The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

This 2011 novel is an admirable work. Beautifully written. And it is in my wheelhouse, a tale of youth told by from the perspective of a mature mind years later. In this case, it is the tale of a sea voyage taken by an 11-year-old boy, Michael, from his native Ceylon to London. He is to meet his mother there.

The work comprises his encounters with adult passengers, encounters he shares with two other young boys, the restive Cassius and the reflective Ramadhin. They have fun roaming the ship, as Ondaatje writes, “like freed mercury.” And absorbing the adult lives around them, even as they often do not understand what is really happening among the crew and their fellow passengers.

For a long while, the novel presents us with a series of disconnected incidents, all of them interesting and entertainingly told. And yet…what is the purpose of these adventures, the reader wonders. There is a stray dog, meetings in the bowels of the ship, a theatre troupe, a shackled prisoner, a mysterious garden, a burglar who deceives the boys into helping him, etc. The most spectacular adventure occurs when Michael and Cassius have themselves tied on the ship’s deck to experience a storm at sea.

And there are also the mysterious adults, beautiful cousin Emily, a mystifying mature Miss Lasqueti, a musician Mr. Mazappa, a wealthy aunt, Flavia Prins, a card-playing roommate, Mr. Hastie, plus others. Many of them eat at Michael’s assigned table, called the cat’s table because it is the most unworthy, the furthest from the captain’s.

But there is no connection between these adventures, which read like short stories, except showing the boys being exposed to adult life. Until…at certain intervals the author moves the story ahead, to Michael’s life in England and later in Canada, and his subsequent connections to his two pals and to Emily. Whereupon, we understand how all those shipboard adventures helped to form the adult lives of these youngsters. Nothing that happened on that voyage directly affected their future lives, no, but such disparate adventures helped prepare these young people for the adult world.

It is the voyage that is the heart of this novel, but it is those glimpses of future lives that give this novel its body. The novel would have no direction without them. And what works is that these incidents are interpreted from the perspective of adulthood, and that Michael’s later understanding of those experiences gives the work its emotional impact. In this, I disagree with Maslin in the Times who writes that “the melancholy of adult life seems ordinary by comparison.” No, it is the later reflections about that voyage that bring a focus and a sense of completeness to these characters, especially to Michael.

This work is quite different from The English Patient. Its characters are so young, and its setting is basically on a passenger ship. But it is also similar in that it exists on two time levels, and it is the connection between those two levels that gives the novel its meaning. In this case, the adventurous voyage that the boys experience, but do not fully comprehend, has a meaning that influences their later lives. And that influence, like the shipboard adventures, sometimes has a positive impact and sometimes a negative one.

Maslin quotes Ondaatje’s narration: “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You will find in this way the path of your life.” This is exactly how this work is constructed. The boy, innocent in the ways of the adult world, receives a lesson he is not aware of at the moment. And this experience of a world without supervising adults, of a time of no responsibility, will create in him a sense of independence that will both help him and frustrate him in his later attempt to give his life direction.

This novel reads as a very autobiographical work, because it captures so well a youthful rambunctiousness and innocence. But Ondaatje takes pains at the end to state that it is not autobiographical, neither its passengers, its crew, nor its narrative. However, I believe he may well have extrapolated from the impact on him of a real voyage to create this fictional voyage. Certainly, the presence of the ocean, the port of Aden, and the Suez Canal, as well as the shipboard atmosphere (the cabins, the dining room, the deck, the engine room, etc.) are convincingly real. The author had to have had similar shipboard experiences before he created these fresh characters and his narrative.

Michael has two relationships as an adult, one that fails, one that is inconclusive. He marries Massi, the sister of Ramadhin, in what seems an inevitable romance, but the marriage is dissolved by the author as quickly as it is generated, as if Michael’s failure is what matters, not the romance. But I was much more interested in Michael’s relationship with his cousin Emily, who on the ship awakened in him an awareness of sex. As the book closes, he meets her off the coast of Vancouver, and their relationship is left incomplete, but it is an intriguing relationship that the author might well have further explored.

Whether I shall read more Ondaatje may well depend on the story his has to tell. I was intrigued here by a story of youth, as seen from an adult perspective, as I was before by a story of war and responsibility. I am also impressed by Ondaatje’s style, which is simple, yet rich and reflective. And I am most impressed by the emotional and psychological issues that reverberate out of their past. (February, 2013)

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The Silent Cry, by Kenzaburo Oe

As soon as I began this 1967 novel. I realized I was in the hands of a master. I understood why Oe had won the Nobel Prize, and wondered why I had allowed this work to sit on my shelves for so long. Because here was an interesting family situation, with a story that involved past history and present-day Japan. And because the overall perspective reflected the Western approach to literature. There was also a beautiful style, even in translation, with continuous imaginative and appropriate metaphors. And I could not wait to see what would happen when this family explored its past.

