An Interesting Stranger

October 11, 2011, by

In his reading at the UH Moore’s Opera House last night, Michael Ondaatje deftly collaged a variety of scenes and moments from his most recent novel,The Cat’s Table, to take us on a voyage across the oceans, through time and space. Before reading, Ondaatje addressed the question of the mix of autobiography and fiction in the book. While both he and the main character (also named Michael) took a journey on a boat called the Oronsay from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to England in the fifties when they were both 11 years old, he mentioned that in fact all he remembered of the voyage was the ping-pong table on the ship. Paradoxically, for him, this lack of memory freed him up to invent a new story, to create something more wild, more meaningful and more thrilling than reality could ever possibly have been. As he said, quoting Ornette Coleman about music, “What you begin with is the territory, what follows is the adventure.”

And adventure we did, as he began with the boys’ youthful highjinks on board then lead into a description of a proper Sri Lankan man, Dr. Fonseca, on his way to England. Ondaatje described him as “tentative and languid” with “a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live”—this serenity that the narrator had seen “only among those who have the armour of books close by” (and I couldn’t help but see a bit of the author himself here). Then Ondaatje skillfully took us to the deck of the ship during a storm, through the Suez Canal and then on to London years later as he attempts to reconnect with Cassius, one of his co-conspirators on the Oronsay. Ondaatje’s voice was surprisingly soft and gentle, a soothing monotone with clipped consonants and rapid flow. His tale was ethereal, carefully paced and surprisingly comforting. It turns out that Ondaatje’s focus in The Cat’s Table is not only crossing from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to London, but also traversing the smaller lines drawn across the ship itself, like the border he mentioned between the First Class and Tourist Class or like the silences between the characters themselves.

In the question and answer section with writer and UH professor Chitra Divakaruni, Ondaatje alternated between serious reflections on writing and quite funny anecdotes. A question from Divakaruni about the melding of non-fiction and fiction yielded the funniest one-liner of the night, as Ondaatje quoted famed Texas gadabout Kinky Friedman saying, “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it in 1976.”

On a more serious note, he also declared that, beyond jazz, the greatest artistic invention of the twentieth century was the collage. Its impact, he said has been felt across the arts from film to painting, from literature to music, and he spoke insightfully about his own process of writing his first book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a collagist approach. First, he wrote fifty poems, then the prose pieces and finally worked to collage them all together, creating connections between the different texts on the page, adding photographs and writing fake interviews with Billy himself. He contrasted that collagist writing with his more recent approach to The Cat’s Table, which, despite its chronological ebb and flow, was largely written straight from the beginning to the end.

There’s an evocative line in The Cat’s Table that seemed to sum up the evening for me: “We came to understand … our lives could be large with interesting strangers who could pass us without any personal involvement.” Hopefully, you had a chance to witness this particular interesting stranger last night. And if not, the armor of his books are a wonderful substitute.

At Home in Transit: The Cat’s Table

October 10, 2011, by

In Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje returns to the space he’s perhaps most at home. Several reviewers of the book have said this home is the island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, where the author grew up. Yet in fact, the novel does not really take place in the island nation, but rather in the space between Ceylon and London on a ship called the Oronsay making its slow three-week journey from East to West. There is an element of autobiography to the story; however, much like Francisco Goldman’s insistence on the word novel to describe his work, Ondaatje also steadfastly affirms the book as a novel, not as memoir. And this despite the fact that the main character and the author have a lot in common: both are named Michael, both leave Sri Lanka to go to England at the age of 11 and both eventually wind up as globally recognized authors. While perhaps frustrating for some, this mixing of fiction and non-fiction does not bother this reader in the least; in my case, I’ve always enjoyed this sort of wild intermingling of fact and fiction (that ultimately ends up questioning the very existence of fact). So in this novel, Ondaatje returns to his home of perpetual transit, writing about the small world that comes to life onboard the Oronsay.

