"I came from a tussle with the sea": An interview with Michael Ondaatje

JP O'Malley

       It’s ten a.m. on an overcast Monday morning at the Gore Hotel in west London. Just yards from the Royal Albert Hall, Michael Ondaatje waits alone in a room lined with volumes of leather-bound books. Wearing a cardigan and sporting a gray beard, Ondaatje looks and sits like an accomplished writer.
       Before we go any further, I want to make clear that Ondaatje isn’t a writer who likes to keep things simple.
       First-time readers of his work may be put off by his ambiguity, ambivalence, and often scattered style of prose that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Others—a strong percentage of literary fiction fans and critics alike—find his work invigoratingly challenging and rewarding. In a 1992 review of The English Patient, which appeared in The Independent(UK), Edmund White aptly describes the style of Ondaatje’s prose:

Like coral, Ondaatje’s narrative is built up slowly into towers and branches and     hidden chambers, fashioning a delicate grisaille of memory and passion. The form isn’t stridently avant-garde but rather radically experimental in the way that Bonnard, the chronicler of bourgeois bliss, is experimental—skewing dimension, masking figures, proceeding from icon to icon. Typically, Ondaatje ends a chapter not with an event but with a memory, an odor, a picture.

       Novel writing for Ondaatje works almost like painting. He uses only a few small strokes at a time; little fragments that eventually form into a complete work over a period of a several years. Most of his novels start with a single image, and the rest works itself out from there.

Michael Ondaatje: I usually start with very little when I begin writing a novel, perhaps one image: a patient in a bed talking to a nurse, perhaps. I don’t know who the patient is; I don’t know who the nurse is; or a boy walking across a field eating a stalk of celery—something as simple as that. Then I have a time period, and I have this image, and that’s how my books begin. I don’t have this great scheme of a plot or an intent or an idea for the novel. I kind of investigate this little keyhole of an image, and then the book grows out of that. I start asking myself: who is the nurse, who is the patient, why is he burnt? And so the book starts building up from this, almost backwards, trying to find out the context of these people, what’s the room like, what’s outside the room, etc., and that’s how a novel gets built for me.

       For Ondaatje, guesswork, as well as having faith in your characters—believing in them—are the two most important things involved in the process of writing novels.

MO: All fiction is taking a guess, in a way. What tends to happen when you are writing a novel, and you have a fictional character [is that] after about twenty or thirty pages, you start believing in that character fully. If that’s Caravaggio in The English Patient, or whoever, after a while, when you’ve been with that character for such a long time, you start to invent, as convincingly as possible, both his perceptions and his beliefs.

       Ondaatje’s latest novel, The Cat’s Table—his first in four years—is set in the 1950s. It tells the tale of an eleven-year-old boy who boards a huge ship, the Oronsay, from Sri Lanka to England. On board the ship, the young boy, coincidentally also named Michael, becomes friends with two other boys of the same age: tough guy Cassius and the timid, philosophical Ramadhin. Throughout the twenty-one day voyage, the three boys encounter many different characters and events, including a murder on the ship, mostly seen from the “cat’s table,” the lowest form of travel class obtainable on such a ship. 
       The Cat’s Table explores the journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, a similar sojourn Ondaatje himself took as a young boy. Ondaatje assures the reader, in the author’s note at the end of the novel, “The book is entirely a work of fiction, and while there was a ship in fact called the Oronsay, the ship in the novel is an imagined rendering.” 
       Writing about an experience that happened fifty years ago made Ondaatje recall the events as best he could, and, after that, he let his imagination take over.

MO: I did make a trip from Sri Lanka to England when I was eleven-years-old. I was shoved on the boat and given someone to supposedly look after me, so that element is fact. But that happened over fifty years ago, so quite honestly, I don’t remember it at all. I was curious to write about it, so I kind of had to invent it, create the adventure in a way, so all those characters in the new book are inventions. It’s like Henry James says, you are given a little anecdote. And then I just invented the hell out of it. Then, about halfway through, I thought I’d have the nerve to call the young boy Michael, which was a bit risky, and probably led to more problems, because the readers think, well, this could be him. It’s like putting on the mask in a Greek play. [After you put it on,] your movements follow the type [of mask] you’ve been given.

       Readers of Ondaatje’s novels will know that he has a passion for language and an incredible ability to tease out sentences in a very sensual way. Suggestion is the key component in the evocative passages he writes, backed up by layers of rich images.
       In The Cat’s Table, the prose is direct and lucid, with sixty-two chapters in total. The book isn’t given the same amount of space or time to indulge in language as is the norm in most of his work. This was partially due to the age of the narrator in the book, rather than a conscious decision to make the style more straightforward.

MO: It wasn’t so much that I decided to write a simpler book; it was the fact that I was trying to write from the point of view of an eleven-year-old. So that insisted on a less convoluted style. I also wanted to bring in the adult writer, [but] I had to keep the simple perception [of a child] who really didn’t understand what was going on. Simultaneously, I also wanted this sadder narrator who can go into the interior mind. But you also want to go into the interior mind of the eleven-year-old as well. He’s got to be scared, joyous, crazy, funny, and all that stuff, but with the kind of language of an adult because I didn’t want it to be monosyllabic.