Thursday, 21 May 2015

Michael Ondaatje: “Images only from memory”

Full title: The Cat's Table
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 293 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel (four years old at this point in time) is a book of passages. It tells the story of three boys travelling between Sri Lanka and England on the transoceanic Oronsay, during the summer of 1954. It tells the story of what went on, during that three-week journey that’s been never forgotten. It tells the story of how the people on board passed from one small island at the end of the Indian subcontinent to a bigger island at the end of Europe.
A sense of a spectacle full of surprises mixed with water and patches of moon permeates through the narrative suppleness and the poetic subtleties of Ondaatje’s prose. The ship itself is a big floating stage, where the passengers play their roles in a space where there is, really, nothing else to do. Once the boys are boarded and the Oronsay starts floating on, they find themselves in a different world, one of freedom but also one of apprehension, where they are “no longer free of the realities of the earth.”
Because of this encounter with the unprecedented (born in Colombo, not far from the sea, they still remember their homes as grounded certainties: territories of earth, not of water), the passengers gather together to construct a universe whose meaning is limited to the time and space of the ship. The narrative gives sufficient hints to inform the reader that nothing of what they are witnessing is the characters’ normal way about things.
The voyage is a game; a game for the boys, who see through events as if they did not matter beyond their immediate happening; a game for the other passengers too, who put on various masks in order to enjoy a short-term life of differences and quasi-anomalies.
The passage, the narrator insists in this story told years later, was not what one might call splendid. Not in its original unfolding. Like all formative events, the formativeness of this passage becomes significant only in hindsight:
“It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.”
It is important that we keep this in mind while reading The Cat’s Table, because this way the question of childhood (inexperience, naivety, and everything else that comes with it) can be brought up again and again. Now, at maturity (the novel’s ‘time zero of narration’), the events are recounted to minds as young as those of the protagonists, participating in the unlikely formation of this generation that grew after the events.
What we’re made to understand from this series of stories remembered as if they were coming from a different world, is that everything – everything – is the product of memory. Impractical, restorative, unreliable memory.
“For us, this was an era without the benefit of photography so the journey escaped any permanent memory. Not even one blurred snapshot of my time on the Oronsay exists in my possession to tell me what Ramadhin really looked like during that journey. A blurred dive into the swimming pool, a white-sheeted body dropping through the air into the sea, a boy searching for himself in a mirror, Miss Lasqueti asleep in a deckchair – these are images only from memory.”
This state beyond documentation lays the ground for fiction. It is, in fact, the perfect incubator for fantasy and for imagination. Without facts, the universe is open to speculations: forms of creative remembering.

Michael Ondaatje. Source: University of North Texas
Autobiographic by default, every writing gesture questions the relevance of memory and its ability to go back to a beginning that is forever fragile. “Whatever we did had no possibility of permanence,” the narrator says at some point. The impermanence of events is the one true theme of The Cat’s Table. Impermanence aided by the fact that this voyage towards an unknown place is recounted as an event in itself: a series of incidents with their own internal logic, held together not by linear biography but by a floating device. That’s why the novel ends at the arrival. In three pages, the episode of Michael’s meeting his mother (who has been waiting for him in London all this time) is done with; without emotional charge, without a mother-son love collision.
That’s because what really matters is not the reunion but the breaking of the party: the fact that the journey ended and, with it, the magic of the show broke up as well. At the arrival, certainty takes front stage again. No more room for fantasy and artifice, no more imagining about. All of that was the ship’s magic, a thing of the past. Now, giving the sea its due, the land puts everybody’s feet to the ground; literally, ordinarily, most prosaically.
But let’s return to the voyage. Given the lack of means to record the events, the narrator’s recollections will have to be regarded as the only accounts of the journey, the only reliable (to an extent) sources of information about a three-week period that was never memorised otherwise.
And so, the boys seem to be under the constant pressure of a duty to witness. Throughout the voyage, they watch and listen. They stand hidden in the darkness of a life boat, covered by the tarpaulin, furtively seeing and listening to events as they unfolded. This sense of witnessing becomes apparent everywhere in the novel. Sometimes, it suggests confusion – like the confusion in the minds of the young protagonists:
“We were never sure of what we were witnessing, so that our minds were half grabbing the rigging of adult possibility.”
At other times, the sense of testimony appears as a necessary training for a future when the events are meant to gain significance:
“Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place.”
This is the core of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table: the facts of fiction adding memory to existence.