Michael Ondaatje on making fiction of un-remembered autobiography, holding back two-thirds of the story, and bringing the marginalized to the center
Photograph of Amitava Kumar and Michael Ondaatje courtesy of Saurabh Kumar Shahi
A typical Michael Ondaatje line is like an eye opening onto a scene. The scene that falls into place on the page might be a quiet one. But the reader is always being startled into awareness. We are aware of the act of looking. In The English Patient, the young woman Hana recalls a line from Stendhal, “A novel is a mirror walking down the road.” Even a discussion of language only uncovers a lesson in the optics of meaning. Again from The English Patient: “Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.”
Ondaatje’s latest novel, The Cat’s Table, recounts a boy’s journey by ship from Colombo to England in the early 1950s. The narrator, eleven-year-old Michael, becomes friends with two other boys on ship, and picks up the nickname Mynah because he repeats what he hears from one to the other. The physical journey, the people on board, the events that transpire are all witnessed from the perspective of the boys. This takes a near-literal form when many years later one of the trio becomes a well-known artist, and produces work from his memories of that trip, the paintings recapturing the very angle from which the boys had seen the shore. Our narrator, coming across those paintings nearly two decades after the journey that inspired them, observes, “I read somewhere that when people first celebrated the distinct point of view of Lartigue’s early photographs, it took a while before someone pointed out that it was the natural angle of a small boy with a camera looking up at the adults he was photographing.” That same tilt is present in the narrative of The Cat’s Table, giving the novel its feeling of quick wonder and delicate mystery.
While a profound melancholia and heartbreak define the later retrospective sections of the novel, the innocent charm that floods the beginning sections buoys this—or at least transfers to it the sea-blue tinge of nostalgia which makes everything more tolerable. We are at some distance here from those who populate the Sri Lanka of, say, Anil’s Ghost. Take the alcoholic miner, Ananda, who can recreate a human face from looking at and touching the bare bones of the skull. Ananda is the one who is recruited by the human rights investigators attempting to find out the identity of the man whose mutilated skeleton they have come across. The face that Ananda recovers for them is peaceful. Too peaceful. This is not the portrait of the murdered man. It becomes clear that Ananda is only trying to imagine the face of his wife who was abducted by insurgents and never heard from again. Hence, the serenity of the reproduction. Yet, despite this failure—perhaps because of it—Ondaatje finds in Ananda’s art the model for existence or at least survival: “As an artificer now he did not celebrate the greatness of a faith. But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons, specters of retaliation.”
When asked to interview Ondaatje, I knew I wanted to talk about how characters like Ananda represent the triumph of craft. Of course, behind it was the query about Ondaatje as artificer, the apparatus that has made possible the immense accomplishment of his art. I was to talk to him in front of a public audience on the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I woke before dawn in my hotel. After making tea, I sat down with six of his books spread out on the desk before me. What was that misgiving? Partly jet-lag, no doubt, but also perhaps that Ondaatje is such a curator of silences—how do you engage him in a public dialogue in front of a thousand people? “Where were you born? How old were you when you decided you were going to be a writer?” There was no point in wasting time with queries you answer readily on Wikipedia. The previous night I had seen Ondaatje at a reception-dinner, and we had decided that he was going to read from the new novel. I assumed most people in the audience wouldn’t have had a chance to read the book yet, but they, like the two hundred and fifty writers who had come to Jaipur, would be interested in a discussion on craft, and—in Ondaatje’s case—craft involves an unfinishedness. As Teju Cole, in a recent tribute for the “My Hero” column in the Guardian, writes, “Michael Ondaatje’s work taught me how to be at home in fragments, and how to think about a big story in carefully curated vignettes. All his books were odd, all of them ‘unfinished’ the way Chopin’s Études are unfinished: no wasted gestures, no unnecessary notes.”
—Amitava Kumar for Guernica
Amitava Kumar: I understand that you, too, when you were a child, undertook this journey that is at the heart of The Cat’s Table. But what was the immediate occasion? What was the spark for writing this book now?
Michael Ondaatje: Well, when I was eleven years old, rather like the boy in the novel, I went from Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) to England, and I had no parents watching over me so I felt tremendously independent for the first time in my life. And I was telling my children a few years ago about this and they were horrified that a small boy would be put on a ship for twenty-one days and sent off to nowhere, essentially. And just from their reaction I thought, “My god this is a really great story,” especially as I really didn’t remember that journey very much at all, and it was like being given a gift of an episode in a life that could become a novel. And so I turned what was essentially autobiography, or un-remembered autobiography, into fiction. And so apart from the fact that the boy gets on a ship at the age of eleven and goes to England, I had to invent every character. I had to invent Cassius and Ramadhin, who are his two friends, and all the characters in the novel who are invented. So that was really the source of the book.
