Academic journal article ARIEL

Rites of Passage: Moving Hearts and Transforming Memories in Michael Ondaatje's the Cat's Table

Academic journal article ARIEL

Rites of Passage: Moving Hearts and Transforming Memories in Michael Ondaatje's the Cat's Table

Article excerpt

Abstract: In his latest novel, The Cat's Table (2011), Michael Ondaatje continues the project, started in his memoir, Running in the Family (1982), of understanding his childhood and mapping a space that he can call home by revisiting, from the remove of decades and another continent, the unforgettable three-week sea voyage from Colombo to London that he undertook in 1954. This essay explores the interplay between two modes of memorial expression--the first "sensory, perceptual, affective, and automatic," the second "verbal, purposeful, and reflective" (Pillemer 100)--and the implications they carry for the narrator's self-perception both as a boy and an adult (writer). Contributing to the emotional waters Mynah navigates in the course of his voyage is his fascination with the "ex-centric" (Hutcheon) individuals he encounters onboard the Oronsay and whose stories become intertwined with his. Over and against the power relations that structure modern society and that too often bespeak a "cold-blooded self-sufficiency" (Cats Table 257), Ondaatje pits those intimate bonds forged across differences of age, class, gender, race, and nationality that challenge the autonomy of the feeling self by foregrounding its deeply intersubjective nature.

Keywords: Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table, affect, exile, imagination, memory, other, self

Where is the intimate and truthful in all this?

Michael Ondaatje, Running In The Family 54 We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie.

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table 145

In The Promise of Memory: Childhood Recollection and Its Objects in Literary Modernism (2011), Lorna Martens puts forth a provocative claim about the waning need for individual memory in our century: "It has been predicted that the twenty-first century will be the Bad Memory Century on account of the frenetic, stressful quality of life, the acceleration of information, and the resultant failure of people to retain things they experience" (187). She adds that a great deal of recent memory theory has focused on trauma and cultural or collective memory at the expense of individual memory, which is arguably "no longer cultivated" let alone appreciated (187). Still, autobiographical memories continue to fulfill a "desire to anchor ones identity" which manifests itself in "the quest for ancestors, family history and 'roots'" (188). It is precisely this desire "to trace the maze of relationships" in his ancestry that motivated Michael Ondaatje's return visits to his native Sri Lanka in 1978 and 1980 (Running In The Family 25). Ondaatje, the son of a Ceylonese family of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese origin who was displaced to London at the age of eleven, describes both trips as central to helping him "recreate" the era of his parents that he knew mainly from stories he heard as a child (Running 205).

In Sri Lanka, he, his sister, and Aunt Phyllis "trade anecdotes and faint memories, trying to swell them with the order of dates and asides, interlocking them all as if assembling the hull of a ship" (26). Since "[n] o story is every told just once" (26), telling his own version of his family (hi)story requires that Ondaatje recognize the impossibility of capturing an objective reality. Moreover, his penchant for "the well-told lie" (206), along with his double perspective as both insider and outsider to his childhood homeland, makes Ondaatje's task of remembering inseparable from that of recreating. (1) Realizing, in his mid-thirties, that he "had slipped past a childhood [he] had ignored and not understood" (22), Ondaatje is reminded of a quotation from Jane Austen's Persuasion: "[S] he had been forced into prudence in her youth--she learned romance as she grew older--the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning" (qtd. in Ondaatje, Running 22; emphasis added).

In his latest novel, The Cat's Table (2011), Ondaatje continues the project of understanding his childhood and mapping a space that he can call home by revisiting, from the remove of decades and another continent, the unforgettable three-week sea voyage from Colombo to London that he undertook in 1954. …

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