Book Review: The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
Posted on August 22nd, 2012
Having said all that, I would not have kept pushing myself with most writers as I did with Ondaatje, and it is out of respect for his other work that I did not abandon the book. It seems that many people have loved the book from beginning to end, though, so that just goes to show how much reactions can vary, even amongst long-term fans of a writer.
(Plot Spoiler) The dramatic plot line about the prisoner and his daughter were well done, though I think it would have seemed like ridiculous, contrived melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer. Ondaatje pulled it off, and I cherished the moment Ms. Lasqueti covertly shot Mr. Giggs in the hand, presumably to satisfy her own sense of power as the subtle enemy of autocratic bullies, and to prove to herself that she was indeed the superior marksman. Undoubtedly, she was also attempting to protect Emily and Asuntha, who were dangerously ensnared by powerful and unethical men, just as she herself had once been.
Another reviewer mentioned being confused by Ondaatje writing this book as a novel, rather than an autobiography, even though much of the tale draws upon his own life experiences. I, too, found it confusing initially when I realised that, although it reads like a memoir, it was indeed published as a novel (I checked myself just to be sure, because I was so in doubt). However, in reflection, I wonder if Ondaatje does not believe that telling an autobiographical truth about one’s past is possible, due to the elusive and mercurial nature of memory, and our own limited perceptions of ourselves and our participation in the lives of others.
All stories we tell about the past are a blend of fact and fiction, and fiction probably wins out more often than not. I think this is widely recognised as true by writers of history: that history is not the truth about the past; it is stories we tell ourselves about the past. I believe, too, that making the character Michael into a fictitious narrator gives Ondaatje an aesthetic and emotional distance not available to writers of autobiography. Having said all that, I enjoy autobiography and biography, in their own right. I suppose it depends, for writers, on what they hope to achieve with the particular tales they are telling. Of course, those are my own opinions, and may not reflect Ondaatje at all. These may be just a stories I tell myself about him to make sense of what I’ve read.