More on Ondaatje – The Cat’s Table and The English Patient

Finished “The Cat’s Table”. It is pretty good too. Ondaatje is getting better at telling a story now, it seems. Overall i still like Warlight better.

But The Cat’s Table is unique because it talks about the 3-weeks voyage he had when he was 11, going from Ceylon to London, cross Arabian Sea, Red Sea and finally Mediterranean. Because it was an enclosed space, structure of the story resembles “Murder on Oriental Express”, and typical of Ondaatje, how there are moment of luxurious beauty (Kip and Hana admiring the mural painting in the post-war italian church with the help of climbing gear and a torch, Almasy and K at the cave of swimmers, Nathaniel and Agnes in the empty house with the grey hounds, Nathaniel and the Darter on the Thames at night, Nathaniel and his mom play chess in their glass house in the garden,…), in The Cat’s Table, the night when their ocean liner passed through the Suez Canal was breath taking, their first port of call at Aden, the ancient port city was also quite interesting.

I started re-reading The English Patient, and watched the movie again. I realized that i never understood Kip and Hana story because i never understood Kip’s final rage on hearing about Hiroshima, and it was probably also a major failing of the movie to alter it. At the time i was too taken with the Almasy and K story to pay attention to Kip and Hana. So i didn’t mind the Movie took out the real ending, which also made the Kip and Hana story so much weaker than in the book. Now looking back, i realized how powerful it was.
Ondaatje’s speech as he received Gold Booker for The English Patient

So wasn’t the ending of The English Patient, in which the Sikh Kip (whose relationship with the Canadian nurse, Hana, Ondaatje describes as being like “continents meeting”) drops everything and returns home when he hears of the bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a failure of nerve? A reimposition of the nationalisms dissolved through the rest of the novel, where, as Kamila Shamsie put it: “Ondaatje’s imagination acknowledges no borders”?

“They can’t overcome,” says Ondaatje, who remembers that he found the last pages of The English Patient sad to write. It is too difficult for most people; and for Kip, especially, who in the nuclear glare sees suddenly that “they would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation”.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon the fact that Michael Ondaatje has a new novel out, “Warlight”. I went to our local library and put a hold on a copy. It came to me a week ago.

Just started reading Friday after the depressing KavaNo saga came to a close. I needed something beautiful, i thought. I wasn’t disappointed. Just finished reading tonight. It was such a lovely lovely story.

First half was set in post-war London. It is refreshing to read Ondaatje’s signature prose with a urban landscape.

This afternoon when Noah was building combination robots using “plus plus”, I lied on the floor next to him reading this book. As i came across the paragraph where Nathaniel described how he picked lock in the Foreign Office archives (trying to find traces of his mother’s war time deeds), I read that paragraph aloud to Noah. “Wow, Interesting! I like it.” the 8-year-old commented at the end. Then he said something totally surprised me, “is it a poem? It rhymes.”

I always loved the way Ondaatje wrote his prose. The poet in him definitely came through. But this paragraph didn’t really particular seem poetic to me. Somehow the poetry in the prose was so evident that Noah could spot it. I loved that.

It was the veterinarian, the one who had inherited the two parrots, who taught me how to open locks on a filing cabinet. I had met her years earlier through The Darter and she was the only one I had managed to locate from that time. She befriended me on my return to London. I explained my problem and she recommended a powerful anaesthetic used on damaged hooves and bones that I could apply around a lock until a white condensation appeared. The freezing would slow down the lock’s resistance to any trespass and allow me to carry out my next stage of attack. This was a Steinmann pin, which in a more legal world provided skeletal traction and protected the damaged bones of a racing greyhound. The smooth stainless-steel intramedullary pins, petite and efficient, were almost instantly successful, and the locks on the cabinets barely paused before they slipped open with their secrets. I began breaking into the locked files; and, in the usually deserted map room, where I ate my lunch alone, I pulled the borrowed papers out of my shirt and read them. An hour later I returned them to their padlocked homes. If my mother existed in this building, I would discover her.

I loved The English Patient. But that wasn’t an easy book to read. Warlight, on the other hand, managed to keep the beauty of Ondaatje’s prose, yet the story telling was more focused and much easier to read.

As I was browsing reviews on line, I realized Ondaatje also wrote another book i missed, it is called “The Cat’s Table”. Will be reading that now.

The Mediterranean

We noticed the birds right away upon our arrival at Granada. They came out in droves at dusk. They reminded me of starlings in Rome. Nine years ago, on our last night in Rome, we saw the grand symphony of starling swarm from Campidoglio. We climbed to the top of the stairs of S. Maria in Aracoeli with a few dozen tourists. We stood in the fading light of the dusk, watched for over an hour. Mesmerized.

Golondrinas in Spain didn’t do swarms. They flew in a more chaotic fashion above the squares and churches. Initially, Noah even suspected they may be bats.

