International Festival of Authors: Michael Ondaatje

There was a flutter of excitement when Michael Ondaatje walked onto the stage of the Fleck Theatre: this is a writer of serious calibre, and the auditorium filled nearly to capacity attests to his popularity. He was at the International Festival of Authors on October 29 to be interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel; the interview was interspersed with readings from his latest novel, the Giller-nominated The Cat’s Table, and was recorded for broadcast on CBC Radio.

The Cat’s Table is a slow and lyrical account of a young boy’s ship passage from Sri Lanka to England, a journey that Ondaatje himself undertook at the same age. Indeed, significant portions of the novel read as autobiography or memoir: the narrator, whose name is Michael, grows up to be a famous author in Canada. Still, Ondaatje was clear that while the inspiration for the novel came from his childrens’ horror at his own unaccompanied journey, he does not actually remember anything from before the age of eleven, and so the story itself is entirely fabricated. He said, “The idea of [of a memoir] would bore me to death, quite honestly,” and maintained that naming the boy Michael actually provided the necessary distance to distinguish the book from autobiography. Michael’s nickname, Mynah, was also a fabrication; when pressed, Ondaatje admitted that his own nickname had been Kip. Sounds of recognition arose from the audience – Kip is a character in Ondaatje’s most famous novel, The English Patient – and Wachtel joked that it was the sound of thesis notes being taken.

The interview was interspersed with Ondaatje’s readings of several different sections; this worked wonderfully, as the audience got a sense of the book as a whole, and it broke up the hour-and-a-half long interview. This was followed up by an efficient, almost brusque book signing, for which the line snaked down the stairs. Altogether it proved a very successful event, and was followed up by Ondaatje’s appearance at the Giller finalists’ reading that night.