Writer Michael Ondaatje, who won the Booker prize for The English Patient, draws on his own extraordinary life to conjure up evocative tales of displacement. Robert McCrum asks how much reality there is in his fiction.
The eyes of Michael Ondaatje, prize-winning author of The English Patient, are a baffling window on the inner man: the brilliant, pale sapphires of a witty Dutch burgher set in a 68-year-old Tamil frame. As he says of himself and his work, "I am a mongrel of place. Of race. Of cultures. Of many genres."
An interview with Ondaatje is a playful compendium of anecdote, on-the-hoof cultural criticism and crafty conversational shape-shifting. "Charm" is a dangerous word, but an hour or two with Ondaatje is a beguiling experience.
The more you look, the more dizzyingly kaleidoscopic he seems to become: a Canadian citizen who remains profoundly Sri Lankan. A winner of the Booker prize who first made his name as a poet. An admirer of Robert Browning and Thomas Wyatt, who finds his deepest inspiration in the aesthetic traditions of the East.
A writer whose 2007 title, Divisadero, encrypts a double meaning, derived from the Spanish word for "division", or from divisar, meaning "to gaze at something from a distance".
If Ondaatje the man is divided and detached, then Ondaatje the writer is militantly opposed to western habits of narrative. This is partly because he was raised in Ceylon's oral tradition: "tall stories, gossip, arguments and lies at dinner". He quotes the critic John Berger with approval: "Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one." This, he adds, "is the possibility of our age. A person grows up in Colombo or Wichita and their true mentor or touchstone could be Calvino or Miles Davis, or it could be a political gesture or act in a far away place."
Those words could almost be the epigraph to his new novel, The Cat's Table - an end-of-empire adventure story about a boy's life-changing journey from Ceylon (as it was) to England in the early 50s. This rite of passage was experienced by the 11-year-old Ondaatje but - more duality - he insists that The Cat's Table (named after the lowest station in the ship's dining-room) is a work of fiction. "Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography," he says, "it is fictional."
This no man's land between real and invented lives is one in which Ondaatje is quite at home. In 1983, he published Running in the Family, a highly entertaining and evocative semi- autobiographical account of a journey he made into his family's past, a palimpsest of Tamil, Dutch and British colonial mayhem. Recalling the reckless years of 1920s Ceylon, Ondaatje describes gun fights over a game of croquet, compulsive horse racing, and epic nights of dancing, drinking, skinny-dipping and chemin de fer (a card game), in which anyone could have "drowned or fallen in love".
Ever the fabricator, he was at pains to stress that his exhilarating portrait of his parents and their families - the elopements, unrequited loves and vendettas of the Ondaatjes - was unreliable.
"In Sri Lanka," he writes, in a kind of credo, "a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts."
As far as orgins go, "Ondaatje was probably a Tamil name, originally from India, but I'm not much of a Tamil now," he confesses. "I can't speak the language, apart from a few rude words." He resists a public identification with Sri Lanka, though he still has plenty of family there. "I really don't want to become the representative of a country."
Blood lines and ancestry do not lie. From his mother's side, he "got a sense of the dramatic, the tall stories, the determination to now and then hold the floor". Both his parents, he says, "were hams of a very superior sort", and he seems to have inherited their love of the theatrical, a taste for mystery, illusion and make-believe. At the same time, from his father, whose unforgettable episodes of outrageous public behaviour on the Ceylon railways animate the best moments of Running in the Family, he acquired a love of secrecy and an instinctive desire to be private, even reclusive.
Added to this dual inheritance, introvert and extrovert, the child Ondaatje, youngest of four, was caught up in the protracted crisis of his parents' divorce. Connect the memoir of Running in the Family with the fiction of The Cat's Table and you find a small boy expelled from a Sri Lankan paradise in search of maternal love under the chilly grey skies of 50s London. When this happened, Ondaatje was all alone, not even a teenager. Puzzling over it now, he comments that "I would not send an 11-year-old child on a three-hour train ride, let alone a three-week boat trip".
That was 1954. Perhaps it's no wonder he can remember almost nothing about this voyage, apart from some diving in the limpid waters of the Gulf and a few games of aft-deck ping-pong. Instead, he says, he made it up. He created an 11-year-old boy nicknamed "Mynah" and gave him two imaginary friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, and set them loose for 21 days on the liner Oronsay in a "Boy's Own adventure".
On the surface at first reading, The Cat's Table is a sequence of shipboard yarns, by Golding out of Kipling. It is a tale of boys released from parental control, "bursting all over the place like freed mercury", wondering at the strange demise of the fabulously wealthy Sir Hector da Silva, and puzzling over the crimes of a mysterious shackled prisoner whose fate will linger long into their adult imaginations.
Simultaneously, however, The Cat's Table is a much darker book, about a kind of orphan boy and the inexplicable things parents do to their children. Below the waterline, in the unconscious part of Ondaatje's imagination, there is a chilling parallel story of exile, loss and colonial displacement that the mature writer is still grappling with.
Consider, for instance, his fictional protagonist, Mynah. At the outset, the narrator "tries to imagine who the boy on the ship was" and describes him "smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future". By page 88, the anonymous narrator begins to refer to "the Dulwich College library" (Ondaatje's old school) and, on page 134, we find his family addressing him as "Michael", not Mynah. A few pages later, this Michael is confessing, "I am someone who has a cold heart. If I am beside a great grief, I throw barriers up so the loss cannot go too deep or too far."