And then, the master began to fail me. I could not accept some of the developments, particularly as the author introduces his explanations for the actions of the hero’s younger brother. The narrator Mitsu, weak-willed and an intellectual, is distraught because his young son has been born deformed, and his best friend has just committed suicide. So he allows his younger brother Taka, emotional and assertive, to persuade him to move back to their native village so they can start a new life together.

But Taka also has an ulterior motive for moving back. He identifies with family lore, and is haunted by a village revolt that occurred in 1860, and was led by his great grandfather’s younger brother. The revolt failed, many were killed, and his ancestor fled and was never heard from again. Taka identifies with that other younger brother, and wants to redeem the family honor by redressing current injustices, especially those he traces to a local Korean shopping center mogul.

There are further complications to this family history. Another brother has been killed in a kind of retribution for an assault on local Koreans, and it is not clear whether or not he sacrificed himself to balance an earlier death of a Korean. In addition, a sister has committed suicide. Also, Mitsu’s wife has become a drunkard and is estranged from Mitsu following the birth of her deformed baby.

Oe’s major mistake, I believe, is in trying to tie many subsequent developments together. For Taka is involved in his sister’s suicide, and also seduces Mitsu’s wife. And then Mitsu learns the true fate of his grandfather’s younger brother, but it is too late to affect the fate of Taka. Indeed, all of these events reverberate from the opening suicide of Mitsu’s close friend, a suicide that introduces issues concerning the ending of various character’s lives.

What Oe attempts to do at the end is suggest that Mitsu is responsible for the fate of his brother Taka. But for me this is less ironic than a manipulation by the author. For just as I was not willing to accept some of the earlier actions of Taka, I was not now persuaded by the psychologically complex relationship that Oe tries to establish between the two brothers.

The silent cry in the title refers, I believe, to Taka’s pent-up emotion as he tries to atone for his family’s conduct both more recently and a century ago. His character is the opposite to the cool, insecure Mitsu, for Taka boils inside as he attempts to atone for the family by leading a new revolt by the villagers. Of course, we learn that he also wishes to atone for the suicide of his sister.

This novel is built around the contrast of and the conflict between the two brothers. But translator John Bester also notes that “all kinds of themes are hinted at—the quest for identity; Japan’s relations with the outside world during the past century; the breakdown of tradition; the peculiarities of the Japanese mentality—these and a dozen other subjects are touched on, often with a biting irony.”

This is all true, and they do enrich this work, particularly in those early pages that so enthralled me. But this work depends on the relationship between the two brothers, an attempt to balance who is responsible for what, and a resolution that attempts to contrast the fate of the brothers.

I am not drawn to other Oe works, although I do find intriguing his other novel that centers on the impact on the hero of the birth of a deformed son. This is because of my own back history, even if our family’s case was not as deeply consequential.

Overall, this is a rewarding but imperfect work. It is perhaps too ambitious for the given situation. (February, 2014)

November 1916, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Interim comment. I write these words after reaching page 350 of this 1,000-page novel that was completed in 1984 but not published until 1993, in Russia. And my preliminary conclusion is that Solzehnitsyn is no longer novelist; he is an historian. He is not writing about the personal lives of people. He is writing about people discussing and reacting to historical moments. Yes, the people are well drawn, but they have no emotional lives.

The purpose of this work appears to be to portray the incompetence of the Russian army, the Russian government, and the Czar. To make inevitable the Revolution that is to come. It is as if after his Gulag series Solzhenitsyn is no longer comfortable in creating fiction. For fiction exists for its own sake, creating real characters in a real world, whereas this author has a message to convey to his readers: that the Russians saw the leaderless plight their county was in, took no action, and so brought on the Revolution themselves.

I have now finished this novel, which Solzhenitsyn calls Knot II of The Red Wheel. And my reaction has not changed. This work is an interpretation of history in the form of a novel. In the form of a novel, but not a novel itself. If there is a main fictional character, it is Colonel Vorotynstev, whom we follow in perhaps 25 percent of the book. But of that percent, only about half is concerned with his personal life. In that half, he become disillusioned with his wife Alina and then fascinated by the seductive Olga. It is a routine triangle of a disappointed husband and another woman, which does remind some of Tolstoy.

But this work is no War and Peace, much less an Anna Karenina. Whereas Tolstoy told us a personal story of how his characters lived in and were affected by war, there is no impact of the war—or the budding revolution—on these personal lives. Instead, Vorotynstev spends the other half of his time discussing the inept conduct of the war with his fellow soldiers, with friends, even, in fact, with Olga.

Vorotynstev is portrayed as a sensible and practical colonel, who, aside from his personal intrigue, is concerned about the conduct of the war. He sees the inevitable failure to come, and is concerned about the survival of the Russia he knows. We follow him as he joins a movement to find the right military leadership for the army. And, like some, he concludes that the only answer is for Russia to get out of the war. That that is the only way this incompetent country can survive. And, of course, no one is persuaded to act. Whereas the reader, of course, knows the tragic result of this inaction, the triumph of Lenin and his revolutionaries, and the changing of history.

