On the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, novelist Michael Ondaatje discussed not just his craft but also the politics of writing

The Cat’s Table is an attempt to turn autobiography, a largely unremembered autobiography, into fiction,” the Sri Lankan poet, novelist and essayist Michael Ondaatje told a packed audience on the lawns of the Diggi Palace on the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Ondaatje, who won a Booker for The English Patient, later turned into and Oscar-winning film by the late Anthony Minghella has been living in Canada for several years now. The author refused to be drawn out on the Sri Lankan war except to say that he had dealt with the subject in his book Anil's Ghost published in 2000.

The Cat’s Table is about the three-week sea voyage Ondaatje undertook as a small boy of eleven when he first went to England. The author has been able to transform what is in a sense a coming-of-age novel, when the young child opens his eyes to the world to encounter sorrow, dishonesty and friendship, into an elegant novel written with a startling precision and acuity of language.

In Anil's Ghost, a Sri Lankan woman forensic anthropologist who has been living away comes back to the island as part of an international human rights fact-finding mission to discover that the killing, the secrecy and the atrocities, are being practiced by all sides.

Discussing The English Patient and its transposition to film, Ondaatje said he had learnt a great deal while working with legendary film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Conversation). Ondaatje’s book ‘Conversations’ has Murch as its central subject and is based on his conversation with the film editor and sound designer.

“When he edited one of the scenes from The English Patient, the entire scene was re-written from A to Z and the last fifth was held back to be given to the viewer later on through a voice over. Something about having a black-out at the end of every scene – that stop-start thing that gets exhausting for the reader or the viewer. And you can tell from the filming of The English Patient that there should be something hanging before the scene ends so that you have a reason for going to the next scene. I think I learnt a lot about how the scene shouldn’t be too fulfilled.”

Despite a rather pedestrian interviewer who failed to adequately contextualise his questions for an audience not necessarily familiar with the author’s work, Ondaatje discussed not just his craft but also the politics of writing – about who is telling the story, whose point of view takes ascendancy in the narrative and for the need for a multiplicity of voices.

Referring to the character of the Sikh sapper (Kip) in The English Patient he said: “I want to bring those on the margins into the centre. After I came to England from Sri Lanka I saw all these war movies that were propaganda films that were all about the English or the Americans. They were the heroes and there were no Indians there and what I wanted to do was to bring Kip into the landscape of that history. And I think that is the case about all history. I’ve tried in my books to have various points of view, various voices and narratives. So it’s more of a group dialogue rather than a monologue but politically, I don’t think one can have just one voice to a story like you can’t have just one radio station for the whole country. You want the politics of any situation to be complicated whether in fiction or non-fiction.”

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