Is this Michael Ondaatje confiding his inner life? Certainly not, says Ondaatje, who insists that this "Michael" is a total invention. "I'm not being evasive," he says. "When 'Michael' appeared, as I was writing, it was kind of a shock. But it did allow me more intimacy with the subject."
His invented Michael gives the writer an inbuilt escape route - and Ondaatje is a man who could talk his way out of a suitcase. How much, for example, can the reader trust a line such as: "When I did meet my mother eventually, on the docks at Tilbury, she had become 'another', a stranger." Is this the "colouring" of memoir or fiction? That's a question haunting every page of The Cat's Table.
For children, from East or West, the psychic drama of empire was always to do with parental separation. Kipling, Wodehouse, Orwell, Rushdie, and even Naipaul: the roll-call of writers made by what Conrad called "the tussle with the sea" is a commonplace of Commonwealth literature.
When he was put on board the Oronsay, the young Ondaatje's main anxiety, probably closer to terror, was how his mother, waiting at Tilbury, "could know when exactly I would arrive. And if she would be there". Worse, his mother, Doris, had left Colombo for England five years previously, following her divorce from Mervyn Ondaatje. She would be searching for a little boy she might not recognise, armed only with a black and white shapshot of her younger son. "I heard 'Michael'," he writes, "and it was a voice scared of being wrong. I turned and saw no one I knew. A woman put her hand on my shoulder and said 'Michael'. When I saw her face I knew it was her face."
What followed, in post-war England, falls outside the adventures of The Cat's Table, though Ondaatje makes a number of oblique allusions to it. The Ondaatje family forged a new life as immigrants, against the odds. Back home in Sri Lanka, Mervyn Ondaatje drank himself to death. In London, Doris, who had worked at the Grand Oriental Hotel in Colombo, supported her family through school by working in hotels until the day she died. Once his parents had been scions of the best and wealthiest families in Ceylon. Now they were almost destitute.
Somehow, his mother scraped up enough money to send young Michael to Dulwich College in south-east London: "a real education", he says, but still a shock.
"I had been part of a world, in Sri Lanka, which I understood," he remembers. "When I came to England I had to change everything." The games and "the anarchy" of Dulwich became an experience he loved, but it did not make him a writer, yet. He revelled in the double life of English boarding school, and acquired a nickname, "Kip". His brother, Christopher, had emigrated to Canada. In 1962 Ondaatje followed. Before that, "in London, I didn't have a clue, I was lost".
Canada saved him. He says it was where he discovered his passion for writing. Not yet 20, he married a Canadian artist, Kim, and had two children, now grown up. This is a side of his life he prefers not to discuss; he and Kim are long-divorced.
He began to write poetry, making his début with The Dainty Monsters and The Man With Seven Toes, and then found "this curious desire to write prose". His first success, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, is a volume of poetry that hovers lyrically on the edge of narrative, in a genre that's hard to define. His best novels - Coming Through Slaughter, In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient - followed in a surge of creative confidence.
The Academy Award-winning movie of The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Anthony Minghella, propelled him to a level of international celebrity he found uncomfortable. Some 15 years on, he lives quietly in Toronto, entertaining visitors with his second wife, Linda Spalding, a novelist, and seeing his children and grandchildren. "I'm very close to my family," he says.
It was his children, asking about his fractured youth, who inspired The Cat's Table. All these years, that boyhood boat trip on the Oronsay had lurked unresolved in the back of his mind.
"I read somewhere," he says sadly, "that people who lose their childhood eventually have to retrieve it." Typically, it has become a family project: he recently met an old aunt with a precise recollection of the young Ondaatje describing the voyage of the Oronsay with tremendous self-confidence. "What wouldn't I give for a three-minute video of that moment," he exclaims.
Ondaatje once wrote of his parents and grandparents that "until the war, nobody really had to grow up". In some ways the Michael Ondaatje who stepped on board the Oronsay in 1954 has never grown up. He remains elfin, mischievous and inclined to truancy. Having lost his childhood as a boy, he has continued to revisit it, in odd and unlikely ways. If Tolstoy, Conrad and Coetzee had not pre-empted him, he says he would have called his novel Youth.
As a contented 60-something, he loves games, thrives on tales of embarrassment and merrily admits to being "incorrigible". Asked about his juvenile side, he unfolds from his wallet a Robert Frost quotation and reads it out in self-affirmation: "What we do when we write represents the last of our childhood. We may, for that reason, practise it somewhat irresponsibly."
It's probably this air of carefree improvisation that makes Ondaatje such an original. To explain himself, he cites the Eastern aesthetic tradition. "In the East, the artist follows the brush," he says with finality.
As an artist working in poetry and prose, Ondaatje celebrates the creative mystery and its unpredictable wonders. He likes the idea of accidents in his writing, and the happy irruption of the unexpected in these unreliable tales of his childish self. I suggest, as we discuss this, that he's a bit of an escape artist, and he cheerfully agrees. "I like to leave the door open."
No writer likes to be pigeon-holed, he says. "The minute someone says, 'you are this kind of person', my instinct is to reply, 'no I'm not'."
Recently, visiting Sri Lanka on a Red Cross mission after the tsunami, he came across a small village on the south-east coast that bore his name, phonetically rendered in the local language as "Ondachchimadam", a town inhabited by people who make sacred objects for temples. Delighted by the "much prettier" naturalisation of "my fake Dutch name", his first thought was that "I really wanted to change my name to Ondachchimadam". He laughs. "Could I get away with that?"
The Cat's Table (Jonathan Cape $34.99) is out now.