NPR FM Berlin Blog
5:57 pm
Mon February 27, 2012

Flirting With Autobiography: Michael Ondaatje In Berlin

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 1:15 pm

On Wednesday night, literary lovers flocked to the Akademie Der Künste on Pariser Platz to hear the words of one of the most well-known and respected authors of our time.

Joined by German translators, in co-operation with the Canadian Embassy, Michael Ondaatje, author of literary classics like The English Patient and Anil's Ghost was present to read from and comment on his newest book, The Cat's Table.

The evening served as the book's German premiere and is now available to German audiences under the title Katzentisch.

In The Cat's Table, Ondaatje, a Canadian of Sri-Lankan descent, writes about the journey of a young boy named Michael, who, at the age of 11, boards a ship to travel for 21 days from Colombo, Sri Lanka to England. Traveling without his parents, he befriends two boys his own age, Cassius and Ramdhin, as well as a handful of other inspiring and oftentimes rascally characters. Together, they explore the ship and slowly sail away from their own innocence and childhood.

The book is loosely based on Ondaatje's own experiences. Even to the literarily stunted, the fact that the main character's name is also Michael serves as a clue.

In the 1950s, at the age of 11, Ondaatje also boarded a ship from Colombo to England without his parents.

"I remember playing ping pong and jumping into the pool looking for spoons," he tells the crowd.

Ondaatje explained that the novel is, geographically speaking, very autobiographical. The descriptions of Colombo are similar to how he remembers it as a child, as is England. But from the moment the character Michael steps on board the ship, the comparisons between Ondaatje's adventure, and Michael's adventure, stop. Every scenario, person, and experience is fiction.

"I'm not one of these authors who has maps and plans spread out all over his walls," Ondaatje explains.

He started with the idea of a boy stepping onto a ship, thinking the novel would just be about that. Then, it turned into the story of three boys. Gradually the voice got older, and Ondaatje realized that he was writing a book about an old man who was looking back on his childhood, 50 years earlier, at a distant and opulent time when he traveled alone across oceans.

The moderator pointed out that the novel can read as a metaphor, one about leaving childhood behind, growing into manhood, or on a larger level, about colonial relationships with the British Empire.

"I always want to evade obvious metaphors," Ondaatje stated, with a laugh from the crowd. Instead, he prefers his books to focus on characters, how people meet, and how these meetings lead up to and direct the plot. He's a man who's interested in the smallest details, not sweeping statements and grand analogies.

The evening of reading and general gawking at a giant on the literary scene ended with a series of questions from the crowd. One audience member thanked Ondaatje for The English Patient, stating that it changed her life.

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