Month: April 2017

READING: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

READING: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

How is it that the child’s eyes have the wonder still attached? Reading Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table reminds me of this. I’m jealous of his story. I want to be that eleven year old aboard a great ocean liner with no adult supervision. I do. The freedom of it, the waking early to swim in the first class pool, napping in the afternoon down in the turbine room so as to stay up late and catch glimpses of a transported prisoner as he exercises on deck. It smells of childhood. To be considered the least important of passengers and placed at ‘the cat’s table’, as far from the captain’s table as possible…how glorious. I don’t remember my childhood enthusiasms so much, but I know they felt like this. They were thrilling and, so my young self thought, dangerous. This novel drew me into my child mind as I romped across the Indian Ocean with Ondaatje’s three young characters.

Ondaatje tells this tale from the perspective of Michael, who, as an adult delves into his past and the seminal voyage from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to London in the 1950’s. There is a lovely lyrical movement between the boy and the man and back again. Innocence and knowing. Black and white, and grey. Michael is eleven years old when he sets off across the Indian Ocean to join his mother in London. He is going into an unknown world, but in the interim the world of the ship provides him with a stepping stone and a place to dip into the complexities of adulthood to come.

He quickly befriends two other unaccompanied boys, the more cautious Ramadhin and Cassius, the daredevil. Ondaatje shows us these different versions of being and positions his narrator between them in temperament. We effortlessly align ourselves with Michael somewhere down that middle road or on that high sea. The three boys roam the ship freely (except for first class, of course) coming into contact with a range of unusual adult characters, who they attempt to understand.

“…the three of us bursting all over the place like freed mercury: stopping at the pool, then the ping-pong table, watching a piano class with Mr Mazappa in the ballroom, a small nap, a chat with the one-eyed Assistant Purser – looking carefully into his glass eye as we passed – and visits to Mr Fonseka’s cabin for an hour or more.”

Amongst the adult characters is Miss Lasqueti, who is travelling with a cage of pigeons and wears a specially designed vest with pockets so she may take the birds on deck. There is Asuntha, who is deaf and carries a deadly secret and Sir Hector who lies dying in his stateroom from a curse. Mr Daniels tends a garden of medicinal and poisonous plants in the hold which he is transporting to London for scientific purposes. Then there is Michael’s bunkmate, Mr Hastie, who by day is a kennel keeper of the passenger’s hounds and by night an expert bridge player. There is the members of the Jankla troupe, who entertain the passengers and a mysterious prisoner, being escorted to London for trial. These are but a few of the people the boys come into contact with. At one point Michael is selected by a shady character, known as the Baron C, to squeeze through the grills on top of the first-class cabin doors for a bit of thievery.

“I could not wait to tell the others at the next turbine room meeting what had happened to me.  I felt my authority grow. But in retrospect I see that what the Baron gave me was another self, something as small as a pencil sharpener. It was a little escape into being somebody else, a door I would postpone opening for some years, at least until I was beyond my teens. Those half-blurred afternoons remain with me.”

At the beginning of the book, Ondaatje supplies us with small vignettes of each character before passing on to another. We meet them in flashes here and there, as the boys do in making their way around the ship, but over time we come to know more of them and the narrative begins to take hold. There is daring and tragedy to come, but I won’t spoil that here. Needless to say, what happens has lasting effects on the lives of the three boys.

Along the way, we experience things such as this:

“She half sat up, then remembered the robe and reached for it. But what I saw hit me at the base of my heart. There was a tremor within me, something that would be natural for me later but at that moment was a mixture of thrill and vertigo.”

It’s lovely stuff. Ondaatje is a master storyteller and the book is peppered with pearls like those above. Despite the author and his main character sharing the same name and country of birth, Ondaatje has assured us the book is entirely fictional. However, so real is his portrayal of his young character, it does start one wondering.  Then again, we say to ourselves he is capable of such realism in his fiction. We have seen it before in novels like The English Patient.  So fact or fiction?   It doesn’t seem to matter.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Book Reviews
The Keeping of a Journal

The Keeping of a Journal

To journal or not to journal? I’m often asked as a writer whether I keep a journal and the truth is it has been, until recently, rather off and on. I’d keep up the practice for a year or more and then for years I wouldn’t. It depended how I was feeling at the time. If I was under stress or suffering an ongoing emotional upset, I would scribble away in a journal to work things out. When I was happy and things were purring along, the journal remained closed.

Why journal?

I’m starting to see there are other reasons to journal though, and so I’ve begun again, this time without the emotional upset. I suspect I may be a better person when I journal. Sure its true, story ideas arise out of life and journaling is a way to capture them, but that is not why I’m doing it now. Journaling forces me to take responsibility, not just for the things I say, but for the kind of life I live.

