In Michael Ondaatje's latest novel, fiction mirrors reality.
“Now, I believe you when you say that The Cat’s Table isn’t autobiography, but thousands wouldn’t,” half-joked Eleanor Wachtel, the venerated host of CBC Radio One’s Writers & Company, at the start of her sold-out interview with author Michael Ondaatje on Saturday. Indeed, the parallels between Ondaatje and the protagonist of his latest novel are undeniably uncanny: both are named Michael, both immigrated to England from Sri Lanka by boat at the age of 11, both attended Dulwich College, both became famous writers. So, how does the Michael of reality distinguish himself from the Michael of fiction?
“I really did not remember very much [of the journey to England],” said Ondaatje. “So I think I had this gift of not knowing, of having a story which I could kind of improvise on: a location, a time, a young 11-year-old boy. So that’s what I did—I kind of invented the story as I went along.”
As Ondaatje explained it, the idea for the novel was prompted by the shortcomings of his recollection; he insists he has virtually no memory of life before arriving in England, an 11-year haze that ends with his disembarkment from the ship that brought him there. This book is not a memoir or an autobiography, the author stresses, and he has no desire to approach such genres. The similarities between his character and the Michael of his fiction are purely functional.
“I think that if the book had been written by an unnamed narrator, it would have seemed more autobiographical,” explained Ondaatje. “And by naming him [with] my own name, it maybe made me realize I had to separate him from me. It made the story more intimate in one way, because that was my name. But he also became someone out there.”
Ondaatje considers the decision to make the novel’s Michael character 11 years old, the same age as Ondaatje himself was when he left his birthplace, a functional one. “Generally speaking, there are some ages where you change your life. One is when you’re in your late teens and one, I think, the age of about 11.”
The decision to set the novel on-board a ship was also, Ondaatje explained, a pragmatic one. After all, everyone has at least some idea of what a ship is like. “We know enough about ships from movies and so forth, so we can kind of build up the landscape,” he said. Because of this, a better focus could be placed on characters and the relationships developed between them over the course of the novel-length voyage.
While Ondaatje’s repeated insistence that his novel is not the story of his own life often verged on the coy, what emerged from Saturday’s interview was a nagging question of where author and creation part ways, and where that old authorly adage to “write what you know” stops short of “write what you lived.” Whether Ondaatje, or anyone, can give this a straight answer remains to be seen.
Ondaatje’s interview marked the end of Torontoist’s IFOA 2011 coverage. Until next year, we ruminate on what we’ve learned about authorship, narrative, and what the written word tells us about… well, ourselves.