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Ondaatje Crafts Semi-Autobiographical Tale of Ocean Voyage in ‘The Cat’s Table’

December 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Michael Ondaatje's new novel "The Cat's Table" is a shipboard story about a boy's travel's from Ceylon to England. Jeffrey Brown and Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," discuss the coming-of-age tale based in part on the writer's own past.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, an acclaimed coming-of-age novel based in part on the writer’s own past.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the early 1950s, a young boy sets out on a ship from his home in what was then called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, bound for England. On board, he meets up with a lively cast of characters and has many adventures. It’s just a three-week trip, but one that will change his life forever.

That’s the fictional voyage of a new novel, “The Cat’s Table.” Its author, Michael Ondaatje, took a trip like that long ago, before becoming the much-honored writer of such works as “The English Patient, “Anil’s Ghost,” and “Divisadero.”

He joins us now.

Welcome to you.

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MICHAEL ONDAATJE, author, “The Cat’s Table”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So an 11-year-old boy named Michael makes this trip, as did 11-year-old…

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I mean, I had no idea the boy was going to be called Michael until about page 40, and suddenly that name appeared, and I thought, should I go with that or not?

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really? So it didn’t start out that way?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: No.

I mean, I don’t usually know how the book is going to evolve before I write it. So I just began with a boy coming on the ship one night. And then he gets off the ship at, you know, 21 days later on.

And the actual journey I took in fact was — I don’t remember it all. It was like I played a lot of ping-pong and used the swimming pool a lot, but that was about it. And I had friends…

JEFFREY BROWN: But something compelled you to look back at that, whether it’s autobiographical — I don’t want to make it too autobiographical, but something in the material made you want to look back, right?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Well, what happened was a few years ago I was talking to my children, who have now grown up, and I said I was put on this ship and there was no parental guidance, nothing. And they were appalled.

And I said, actually, it is appalling.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is. That’s a different time, right, a young boy put on a boat by himself.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Right.

So I thought, my God, there’s a wonderful story here, and I will just invent this adventure that takes place on this ship during that time. So even though I’m using a kind of an element of memoir or seeming autobiography, all the characters in the story and all the adventures in fact are fictional.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, “The Cat’s Table” refers to the table in the dining room that’s the furthest from the captain’s table, right?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the characters says this is the least privileged place, these are the least important people on board.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: It’s, you know, if you are at some big banquet and you are by the kitchens or something like that, you are sitting at the cat’s table. And it’s the insignificance.

I think there’s lot of freedom in being unofficial. There is a lot of freedom in being not on stage all the time, so you can be a heckler, you can be kind of — and for a boy of 11 years old that is at this table, he’s almost completely invisible, so he can go to places that others can’t go to.

And so these three boys that get together are kind of having great adventures and slipping into the butcher’s room and into the jails and into all kinds of strange places.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, was there something freeing for you about having the character be a boy?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: To write from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy was — was fantastic for me. He was — that was an adventure as well, you know, because you weren’t judging people. You weren’t kind of trying to work out what someone really felt. You just received information and you were led into kind of badness and goodness right away.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are working here in one the great realms of literature, the trip, right, and the characters along the way, from “The Canterbury Tales” onward, right?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: That’s right.

And I guess that’s why you kind of — it’s very important to populate the adventure with many, many people from different classes of society.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how did that happen? Did you have this fully formed when you sat down, or did you literally make it up as you went along?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I made it up.

And all I had was the boy at the beginning, and then he has three friends. And then the fact that they are at the cat’s table allowed me to kind of think of a larger cast of characters, you know, and so I have a jazz musician who is on the skids, and you’ve got this strange woman with pigeons who might be a — work for Whitehall, and you’ve got a millionaire who’s dying of rabies.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: All kinds of very strange things are happening.

But it allowed me to invent these people. And what someone says to the boy, you know, keep your ears and eyes open, because this is going to be a great education, and so the minute I said that or had someone say that, then it became in a way a book about how especially 11-year-olds are easily educated in a bad way or a good way.

So there is a thief who uses the boy to break into cabins, for instance, and he’s happy to do this. It’s an adventure for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: The boy, as well as some of these characters that he meets, are — they are traveling from East to West, and there is another part of the great literature I think that you are working in here.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Well, I am someone who is, as I said, born in Sri Lanka and then moved to England and then moved to Canada, so I have been pretty nomadic in my life, you know.

And I have always been interested in how the East lives in the West. I mean, in “The English Patient,” it was Kip, the bomb disposal character. And in this book, it’s these boys from Asia who really haven’t — don’t even know what England is, who are suddenly kind of about to arrive and all their lives are going to change completely. And I just love that kind of transferring of people from one location to another one.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when you finished, I guess — and I’m going back to where we started – you’re looking back at a life that is sort of yours, but not yours. Were you surprised by what you, by what you’d written?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: You know, it’s very obvious, because, I think, when you write fiction, you are obviously kind of discovering elements of yourself, even if you are writing fiction, because even the kind of characters you invent are aspects of yourself, are glimmers of aspects of yourself, and then you had to kind of — you’ve got to paint them in, in great detail.

So the boy Michael, who I see as a fictional character, I am sure contains elements of my fears or wishes, I think all those things. And when I wrote a book called “Running in the Family,” which was about my family in Sri Lanka, I would listen to all these stories from uncles and aunts. And I wrote this portrait of that time.

And even though half of them were lying to me, I kind of believe all that stuff now. You know, fiction is very powerful in that way. It does replace facts sometimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. The book is “The Cat’s Table.”

Michael Ondaatje, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Good to talk to you.