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Posts Tagged ‘journeys’

First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

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One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

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