Amitava Kumar: Early in the book, the boy, Michael, whose nickname is Mynah, says, “Unlike Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Nevil was modest, and would speak of these episodes in his past only if you knew how to nudge an incident out of him. If he had not been so modest in the way he responded to our barrage of questions, we not have believed him, or been so enthralled.”
So, Michael, is that how this interview is going to go? Will I have to nudge you? We will stay enthralled because you’ll give us a little bit, and then not anymore?
Michael Ondaatje: [laughs] Well, as someone who writes novels that are often set in other periods of time or other ages or other landscapes, there’s a certain element of research I have to do, and often, the more laconic people are, the more interesting they become. I remember I was talking to a farmer once about how one of his cows had fallen through the ice and was in frozen water, and he had to get the cow out, which seemed that it could be very dramatic. So I said, “So how did you get the cow out? What was it like?” And he said, “It was very difficult.” And that was all he said. So actually again it was that kind of gift of, okay, I could invent the details for the story in my book In the Skin of a Lion. I had to choreograph the scene, which went on for about four or five pages and was not just that one brief sentence.
But I think precision in writing goes hand in hand with not trying to say everything. You try and say two-thirds, so the reader will involve himself or herself.
Amitava Kumar: Yes, but even when you offer us just a brief sentence, you’re often so specific, so precise, that one gets an immediate picture. For instance, I’m particularly drawn to people sitting in bathrooms and what they do, and here’s a line from The Cat’s Table: “You squatted over the hole of hell and washed yourself afterwards with water from a rusty tin that once held Tate and Lyle golden syrup.” It’s not just any tin, right? And then this wonderful line that is perhaps the advertising slogan that appears on the tin: “‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ I would always remember.” And indeed as readers, we remember. Is that a part of your being a poet? Is that what gives to your writing such a wonderful precision, so that there is always this specificity even when you’re offering these laconic lines?
Michael Ondaatje: I have been asked many questions about The Cat’s Table but I promise you this is the first time anyone has focused on that scene! That was definitely not written out of being a poet but from growing up for a while in a wretched boarding school in Colombo. But I think precision in writing goes hand in hand with not trying to say everything. You try and say two-thirds, so that the reader will involve himself or herself and participate in the scene, not just watch. I wish for an active reader. I think that when I began to write novels, I wanted to keep that element of interaction with the reader that exists in poetry, not just for the reader to be shepherded from A to B to C to D but to participate, and the less you say sometimes, the better it is. You know, it’s the way when someone speaks very quietly, you move forward so you can listen more carefully.
Amitava Kumar: Yeah, I realized that as a young man, when I was in love I would very immediately blurt out “I love you,” but you would not have done that. You would have—
Michael Ondaatje: No, I did actually. [laughs]
I saw these war movies shortly after the war, all about the war being fought by Englishmen or Americans—no Indians or Australians. One of the things I really wanted to do was bring someone like Kip into the landscape of that history.
Amitava Kumar: Your saying that the sort of aesthetic principle you follow in your narrative is of offering your reader about two-thirds—it’s almost mathematical—reminds me of something that happens in the book of interviews that you did with Walter Murch [The Conversations].You describe watching a film where the cuts between different scenes are complete so that each scene is whole in itself, and you found it dissatisfying, while in the case of Walter Murch, because he held back about one-fifth of the narrative, you found the story so much more compelling. Have I got that right? What happens there?
Michael Ondaatje: Well, for instance in one of the scenes in his editing of The English Patient was a scene between Caravaggio and Hana, and though the scene was written with a beginning, a middle and an end, he held back that last one-fifth, so you sort of heard the last part of the dialogue in the next scene…used as a voice-over. It removed that element of a black-out at the end of every scene, that kind of stop-start quality, that makes it exhausting to the reader or the viewer. There always should be something hanging unfinished before a scene ends so that there’s a reason for going to the next scene. I think I learned a lot from Murch in terms of how the scenes shouldn’t be too fulfilled.
