Book Review: The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
Posted on August 22, 2012
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are quite a few good reviews on The Cat’s Table already, so I am not going to go into explanations about plot, etc. I rarely choose books based on plot, anyway, and discussing it too much bores me. When I do get in the mood to read for plot, I read genre books or popular fiction, not Ondaatje. What I believe brings most of us readers to Ondaatje is his lyrical language, his exquisite prose styling, and his rendering of subtle and complex characters whom one imagines it would be fascinating to know in real life. He rarely fails in any of these aspects, in my opinion.
I finished The Cat’s Table just last night, and I ended up really appreciating it, but it was a slow start for me and it took me ages to finish. I kept stopping to read other things. I always find Ondaatje’s prose to be pretty much flawless, and his insights subtle, layered, and deeply moving – as one would expect from a celebrated poet. But I found the first part of this book rather exhausting to get through; in hindsight, I believe it is because we are pretty much stuck the whole time with the perspective of a fairly ordinary eleven year old boy – which I got bored with quickly. Ondaatje did not call upon the voice of the adult Michael in the first half of the book all that often, but he is of course, a much more interesting and reflective person than the wild child on the boat.
I can and do enjoy other writers who give us boy child narrators, but Ondaatje is a writer of such restraint that I found this child tiresome. My thoughts on this are that if you are going to use a child narrator, then it might be useful to drop the restraint in your narrative, in order to mirror the natural lack of restraint in children, in general, and in this child, in particular. Other characters report back to the adult Michael that he was “constantly in trouble,” “naughty,” and even a bit of “a devil” (in Emily’s words). Although Ondaatje described the children behaving in reckless and run-amok ways, he did so with such artful and delicate prose that, to me, it muffled the effect of the boys he was describing and kept me at a distance from them. I was vaguely amused but not too interested in them or their antics until halfway through the book.
Once Ondaatje began expanding our social circle, so to speak, I found the book delighted me, both in its character descriptions, and in the way their stories were shared: most especially, the characters of the anarchic and mysterious Ms. Lasqueti, the elusive Emily, and Asuntha, the acrobat child of the prisoner. I felt that bringing the women more into the picture made a tremedous difference in my ability to engage with the book, as I found the narrator at his most tender and eloquent when discussing these characters (and also when discussing Ramhadin – a beautifully rendered character, in my opinion).
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.