It keeps me accountable. I might run through a conversation I had with a friend or family member and I realise I should have said something else or listened more attentively. Sometimes I slip into a full-blown rant as I write and its as if it came from nowhere. There’s anger and there’s self-indulgent anger. True anger is something I can and should do something about and a journal can help me think through that. The latter is a waste of time and doesn’t survive on the page. It embarrasses me.

Keeping a journal makes me grateful. When I attend a party I might take photographs, but when I return home, I’ll record it in another way. I’ll relive it and I’ll remember and reiterate how much fun I had spending time with the people I love. It’s brilliant really. In fact, the more I think about it, the more parallels I see between photography and journaling. I am as much ‘behind the lens’ as the photographer and the world is in the foreground. There may be a selfie or two from time to time, but mostly its me looking outward and telling it as I see it.

Recording life is empowering. I become very aware of the life I am living. I know when I need to get out more. When I start to bitch/write about my aches and pains, I tell myself to get moving. There is a sense of being more in charge. The peaks and troughs are noticeable when I write them down.

What do I write in my journal?

I won’t say ‘anything you like‘ because even though its true, its largely unhelpful. I write paragraphs, lists, diagrams (if what I am nutting out is complicated). I can write about my day to come or the day just passed. I write about my friends and family.

I work through issues. I take note of things I have seen like a fantastic building or a beautiful tree. I write about how I feel when I am doing your favourite things and how I feel when I am doing my tax. I can discuss the colour yellow and whether it might suit the walls in my dining room. I write about people I have loved and lost and what I gained in knowing them. I can give myself a good talking to about my various addictions. I can talk to myself about the state of the world and how that makes me feel.

Finding something to write about has become easier over time as my brain becomes attuned to the ritual of journaling. Before you know it too, your pen will be flowing or your keys will be clacking without you consciously having to think stuff up. It will be there waiting for you.

Frequency?

There are no rules about how often you need to write. You can choose to write every couple of months or you can write every day. My resumption of journaling has fast become a kind of warm-up for other writing I do because I have been writing in my journal every day. I didn’t intend this (its a side effect), but it has become a habit. My recent journaling has helped to recalibrate my day. I might wake up feeling a little off and yet somehow the journaling brings me back to where I want to be.Perhaps it wakes up my mind and prepares it for the day.

Today, for example, I wrote about how pleased I was I found all the documents I need to take to the accountant to prepare my tax return.  Really, I did.  I was that pleased.   I wrote how I had anticipated this being far more difficult than it actually was. (There’s a bit of gratitude sneaking in there unannounced). Perhaps next year, I’ll be less of a lunatic come tax-time, perhaps not. Then there was the bit about a gluten-free bread recipe which turned out well in the cooking. That was the crux of it. Glory can  sometimes be found in the mundane.

The clack of the keys or the scratch of the pen?

I suppose its obvious by now. I write my journal entries with pen on paper. There is something contemplative about handwriting for me. It also serves to separate me from my other writing, which is done exclusively on phones, computers or iPads. Working digitally saves time and gives me mostly error-free copy, but in my journal, there are many crossings out. It’s messy, words are often left out. There are arrows pointing from one paragraph to the next when I’ve slipped up in the middle or become bored. It’s pandemonium, but that’s how my mind works and so my journal is as much a visual tell as it is a written one.

For someone as messy as myself, it may seem odd that I care about my pen and paper, but I do. I have a very good fountain pen because I love the way fountain pens flow. I also love the ritual of filling my pen. Crazy, I know. The paper also needs to be good quality, largely because of the pen. Ink for fountain pens bleed on poor paper and I don’t want the ink soaking through the page. I can go on about this for sometime, but I won’t. Just one more thing…..choose a journal you love. Now is not the time to be pragmatic.

What if someone reads it?

I know there is a certain amount of discomfort around the possibility that someone will snoop on our deepest, darkest thoughts. Someone may. It depends on how dark you go, I guess. I knew there were certain journals from the around the time of my divorce which should never see the light of day and so I destroyed them. It’s that simple really. If you don’t want anyone reading your stuff, you could throw each journal away when you begin a new one or you could write yours on a password protected computer or maybe on the back of napkins or single bits of paper which you throw out one after another. It is entirely up to you, but if you are recording a life and the time in which it was lived, it seems a shame to throw it all out.

The last word

You may not think you have a voice in the way a fiction writer does, but you would be wrong in that. We are unique, all of us, and its in our journals where our voice is most noticeable. There is also much of us in what we choose to record and thankfully this seems more incidental than contrived. Its not just that we are writing about our lives, its in the way we do it. It may be that in journaling we are accidentally telling the truth of who we are.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Writing