Thursday, September 22, 2011

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret

I got kind of excited last month about there being a new Ondaatje. I got caught up in the hype, and I think I even said, "Ooohh, a new Ondaatje!" But then I thought, wait, do I even like Ondaatje, I don't remember. So by the time I actually picked up The Cat's Table, I had mentally prepared myself for disappointment. It took but a few pages before I was all, oh, Ondaatje, I remember, he's good.

The cat's table is that table in the dining room positioned furthest away form the Captain's table, reserved for those passengers of least consequence. And this is where 11-year-old Michael gets to sit during his 21-day journey from Ceylon to England.

[My mother would've made a similar journey, but she would've been a few years older, a few years earlier. I must ask her about it.]

There's not much happpening in this book. It is a novel — a voyage — of discovery: of passing the time, hearing stories, and plotting adventures, of fast friendships, unknown territory, and gossip. (It's a lot like how I remember camp to be: bonding intensely with a group of strangers over a relatively short period, and making your own fun.) As readers we overhear the passengers' stories and see certain events and have to piece them together much as Michael does.

[O]ur table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. 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 thing I take away from this novel is how children's experience of things, of life, is always somewhat removed from anything like an adult reality. There. That was a hard sentence to write. I almost said a child's experience is childish, or naive, or incomplete, and that's not exactly true. It's still a perfectly full and true and valid experience, just different.

I think The Cat's Table has this in common with The Fragile Mistress, which I read earlier this summer. In both cases, the "children" are exposed to situations that are beyond their ability to understand them, not because of their age exactly, but because they're not privy to the whole story and have to fill in the blanks by themselves, and the logic drawn upon to smooth over the gaps varies if you're 8, 11, 14, or 39.

You have to be careful with these things. See, I was once a child myself, and there's some stuff I remember, and some stuff I learned. I remember overhearing someone say, about me, you can't expect her to understand, she's just a child (I was almost 8), and I remember being very angry about this. I learned that grown-ups often underestimate children, at least in terms of their capacity to grok. So now I try very, very hard not treat children like children.

[Just this weekend my daughter did something crazy, but I maintained my composure. I heard their voices, her and the girl from a neighbouring cottage, coming through the trees. I didn't know there was a path through these woods, I thought you had to go by the road to access her cottage. Maybe they're coming along the shore, rock-jumping — tricky, but doable since the water level's low. Then I see them, paddling their canoe up onto our tiny shore. And I was horrified! that someone let them — an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old — paddle themselves across the lake. Of course, nobody let them — the canoe was there, and inspiration struck. And then I saw that the both of them were life-jacketed, and the 10-year-old actually seemed to know what she was doing, handled the canoe with more ease than I could, and was very confident in instructing Helena on what to do. So I plastered a smile over my horror, and deep down felt a little proud, happy for her for embarking on her own adventure. Then they paddled out to where J-F was fishing before returning the canoe to its point of origin.

What was my point? Oh, yes. To the 8-year-old mind, canoeing across the lake seemed very reasonable. It is a valid and beautiful experience, and Helena will remember it very differently from how I will.]

The Cat's Table is by far my favourite of the few Ondaatje novels I've read. While the language of the others was more beautiful, more poetic, it also sometimes works to keep the reader at a distance. The Cat's Table, however, is a straightfoward exercise in storytelling, and I was charmed by it. There's nothing pretentious about it, and I recommend it as an entry point to Ondaatje's work.

You might like to give a listen to Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Michael Ondaatje. I met Michael Ondaatje once, at a fundraiser for world literacy — he was a notable attendee, and there were signed copies of The English Patient up for auction. (Come to think of it, Jian was there too, but I didn't meet him, he was the musical entertainment.) Someone actually introduced us while we were milling around near the bar. I had not read anything of his at this point. We made small talk — the weather? travel? — while we drank our drinks. We didn't talk about books at all.
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