In the remaining 75 percent of this work, we are basically overhearing political discussions by soldiers based in the capital, St. Petersburg, and (less so) by civilians on the homefront and in Zurich. Of course, Solzhenitsyn is skilled enough to make these conversations believable and effective. In fact, he usually sets them up with well-drawn portraits of the characters and their environment.

But these novelistic skills for me go to waste, because the author is interested only in history, and his version of history, meaning the ineptitude of the Russian government and the political maneuvering of the many characters opposed to the government.

In fact, in his Author’s Note, he tries to cajole the reader into reading what he terms “the historical matter” that he spreads throughout the work—frequently in small print, as if to make its historical excerpts more official. But after my first exposure, I skipped these historical matters. And, indeed, I skipped through much more. For example, the long section on Lenin in Zurich, much of which was earlier published as a complete book. For example, the lengthy section in which we enter the royal palace and then the mind of both the Emperor Nicholas and his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Solzhenitsyn seems particularly intent on using them to portray for us the impact of Rasputin, often called Grigori.

Finally, this work has a completely novelistic ending that is difficult to evaluate. It is highly effective, as we follow a woman, Zina, who has been seduced and abandoned by her married lover Fydor (whom we have met earlier in the company of Vorotynstev). She has lost her mother and her young child, she believes, because she has abandoned them for her lover. She enters a church and confesses her sins, and finds as a result a certain peace. But is the scene’s inconclusivness intended to represent the historic inconclusiveness of the entire novel?

This appears to be the conservative Solzhenitsyn stressing his rightist roots. For he has spent much of this work exposing the selfishness and manipulations of the leftists, along with the government’s ineptitude. This ranges from the plotting of Lenin to the Empress’ foolish belief in Rasputin.

Nothing dramatic occurs in historic terms in this work, unlike Knot I, which revolved around the initial invasion by the Germans. Here, all is political talk and political maneuvering, either by the revolutionaries, the government, or the military hierarchy. Which leaves the reader without any narrative interest, or any emotional interest (except for the two triangular affairs that have no impact on the historic substance of the work).

It appears that Solzhenitsyn is now a moralist at heart. He started out as a true novelist with Cancer Ward, etc. But then he moved to the Gulag series, and he has not been a novelist since. What he has tried to do here is use his novelistic skills to create reader interest in his historical theorizing. But I skipped his historical sections because I was interested in reading a novel, not in reading about history. Of course, one must marvel at the research that went into this work, a work written when Russia was still under the Soviets and, later, when the author was in exile in Vermont.

In the Times, both Bernstein and Bayley praise this book. Both say that Solzhenitsyn has caught the tenor of the World War I times in Russia. However, I notice that Bayley acknowledges my reaction to the work. He says that the author himself “knows that human beings interest him more as social phenomena than as unique and individual creatures.” And at the risk of sounding too much a traditionalist, I would ask, what is the purpose of a novel? Is it to involve the reader with a person (or persons) or is it to involve him in understanding history?

Bayley points out that the (historic) detail of this work reveals that the fate of Russia that we know today was not inevitable, that it resulted from the detailed (in)activity that this work portrays. And he has a point. But I would ask whether this point should apply to a work of history or to a work of fiction. We are obviously in separate camps. Is my camp so old-fashioned? That I want to be the fly on he wall of a bedroom rather than of an imperial palace.

My reaction to both Bernstein and Bayley is that they have reviewed the work that Solzhenitsyn wanted to write. And to me they have rationalized their interpretation of this work. They evaluate the author’s intentions more than his achievement. They compare him to Tolstoy: (Bernstein) “ambitious, panoramic yet intimate, prodigiously researched, invested with a strong sense of verisimilitude.” And compare Vorotynstev to (Bayley) “heroes who will never resolve their problems or escape the confrontations that in the Russian novel constitute the true livingness of life.”

But, as I see it, this “livingness” in fiction should concern one’s personal life, not the historic environment in which the characters live. Much like Solzhenitsyn, who in his personal life is more politically conservative, revealing it here in his critique of the leftist machinations, I find myself conservative in my appreciation of literature. So will I be left behind, like the Russians of 1916 were? Or will I emerge, like the Russia of 1990, as a true interpreter of our literary heritage?

Bernstein writes that, given our knowledge today, the “story has a piquancy that can come only from watching people marching toward a tragedy that they could avoid if only they knew what we know.” On the level of history this is true, but it is not on the level of the human beings we meet. Vorotyntsev’s emotional distraction between two women certainly cannot stand in for the nation’s political divide.

My own rewriting would give 75 percent to that emotional conundrum and 25 percent to the political environment. But I am not Solzhenitsyn, and I have certainly not experienced what he did. I believe, however, that fiction should be ruled by the heart, not by the intellect. He is a great man and a great writer, but here he has traded fiction for history. And the loss is literature’s. And ours. (January 2013)