Amitava Kumar: Yes… I’m trying to connect this thing that you have just said to what I also think of as a principle in your writing, your fiction especially, which functions as a corrective to what has been withheld in history, where a story has been told but perhaps hasn’t been told adequately. Or there is another story beside it. In fact, I’m reminded that in In the Skin of a Lion there’s an epigraph from John Berger, which was also used by Arundhati Roy as an epigraph in her novel, and, if I remember right, it goes something like, “Never again will a story be told as though it were the only story.” So, you are always telling the story that’s not just from center-stage. We encounter Kip in The English Patient. He’s the Sikh sapper in the British Army, and, before the war ends, after the bomb has been dropped on Japan, he questions his own place in Europe. So you’re also trying to tell a story from the side, from a position of marginality.
Michael Ondaatje: I want the marginality to come into the center. This is the thing I was conscious of growing up, when I later lived in England. I saw all these war movies that came out shortly after the war, and they were all about the war being fought by Englishmen or Americans, there were no other “allies” in it —from India or Australia, etc. And I knew that one of the things I really wanted to do was try to bring someone like Kip into the landscape of that history. And I think the thing about Berger’s remark is that, you know, it’s an aesthetic remark but also a political one. I think aesthetically, you have the novels, say, of F. Scott Fitzgerald where Nick Caraway is the narrator, or whoever it is, and you see everything from that person’s point of view, and I’ve tried in my novels to have various points of view, various speakers, various narratives, so it’s more of a group conversation as opposed to a monologue. But politically I also don’t believe anymore that we can only have one voice to a story, it’s like having one radio station to represent a country. You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction.
Amitava Kumar: I’m reminded in The Cat’s Table—there is a line, in fact it was a very moving passage for me, when a letter arrives from Miss Lasqueti, many years after the narrator has met this woman on the ship, and she is now an older woman. She had a desire to, as she describes in the letter, rescue this young woman, the narrator’s cousin, who she sees in a dangerous relationship with an older man. Miss Lasqueti wants to warn the young woman about her situation. It was a lovely letter, I thought. Especially because in this letter she is describing her own past, her dealings as a young woman with a very powerful man, and it’s done very delicately. I wanted to discuss a line with you. She says that these men with power, who seem to assume the universe, they close doors on you. She says, “In their daily life there is always a cup of blood somewhere.” I thought that was a statement about power. And when we hear the easy rhetoric of someone in power, what we should be looking for also is the brutality. Isn’t that right?
Michael Ondaatje: Yes.
Amitava Kumar: We should be reading against the grain, seeing in any document of culture also a document of barbarism.
Michael Ondaatje: It’s odd because when I write my novels I don’t really have a huge plan beforehand; I don’t have the whole plot and architecture, so the story is sort of discovered as I write it. And it’s really not so much until later on that I look back at the landscape of the book and say “Oh, so that’s where that connects with what happened or was said earlier”—so there are a number of rhymes and echoes that reveal themselves. The three boys are very powerless in the book. Mynah is surrounded by people with power, to a certain extent; and he’s also surrounded by people who do not have power. So he’s getting an education in this novel from basically honorable people, like Mr. Fonseca, and also quite bad or dubious people like the Baron, who’s a thief. And so it became interesting when I go to that letter by Miss Lasqueti: she kind of focused on how Mynah had to kind of evade power or people with power or how damaging they can be—how charming they can be, as well as dangerous.
Amitava Kumar: I’m not wholly accepting of your description of them now as “bad people” because you present them also with such sympathy. Even the Baron, when he instructs the little boy in crime, it was after all a pedagogical act. He was showing the young boy a vocation. Or something like that. So where does the sympathy of yours come from? I mean—you’re not savage.
Michael Ondaatje: No. That may be a problem with me, who knows, maybe it is going to come out some day. But I just get fascinated by the characters, and certainly I agree with you that the Baron is bad. You know from a distance, someone could say this man is a thief, but I tend to have a lot of good-natured thieves in my books. I don’t know where that compassion comes from—but here the thing is it’s an eleven-year-old boy telling the story to a certain extent, and he’s in awe of him—it’s not a case of good or bad, it’s the way children are not judgmental about what they witness or happens to them. “Go over here and do that.” And you go and do it, and that’s a given.
Amitava Kumar: Can I invite you to read from the middle of the book maybe, yes?
Michael Ondaatje: So the book covers this twenty-one day journey from Sri Lanka to England, and one of the things that happened, when I was writing it, I was wondering how many of us had made that similar journey—certainly our parents and our grandparents did, there are generations of people from Asia or from the Caribbean who went to England in this way and so one of the scenes is when they go through the Suez Canal on the ship, and this is a scene to do with that:
[Ondaatje reads from the novel.]
I remember still how we moved in that canal, our visibility muted, and those sounds that were messages from shore, and the sleepers on deck missing this panorama of activity. We were on the railing bucking up and down. We could have fallen and lost our ship and begun another fate—as paupers or as princes. “Uncle!” we shouted, if someone was close enough to distinguish our small figures. “Hullo, Uncle!” And people would wave, fling us a grin. Everyone who saw us sliding by was an uncle that night. Someone threw us an orange. An orange from the desert! Cassius kept shouting for beedis, but they did not understand him. A dockworker held up something, a plant or an animal, but the darkness disguised it too well.
No other vessel would be travelling that night in the Canal’s dark waters. Radio contact had been at work for more than a day so that we would enter, as we had to, at the very moment of midnight. Under a swaying cord of electrical light, down there onshore was a man sitting at a make-shift table, filling out forms he handed to a runner who caught up with the ship and flung the papers with a metal weight so they landed at the feet of one of the sailors. We never stopped moving, we passed the runner, as well as the man at the table furiously recording the charts of exchange, and a canteen cook beside an open fire roasting a thing whose odour was a gift, a desire in the night, a temptation to abandon the ship after all the European food we had been eating for days. Cassius said, “That is what frankincense smells like.” And so our ship continued, guided by these strangers. We were collecting what was fresh from land, bartering for objects thrown on board. Who knows what was exchanged that night, and what cross-fertilization occurred as the legal papers of entrance and exit were signed and passed back down to land, while we entered and left the brief and temporary world of El Suweis.
That’s one of the great sadnesses of any life—knowing what you know now and then remembering what you did not know then.
Amitava Kumar: I love that passage. The very physical description of the movement, the going through the Suez Canal, allowed us to imagine this transition from childhood to something more grown-up. We were on this journey, but here, concretely, it became a transition into something else, the childhood innocence soon to be replaced by the knowledge of death, and sadness. In the previous section, the book had borne a likeness to Naipaul’s Miguel Street, with its cast of colorful characters, but this transition happens, and we get into something so much darker, marked by the discovery of adult sorrows. Can you talk a bit about the kind of knowledge that is gained by the narrator here?
Michael Ondaatje: Well, when I began the book, I thought it was going to be a book mainly and only from the point of view of an eleven-year-old boy who was very naïve and innocent and childish—
Amitava Kumar: Naked with innocence—
Michael Ondaatje: Yes. And the perception of the adults around him and the other boys is that point of view. And something happens in some odd way, almost unconsciously in the Suez canal scene… going through a lens, so that the next chapter, next scene, where he goes to see the painting of Cassius—Cassius who was eleven years old up to that point—now a thirty-year-old person and Mynah is also an adult—suddenly you’re getting almost a flash forward. And so for the next twenty-five pages or so we witness what Ramadhin is like as an adult and what his life is like and what Mynah’s life is like. And then we go back to the ship… And I found what was actually heartbreaking, in a way, is that you go back to the ship and the boys who are eleven years old do not know what is going to happen to them, but we do. You and I know. That’s one of the great sadnesses of any life—knowing what you know now and then remembering what you did not know then.
So it really was in that recovery of adulthood…a need for a certain kind of adult awareness in the narrative voice. And then I had to go back to the voice and perception of the young boys. But I realized I had to have an element of adult wisdom somewhere hidden in that younger voice to prepare you for this. So when he talks about Mr. Fonseca, there’s an adult point of view in there as well, even though it’s from the point of view of a child. I found that very interesting to do and it opened the book up for me in many ways.
When I read biographies, I skip the first thirty pages about the childhood because it doesn’t seem interesting to me.
Amitava Kumar: You know, what your writing allows us to do, now that we’re talking about innocence, is that it allows us to experience over and over again the way innocence ends. We are with Kip, falling in love with someone, and then the bomb is dropped and that love is shattered. He doesn’t have any faith in the imperial enterprise anymore. He gets on a motorcycle and goes back. There’s a scene that I’ve never forgotten from that novel, which is that The English Patient is telling Hana about what he used to do on these journeys in the desert, and he talks about some other anthropologist whose tent he visits when he has gone out for the day. As he’s leaving he looks up at the mirror and he sees behind him the bed with a little mound there, as if a dog were hiding under the blankets. And then the next line is, he removed the blankets and he saw that it was a little Arab girl tied to the bed. The reading against the grain, just like in the other line from that book: “But you do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society.” We are being told how these “objective enterprises” always carry a burden of guilt. Isn’t that an abiding passion of yours? Isn’t that something you always go back to—how is knowledge gained? How is dangerous knowledge gained?
