Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ondaatje In Edmonton: Cat's Meow

Mr. O signing a personal dedication to Yuko
Michael Ondaatje "played" the Winspear Centre last night in Edmonton and brought the house down. He began with a brief tribute to Robert Kroetsch and then read for about 40 minutes from his new novel, The Cat's Table, including this gorgeous passage:
"I remember still how we moved in that canal, our visibility muted, and those sounds that were messages from shore, and the sleepers on deck missing this panorama of activity. We were on the railing bucking up and down. We could have fallen and lost our ship and begun another fate - as paupers or as princes. 'Uncle!' we shouted, if someone was close enough to distinguish our small figures. 'Hullo, Uncle!' And people would wave, fling us a grin. Everyone who saw us sliding by was an uncle that night. Someone threw us an orange. An orange from the desert!" (p. 129)
The main character, Michael, is an 11-year-old boy aboard a steamship bound for England from Sri Lanka in the 1950s. The ship here has just entered the Suez Canal. Ondaatje said last night that he's not an "ideas man" - the closest he gets is something like an idea of "how to fit a horse into a house." In the passage above, he captures the exuberance of youth and the boundless possibilities that can electrify our surroundings. Those are the types of ideas worth committing a lifetime to.

He then sat down with writer Marina Endicott for an interesting discussion on the nuts and bolts of his writing process. Afterwards, he made himself available to sign books and mug for photos. The line was huge and Yuko and I waited for about 30 minutes. There must have been another hour at least behind us. Yuko went first and Ondaatje took his time asking her name and writing a dedication "To Yuko" into her copy of The English Patient. I was next. He quickly scribbled his name into my brand new copy of The Cat's Table ($23), smiled politely and turned to the next person. No love for me - I'd left my cute hat at home. God, what a flirt that Ondaatje is.

And don't ask me
about my interpretation of "Madame George."
That's a nine-minute song
a two hour story. ~ "Tin Roof"
That's alright. Back in 1999, I attended another Ondaatje reading in Vancouver and brought along Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which he signed, "To David," after giving me a look as though a were a flaming newt. Thanks for the memories, Mike!

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