Guest Reviewer: Abraham Verghese on The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
One means by which I have kept track of the passage of time is by the appearance of a new Michael Ondaatje book. I’ve loved his poetry (and I still know long passages from Secular Love by heart). I love the way his books of poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction (and some of his books are hybrids that seem to be all those genres in one book) are so carefully crafted. I must have read In the Skin of a Lion 10 times, disassembling it to see how this magic alchemy came about.
You can imagine my excitement when The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje’s latest, arrived on my desk. I found myself reading aloud with a loved one, savoring, just a few pages a day that were carefully rationed. Reading aloud was a way to make every morsel last longer, have it linger on tongue and ear. I can’t think of a book I’ve read where the sense of a journey—in this case, a ship going from Ceylon to England via the Suez Canal—is so carefully mirrored in the reader’s experience. I had the sense of movement, of a big ship inching away from the shore, and of seeing one’s former life recede. At the assigned dinner table (from which the title derives), one meets fellow travelers and the brief bios they present to the world. With each passing day, the narrator finds that these constructed selves give way to something deeper, something overstated, or something dark and ominous, or at other times they modestly conceal a being that is incredibly beautiful and heroic. As the journey progresses, the many characters and the flavors each adds begin to meld together, and I had a sense of the narrative soup thickening, the pace increasing. Indeed, by the last few pages it was as though we had arrived all too soon at the bottom of a most delicious cioppino or bouillabaisse. The fleshy items were dispensed with, the shells all removed, leaving only those last few spoonfuls, and in them a wise world, a complete world, a world distilled. When it was over, I had that sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life....
Make haste to get this book, then do what I did: Fill up the tub, ration yourself to a few pages a day, read aloud, preferably to someone as crazy about Ondaatje as you are. Be disciplined. Don’t exceed your ration. It is a long voyage but it will go by too soon. So relish. Enjoy!
Abraham Verghese is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Cutting for Stone, which has been translated into 23 languages and spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list. He is also the author of My Own Country, a 1994 NBCC Finalist and a Time Best Book of the Year, and The Tennis Partner, a New York Times Notable Book. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has published essays and short stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California.