As we moved around in andalusia, i noticed more similarities between Spanish towns and Italian ones. Toledo reminded me of Siena, Tarifa Siracusa. Then as we ventured across the strait of Gibraltar, Tangier Kasbah reminded me of Turkey(or Greece that i’ve seen in pictures): whitewashed walls with bright yellow and blue splashes. The abundant cats wondering the streets and parks.

Paul Theroux’ Pillars of Hercules pointed out that all these cities and towns are distinctly mediterranean. They share more similarities with each other than with inland cities of their own countries. “Alexandria and Venice, Marseilles and Tunis, and even smaller places like Cagliari and Palma and Split.”

He was absolutely right. It is not just Spain or Italy, Roman or Greek, Byzantine or Moorish. They are all Mediterranean.

After we got back, i feverishly devoured a bunch of Moorish or Spain related books: Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain, Xiaofei Tian’s The Red Fort, and Robert Crowley’s Empires of the Sea. While still reading random chapters of Pillars of Hercules in between.

One sentence toward the end of “Empire of the sea” stunned me. Suddenly all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Coherence!

THE TREATY OF 1580 RECOGNIZED a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier that ran the length of the Mediterranean between Istanbul and the Gates of Gibraltar hardened. The competitors turned their backs on each other, the Ottomans to fight the Persians and confront the challenge of Hungary and the Danube once more, Philip to take up the contest in the Atlantic. After the annexation of Portugal he looked west and symbolically moved his court to Lisbon to face a greater sea. He had his own Lepanto still to come— the shipwreck of the Spanish armada off the coast of Britain, yet another consequence of the Spanish habit of sailing too late in the year. In the years after 1580, Islam and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore.

The diagonal frontier! That’s it! Once upon a time, such frontier didn’t exist. The entire Mediterranean functioned as one messy/quarrelsome family. They fought, they traded, they learned from each other. Empires ebb and flow along the tide of time. They might originate from different coasts of the sea. But they didn’t turn their backs on each other. The ancient egyptians hired greek mercenaries to fight off the syrians. The Greek then saw the grand pyramids, came home and went about to replace their original wooden temples with stony ones. The Romans kept up the tradition and improved it further. Then came the Arabs whose beautiful palaces and mosques covered with ceramic tiles in Cordoba and Granada had its roots in pompei’s mosaic clad mansions and aya sophia of Byzantine. They improved irrigation systems on top of Roman’s, brought their fountains and gardens to medieval Europe, they translated Aristotle and Plato and interpreted them in the context of religion. Those treasures were returned to Italy after the dark age, ignited the renaissance.
Until 1580.

In our modern history, in our life time, we’ve never known the mediterranean without this frontier. In my mind Mediterranean has always been two distinct halves, the more prosperous,progressive, and sunlight filled northern and western part, and the dark and backward south and eastern part. The boundaries is actually not just diagonal. The dark side also includes the Balkans.

I looked back further and realized this separation started in Byzantine time. After western Roman Empire fell to the Visigoth, the Mediterranean have slowly came to these two halves and stayed this way.  Coincident with the rise of Christianity and Islam.




Visiting Andalusia reminded me that it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way, right?

The Crown, Walker Evans, and more

  1. The Crown

During the holidays, I binge watched Netflix’ first two seasons of The Crown. Loved it! Just like a news paper article said, it is hard not to hit the pause button from time to time and google like mad to confirm or learn more about history incidents used by the show’s plot line. “Could that be true?” “Was he/she really that bad?!” more often than not, the show seemed rather accurate. It is also so entertaining. I’m particular fond of the show’s presentation of Churchill in his later years. The interaction between him and his portrait painter Sutherland was especially moving and memorable. In the 2nd season, i really loved the episode “Dear Mrs. Kennedy.” It made me laugh and then cry.

2. Walker Evans at SFMOMA

During one of our outings with Noah, we visited SFMOMA and stumbled on a marvelous show, “Walker Evans“. It is a retrospective curated by Clément Chéroux. An curator who recently joined SFMOMA from Pompidou. This happened to be the only US venue. Earlier this year, it was showing in Paris. What made the show truly enjoyable not only the amount of materials presented (400+ photos), but also the context of each theme contained in the exhibit. One gets to see not just Evans’ photography, but those who inspired him, the sign post he took a picture off and subsequently took it home, his house where the sign posts were used as decoration, his postcard collections, magazine articles he wrote, etc. etc. It was like a 360 degree history lesson surrounding his photography.



3. A few interesting reads from The New Yorker
– Profile: A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act – Jan. 1, 2018 Issue
– Profile: Jim Simons, the Numbers King – December 18 & 25, 2017 Issue
– Fiction Cat Person – December 11, 2017 Issue