fact the reason for my visit). The architect’s bungalow intrigued me as much as his artist’s statement, which I will extract and reword to protect the implicated: ‘For myself a building can only be comprehended moving around and through it and by experiencing its intonations and its poetics of space, of light, as one moves through — from the exterior onto verandahs, into rooms, passages, courtyards — the view then from these spaces into other spaces, the view through to gardens and sky beyond, and from outside the building, the view back through rooms into inner rooms and central courts’. As I moved through the bungalow, experiencing its intonations and considering the play of light from the shaded inner spaces to the celebration of light in the courtyards, I considered the man who had created it. Being of the writerly persuasion and therefore given to creating characters from fragments and traces — a cynic might say given to conjecture and lies—I gradually understood that the prominent architect was a voyeur in the supreme. But this observation, however extreme and to some ungenerous, was not entirely of my own making. In an initial tour of the bungalow, my host had pointed out a small window with wooden shutters that, when opened, looked across an internal courtyard directly into the shower of one of the guest rooms. ‘He was a wicked man’, the host said, meaning by his tone that the architect was playful.

So in the bedroom I was granted for the duration of my stay, I knew to look for angles of vision that might lend to spying. I had surveyed the height of the courtyard wall and deemed it high enough to guarantee privacy, as was (I thought) the external wall of the open-air bathroom that housed, between it and the shower, a small jungle in which I saw, at various times, not only frogs but also an iguana, a possum, kingfisher, and hundreds of fireflies whose luminescence made the ‘fairy lights’ strung on trees in my home city seem garish and hopelessly mechanical by comparison. With each cold water shower, I knew the eyes of the jungle were on me, but it was human eyes that troubled me. I found myself asking, what is it the architect wants to see? And it was this question that led me to an undersized and seemingly unnecessary door near the bed. Examining it from outside the room, I found, in addition to an antique keyhole, three tiny holes that had been drilled into the corners of the door’s panelling. They  seemed too small to be of consequence, but having checked that there were no such holes on any other door in the house, I bent down to take a peek and there I found my answer. Each hole provided a telescopic view of the bed from a variant perspective so that, together with the keyhole, the whole room could be surveyed. Being conscious of my role as guest, I said nothing of my discovery to my hosts but plugged the holes with little wads of paper and hung my sarong over the inside of the door. I was happy enough knowing that anyone who tried to use the peepholes would not only be thwarted but would know I was onto them. And then, so I thought, I could relax.

And I did relax, until the incident of the Peeping Tom. Fear is easy to describe but it can be difficult to defend. Without our permission or even our awareness, it can set up residence inside muscle and along nerve fibres, and its release can be explosive. Where before my eyes had enjoyed the ruinous courtyard wall, with its lichens and orchids, now my gaze turned upward to the open air above it, and every view out became paired with the view in. The first evening after the incident, I grew uneasy so I closed the shutters, locked the windows, and drew the curtains against the night. Noises I had learned to live with — pole cats in the ceiling, monkeys in the bamboo, bats swerving close to a window — rattled me to the point of sleeplessness. In the darkness, my ears became my eyes, alert to the tiny, practically inaudible variations of sound that occur even in an apparently quiet room; to the sometimes invisible border between sound and silence; the almost imperceptible sense of time passing; and the usually insignificant interval between when we hear something and when it had actually happened. I like to think that I am not a fearful person, that I am somewhat savvy and confident, a person who lives many mental detours away from traditional female frailties, but this is not something my body that night was convinced of. And so when a frog strayed from the bathroom and leaped onto the lampshade near my bed some time around midnight, my body screamed so loud I frightened myself even deeper.

It had occurred to me, even before the incident of the Peeping Tom, that the pleasure of seeing is at odds with the fear of being seen. Everything in nature wants to be hidden, except perhaps when inviting a mate or warning a predator. Here in the jungle, where survival depends on seeing and not being seen, the law is perhaps amplified: the chameleon takes on the green of a leaf, the mantis the brown line of a twig, the leopard merges with the dappled light of the forest.  Anthropologists have argued that fear of the Other, of their eyes in particular, is fundamental to our survival and ties us with invisible strings directly to the caves and predators of our ancestors. Eyes, though long romanticised as ‘the windows to the soul’, bring with them the shock of the food chain, which Joseph Campbell says is the basis of the human need for myth. Even in the ‘concrete jungle’ of cities, we want to be hidden — we call it anonymity — and we fight and invent laws to protect our privacies. Exhibitionists might consider themselves exceptions but, given that their pleasure arises from their knowledge that they are being watched, they are empowered in otherwise powerless circumstances. Even the escalating number of internet ‘cam girls’, who broadcast their digital nakedness to the world, would fear, I think, the unauthorised gaze of a stranger’s camera. Men too, however much they may joke that they’d like to be object of the sexual gaze, are not immune — as I recently observed when a woman tourist stopped to watch a man loop a rope around his ankles and climb a coconut tree, stopping halfway up to catch his breath — his muscles glowing like glazed stone — he slid down the trunk, jumping the last two metres, when he saw that the woman’s telescopic lens was aimed directly, but unintentionally I think, up his sarong.

All tourists are guilty of voyeurism. We are pilgrims without a tradition, paying exorbitant airfares to circle the world in the hope of getting insight into another culture, of seeing its artifacts, its architecture, and its people. Which is why one synonym of tourist is ‘sight-seer’. The locals in any country resent, or at least ridicule, tourists for their gawking and picture-taking, but they suffer them for the money they drop on the community. Of course, the tourist’s gaze is not overtly sexual, though sometimes it is —as the local gaze can be, sometimes, when it stares back at the tourist. And I, although preferring a journal and pen to a camera, am also implicated. I came to this country to write, to be inspired by what I would see and experience, and moreover, as Jung phrased it, to see myself again ‘in the simple and forgotten things’. And that’s how I came to find myself where I stand now: on the worn steps of an ancient temple, taking pleasure in observing the people of this country observe their gods, observing the people observing me, and in my notebook observing the observation.

Which makes me, like the architect, a voyeur in the supreme. And also, in some weird way, like the Peeping Tom — who I had been doing well to put out of my mind with this visit to the temple. Which is not to say I came here because of the incident — to do so would be to conflate it to the point of melodrama — but I will say it was on my mind as I approached and saw, with more than my eyes, the beauty of the lime-washed temple protruding above the tree line, a beauty that comes out of time and tradition, that transcends transgression, and also the tenderness that time can bring despite its hard history. I saw too that there are times when we want not only to see but to be seen, times that have nothing to do with mating or warnings, but everything to do with presence. And that the view inward, of ourselves, our vulnerabilities and predilections, our hopes and imperfections, is as important as the view outward. Earlier, I had removed the plank that the Peeping Tom had used as a step to gaze over the courtyard wall, and I placed it in a rather obvious way on the ground nearby. I knew full well that this would not prevent him from reassembling the perch and peeping again if so inclined (though now, at the expense of the morning view, my curtains are drawn), but I did it with the hope that Tom, as I have come to think of him, will understand that he too had been seen. And that’s the best I can hope for — that our eyes will lock, metaphorically, in the uneasy balance of truce.

Originally published in Griffith Review (Summer 2006): 121–29. Reprinted in The Age   (3 Jan 2007) A2: 10–11.