Come Aboard

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‘I love the performance of a craft,” wrote the narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s last novel, Divisadero. “I am interested in the care taken, and those secret rehearsals behind it. Even if I do not understand fully what is taking place.” Any reader who has finished even one of Ondaatje’s novels knows how obviously this was a statement of his own purpose, even an ars poetica in miniature. From Coming Through Slaughter to The English Patient to Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje’s writing has remained stubbornly, even maddeningly, consistent: a highly wrought, painterly obsession with the immediate visual world, combined with only fragmentary allusions to what we ordinarily call “character.” Ondaatje has often said that he knows nothing about the people in his books beyond what appears on the page; in fact, he seems deliberately and gleefully to design his novels to keep their mysteries unspoken, their lacunae intact.

But Divisadero showed just how that highly wrought style could go off the rails. Beginning on a ranch in rural California and concluding (sort of) in the south of France, the book was more a series of prose exercises than a novel, in which what seemed to matter most to Ondaatje was his narrator’s melancholy ruminations on the nature of writing and art. Like recent “late” works by J. M. Coetzee and Philip Roth, Divisadero is an extended, even exhausted, meditation on what it means to be its author—that is, an eminent male novelist with an idiosyncratic identifiable voice, a kind of literary brand at risk of dying with the man himself. And it shares with those novels a combination of self-conscious wit and sticky, self-absorbed torpor. Readers of all three writers might feel that style had become, for them, a maze with no exit. Some of us wonder why we should follow them in.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje has shaken off all traces of that torpor and produced a work that contains almost no sign of his recognizable style. Though largely autobiographical—the novel takes place on a sea journey from Ceylon to London in 1954, the year Ondaatje himself left the island—The Cat’s Table hardly reads like an Ondaatje novel at all. With no insult meant, one might call it generic—a commonplace novel, like a worn and well-loved shirt, and an affirmation of a literary ethic Ondaatje has devoted his career to rejecting.

A story shaped by a journey builds dramatic tension by forcing a small group of characters to spend inordinate amounts of time in the same space, observing, manipulating, and seducing one another—the tradition stretches back at least toThe Canterbury Tales. In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje heightens the tension by making his narrator a child—Michael, a fictionalized version of his younger self—to whom nearly every aspect of the adult world is a surprise. Eleven years old and leaving behind a ruptured multiracial family in newly independent Ceylon, Michael is sheltered, even naïve—he’s hardly ever heard an “atonal British accent” in his life and observes with total disinterest a lecture on “The Crusades, Pro and Con: Did England Go Too Far?” Joining him at the Cat’s Table—the least desirable table in a ship’s dining room, at the furthest distance from the Captain’s Table—are two playmates and a motley of single adults, including the enigmatic musician Mazappa; a “retired ship dismantler,” Mr. Nevil; and a horticulturist, Mr. Daniels, who has stowed an entire garden of Asian plants—including, of course, poisonous ones—deep in the ship’s hold.

If this sounds like a recipe for picaresque adventures, a contemporary Huckleberry Finnor postcolonial Kim, it is, only sobered by a tinge of erotic longing and an adult’s feeling of foreboding for years of loneliness to come. One moment Michael is being trained by an unscrupulous count to wiggle through an air duct and ransack first-class rooms; the next he is having his first glimmerings of sexual experience lying in bed with a distant teenage cousin.

That scene yields a revelation about growing up that is not itself so remarkable—that adults have private, self-contradicting, inner lives, unacceptable at times even to themselves. But coming from Ondaatje, it feels like falling into a literary wormhole. Ondaatje has spent his whole career fleeing straightforward and explicit revelations like these. And he has never been this lucid or this sentimental.

Of course, the lucidity has to do with the nature of the narrator: Eleven-year-old boys dislike enigmas and are disinclined to leave them standing. Along with his companions, Michael is a little sleuth, drawing conclusions and recording them, sometimes mercilessly, also compiling pages of overheard conversations from unwitting adults. And the sentimentality is natural, too, in a way: The Cat’s Table is not only about childhood but about the hard-won, if somewhat hackneyed, wisdom of old age. “We find our true and inherent selves during youth,” the adult Michael says. “It is a recognition of something that at first is small within us, that we will grow into somehow.”

In his book On Late Style, Edward Said observes that great artists toward the end of their careers often veer toward the irrational or unacceptable as a way of refusing to fade politely into the shadows. In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje has conformed to the pattern by inverting it. The Cat’s Table is conscientious, character-driven, and psychologically acute—the kind of book once championed by E. M. Forster and Elizabeth Bowen and today practiced by writers like Claire Messud and Jhumpa Lahiri. It accepts, as all these writers do, the humanistic imperative to know one’s characters as well as possible, to make them both complex and transparent to the reader. In this sense, Ondaatje is not simply demonstrating ambivalence about his own artistic principles; he’s gone and undercut the far more radical and decidedly untransparent poetics of his earlier work. Apparently the achievement of a beguiling, shadowy surface—like the frescoes viewed by flare-light in The English Patient—simply isn’t sufficient when it comes to the bittersweet legacies of a complicated childhood. Or, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, there are times in life when one has to be earnest. Rather than producing another peregrination on the—apparently—inexhaustible theme of male twilight, Ondaatje has written a novel that reads instead like starting over.

The Cat’s Table
By Michael Ondaatje.
Knopf, 288 pp., $26.

Come Aboard