Michael Ondaatje: Worldwide Launch of "The Cat's Table" (EIBF Review)

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Michael Ondaatje, Jamie Jauncey (chair)
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The worldwide launch of "The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje was supported by the Hawthornden Literary Retreat and chaired by Jamie Jauncey. This event was much anticipated and very popular, as you would expect for a man who won the Booker Prize in 1992 with "The English Patient".

Michael Ondaatje did not so much introduce his book, but initially gave us a reading of extracts for over half an hour. While the reading was excellent and most interesting, one felt just a little as though it would have been better to spend more time outlining the key highlights and the background to the book.

In the event there was only just over ten minutes for questions at the end, once Jamie Jauncey had finished chatting to him and asking a number of questions. There was not really time to explore the full scope of the book which was a pity.

The book tells the story of a young eleven year old boy's journey from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England on an ocean liner.  The reading told of the incident where the boy smelled burning hemp and meeting the man in the cabin who was a teacher and was leaving Colombo to follow his profession in England.

The reason for leaving is explored and the young boy's two friends are introduced to the teacher who fascinates them with his stories.

The next extract told of the night that the film "The Four Feathers" was shown on board. It was simultaneously shown in First Class and in steerage where a screen had been erected at the stern of the boat. The first reel was brought down after it had been shown to the First Class passengers, but unfortunately the two sound tracks clashed on occasions as moments of high drama with cheering and shouting could be heard in both locations and did not always match the screen picture!

For the steerage passengers in the open it began to rain so a steward held an umbrella over the projector. This was not entirely satisfactory, however, it all came to an end when the screen was blown away in a strong gust of wind.

Another extract told of going through the Suez Canal and the Egyptian pilot coming on board to guide the vessel through the Canal. Such was the excitement that the boys never slept.

The other extract covered the incident where two of the boys decided to steal on to the foredeck just before a storm and get themselves tied down in the dark in a spread-eagle position so that they could not move or be washed away.   They were battered by the strong wind and the waves breaking over the bows.   Eventually as the storm died down they were spotted and released - they told the story of being tied up by "someone on board".

Michael was asked if the book represented his own experience of travelling to England from Ceylon. He said that actually he could remember little about his journey, so most of the book was simply his imagination creating the characters in the book.

The book should be a good read and obviously there are many fans of Michael Ondaatje's work who will eagerly read this new novel which some claim is even better than any of his previous work.

Event: Saturday 27th August 2011, 20:00