As in many of Ondaatje’s novels, his focus is not on the powerful, but rather on those individuals whose lives are affected by larger world battles and happenings, but who have little control over the outcome. In this novel, Ondaatje focuses in on the lives of three young boys—Michael himself (nicknamed “Mynah”), the daredevil Cassius and the pensive, sickly Ramadhin—as they explore the ship and its motley assortment of adult passengers. The boys all sit at the Cat’s Table, the least prestigious portion of the ship’s dining room, far removed from the Captain’s table. But as always, Ondaatje is interested in what happens at the margins; as he says, “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.”

The fun of the book, its verve and power is derived from the adventures of these three boys as they voyage across the Indian Ocean, through the port of Aden, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and off to England. None of the boys will be the same after the voyage and the perils and precarious situations they live through will leave them forever altered.

Remember you’ll have an opportunity to hear Ondaatje read and answer questions this evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Get your tickets now.

A Sri Lankan-Born Cowboy Comes Down to Houston

October 5, 2011, by

Some years ago, I was lent a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by a friend who knew of a project I was working on mixing prose, poetry and images. Unfortunately, as we’ve all experienced, sometimes a friend’s book recommendation can be entirely off, but in this case, it was the perfect book to read at that moment in my life. Ondaatje’s combination of poetic adventurousness and archive was invigorating.  At first, his investment in this deeply Western story seemed odd for this Sri Lankan-born, Canadian resident.  And yet, it shouldn’t have seemed strange at all, as artists are forever exploring, never confined to that which they have experienced or known (for contemporary examples, see Lars Von Trier’s American movie epics or Jorge Volpi’s Eastern European novels.) Unsurprisingly somehow, Ondaatje’s work on Billy the Kid is grounded in the childhood cowboy games he played while living in Sri Lanka.  In fact, Ondaatje says he was obsessed with Westerns ever since he was eight or nine years old. Even in Colombo, the myth of the American West had quietly taken root.

His obsession with the Western as a form and with Billy the Kid (and his raucous, violent twenty-one year long life) continued over the years as he moved from Sri Lanka to Britain and to Canada. Eventually he began to piece together this book, spending more time with Billy the Kid and his own imagination as he invented details of his life. He says in an Afterward to the book that he couldn’t afford to visit the West or Texas at  the time, so, ever the fan of writing in situ, Ondaatje drafted much of the book in an abandoned barn, and its locale⎯ “the dry smell of past animals, the cobwebs on my pencils…became important.” There were rats, he writes, in the stalls nearby and so that afternoon rats came into the novel. (Ondaatje has spoken in interviews about his predilection for writing in the locales where his novels are set⎯in Italy for The English Patient, in Sri Lanka for Anil’s Ghost, etc.) Eventually, in crafting the book’s final appearance, Ondaatje worked with a designer to include the fictional photography and images (as well as ample white space) that builds an airtight substructure for the book.

I’ve gone into all this detail about Billy the Kid for a few reasons.  First, because it shows that Ondaatje’s visit to Houston next week is a kind of imaginative home-coming, a chance to visit the Texas he never got to see while writing his book (though 2011 Houston arguably has even less to do with Billy the Kid than that Canadian barn where he wrote much of the book).  It’s also a chance to recognize a non-Texan author for what I consider one of the best lines ever written about the state; it’s become a kind of mantra for me: “The blood came down like river ride / long as Texas down his side.”

Also, I wanted to initially introduce Ondaatje as a poet.  He’s written far more books of poetry than of fiction, and yet he’ll forever be recognized as the author of the novel The English Patient, later made into the award-winning movie of the same name.  Despite his novelist fame, Ondaatje strikes me as a poet living and writing in a novelist’s world.  He has a poet’s love of language, forming it and deforming it, attentive to the most minute details of his artistic material.

Don’t miss your chance to see this Sri Lankan-born poet cowboy next Monday evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston.