Michael Ondaatje is the author of “The English Patient,” later made into an Academy Award winning film. Born in Sri Lanka, he traveled alone by ship to England at age 11 to live with his mother who he hadn’t seen in several years since his parents were divorced. This boyhood journey became the inspiration for his latest novel, “The Cat’s Table.”
The Origins of A Story
Ondaatje begins with a place and time period, with a very exact location, and beginning with a sense of non-fiction even in a novel. “One of the things about writing a book about a ship journey in the 1950s, especially if it’s an adventure story or a war-zone adventure story, is you have to try and make it authentic in some way,” he said. For him, this book does have a sense of memoir to it, right down to his decision to name the main character Michael. He put such details in, he said, to persuade readers that the events are are believable as possible.
“The Cat’s Table”
The titular phrase is one that Ondaatje heard from a German publisher. The publisher said he had had a dream that he was sitting at the worst table in a banquet hall, which would typically be near the kitchen. In the book, the protagonist and his friends get exiled to the “cat’s table” on the ship along with some oddball characters.
Subtext Of The Novel Is The Journey
Ondaatje had a very real sense of unawareness of where he was going on his own real journey that is mimicked in the book. “I think an 11 year-old boy is plucked out of this island where he’s lived and knows very well in a conferral kind of way. And he’s on a ship with complete strangers and complete – these strange customs. And he’s going to land in a country where the customs are even stranger.”
John Berger, an English writer, is one of Ondaatje’s favorites. Berger has written several novels, “Novel G,” and “Here is Where We Meet.” His latest is called “Bento’s Sketchbook.” D.H. Lawrence is another writer Ondaatje admires, for both is style and versatility.
You can read the full transcript here.