I spent the Christmas days reading two recent novels: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. In a way, both books are novels of initiation. In both novels the protagonist tells about his youth and the company of a few friends that influenced his life.
The Sense of an Ending made me think of The Old Boys by William Trevor. I read it too long ago, but I remember that also in The Old Boys those old friends didn’t seem to have been that big friends after all.
The Sense of an Ending is a fine novel about an average ageing man — rather contended with his not too dashing life — that one day receives a letter as an echo of his younger self. And this letter changes not only the perception of his own youth, friendships and first love affair, but the sense of his whole life.
Julian Barnes writes very well, of course, but the theme of the book seemed to me somewhat narrow. A mediocre life that generates mediocre attitudes to a few special incidents.
I wonder why writers still bother to work on such a theme (and win the Man Booker Prize). Could it have something to do with the English and American lack of openness to other literatures? In a Guardian Book Podcast of 5 February 2010 Claire Armitstead started the program with this question: “Did you know that only 3% of the books we read are translated from other languages?” Did you? This might perhaps explain a tendency to navel-gazing. English writing authors only read other English writing authors. Where’s the fresh air?
Fresh air is abundant in The Cat’s Table, as if a window is thrown open. And not only because of the sea voyage. Ondaatje’s language is always like poetry. Not the form is poetic, but the way of looking, like you can find poetry in Henry Cartier-Bresson’s photos.
This book tells the story of an eleven years old boy — named Michael — that makes the journey by boat from Sri Lanka to England in 1954. Michael Ondaatje states in an afterword that “although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional.” It certainly is not fictional that the young Michael Ondaatje must have been a very perceptive and impressionable child.
The kaleidoscopic gathering on the boat is the source for many colourful stories and insight in other cultures. Sometimes a story line is followed years into the future before going back to what happened on the boat.
Warm and enthralling.