Michael Ondaatje: Well, it’s interesting because, you know, when I read some biographies, I often skip the first thirty pages about the childhood because it doesn’t seem too interesting to me. You read Chaplin’s autobiography, and that childhood is like stolen Dickens in many ways. I’m more interested usually in the late teens, and how you become adult, getting in trouble or you don’t get in trouble. In a way, this is the first book that does deal with childhood, so I had to have a different kind of perception. There’s an essay by Calvino on the different elements of writing, and one of the chapters is called “Lightness,” and quite honestly I don’t remember what he said but I remember it influenced me, and I wanted to have that lightness in this book.
It needed to move fast but, of course, there are these dark moments. And I guess the little moments of seeing the Arab girl, or in this novel witnessing something about Miss Lasqueti or the Captain. Or what Sunil or the prisoner is doing. You place this innocence and the naivete side by side with the dangerous or oppressive. I am still someone who’s very influenced by collage as an art form. The great writer Donald Richie who lives in Japan talks about the distinction between East and West: the Western novel is very organized, it’s very logical, there’s a logical progression, there’s a chronological progression, and there’s a safety in that. Whereas if you look at Japanese film, it is made up of collage or bricolage, it is made up of lists, and suddenly when you stand back from the lists you begin to see the pattern of a life. I’m someone who left Sri Lanka when I was eleven years old, but I think, in some ways, it was great to read this essay because I suddenly recognized that what I was doing is not so weird after all. That there is an element of…a more profound element of truth coming out of the discovered pattern in a collage or the list, by discovering the story as you go along, or as the Japanese say, by “following the brush.” And I think that’s what makes me want to write, I don’t want to sit down and write a novel knowing everything about it before I begin it. The element of discovery, the accidental discovery of the girl in the tent, or something else that is discovered in the process of writing the novel.
Amitava Kumar: Tell me a bit about the montage principle, you know, because Michael is visiting someone, and he’s being instructed about the way in which a family’s crest is patterned. There are the moons that describe something, and for Michael, this discovery, very art historical description is juxtaposed with the realization that Ramadhin is the saint. I wrote in the margin, “Montage!” That’s how you think, that’s how you write.
Michael Ondaatje: Well it is how I think, how a lot of us think. You are doing something over here and over there someone is telling you a joke, or giving you an important piece of information about sanitation, and no matter how weird the other subject is, there is a connection, or you can make a connection. That’s how I think. I’ve always loved history and history is collage, it is a juxtaposition of the good and the bad and the strange, and how you place those sentences together changes the whole mood of a history. Lyrical scenes could fall off the edge into something much darker.
You place this innocence and the naivete side by side with the dangerous or oppressive.
Amitava Kumar: But The Cat’s Table has been described in some quarters as being more linear, or perhaps more conventional, in its telling than your previous work, say, Divisadero. What do you think about that reading?
Michael Ondaatje: Well I think it is less blunt radically than Divisadero, but the new one still shifts back and forward deviously. But it all supposedly seems to be about one event, and place, and based on a limited group of individuals. Divisadero crashed two locales and groups together, and they mirrored each other in what I thought were interesting ways. I like the structure of the new book but I feel much the same way about Divisadero too.
Amitava Kumar: There’s one thing that I wanted to ask you Michael, about Anil’s Ghost. I think it’s Gamini who says, “American movies, English books, remember how they all end? …The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him.” And he goes into this little account, which is very nice, “The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He is going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.” I think that’s brilliant. How do you avoid it, man? I want to know!
Michael Ondaatje: Well, how do I avoid it? You can’t avoid it, unfortunately, in this modern age. You need to have some irony towards good reviews and you have irony towards bad reviews. When The English Patient happened, you know, when The English Patient became The English Patient!, I was already in the middle of Anil’s Ghost, so I think that saved me, I was not really preoccupied with what was going on at that time outside the sphere of Anil’s Ghost. But there is for most writers a problem of what they can do to avoid what could be a lifelong press junket. And I think the only person who has common sense about this is Coetzee. Coetzee will not talk about his work.
Amitava Kumar: No, he didn’t take any questions when he spoke here last time.
Michael Ondaatje: He never does interviews, I just totally admire the man. He writes great books, and then just goes off and works on the next one, without doing an interview.
This interview was adapted from the original conversation at Jaipur. We thank the organizers of the JLF for permission to publish the interview.