The myth of Michael Ondaatje: blasphemous or brilliant? Celebrated as one of the greatest Canadian writers of our time, Michael Ondaatje's newest book, The Cat's Table, is a transcontinental boat cruise across relationships. But is he overrated?
Michael Ondaatje is an icon, no doubt. Critically acclaimed and an award-winning author, Michael become a bonafide celebrity after his novel, The English Patient, became an epic movie. But the steely-blue eyed, white haired man is more than just the creator of an intense love story. His books like Anil's Ghost and the Divisadero are more poetry than prose, and plot is often secondary to the passion, emotions, and evocative descriptions of character, setting and inner turmoil. And that's why Michael Ondaatje is an acquired taste.
Last month, we had a chance to experience Michael Ondaatje in person at a reading from his latest book, The Cat's Table, at Vancouver's St. Andrew-Wellesley Church.
The Cat’s Table – a veiled semi-biographical story of Ondaatje’s voyage from Sri Lanka to England – follows the sea-bound journey of an 11-year old boy named Michael in 1954. The boy later grows up to be a writer in Canada. Ondaatje read sublime excerpts from the character of Mr. Fonseca (a teacher of literature going to teach high school English) who spends hours contemplating passages and not only surrenders himself to a humble life, but like many pioneer immigrants is “an innocent knight living in a more dangerous time.” His character’s desire to be tied to the deck of the ship during a severe thunderstorm is less about romantic aspirations and more rightly justified through the rationality of innocent childhood games – to “each day try one thing that is forbidden.” Incisive lines like this litter The Cat’s Table and are a testament to Ondaatje’s skill.
Ondaatje confessed that he did little historical research for the book so that he could have a blank canvas to weave his story. But he did research the emotion of curiosity and it’s translated many ways: childhood adventures, the discovery of new nations, immigration. For fans of Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table will probably be a novel that’s perfect to curl up with on a lazy Sunday. For others (like me at certain times in the reading), it’ll be hard to stay awake for the whole thing.