The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

by Robert A. Parker

This 2011 novel is an admirable work. Beautifully written. And it is in my wheelhouse, a tale of youth told by from the perspective of a mature mind years later. In this case, it is the tale of a sea voyage taken by an 11-year-old boy, Michael, from his native Ceylon to London. He is to meet his mother there.

The work comprises his encounters with adult passengers, encounters he shares with two other young boys, the restive Cassius and the reflective Ramadhin. They have fun roaming the ship, as Ondaatje writes, “like freed mercury.” And absorbing the adult lives around them, even as they often do not understand what is really happening among the crew and their fellow passengers.

For a long while, the novel presents us with a series of disconnected incidents, all of them interesting and entertainingly told. And yet…what is the purpose of these adventures, the reader wonders. There is a stray dog, meetings in the bowels of the ship, a theatre troupe, a shackled prisoner, a mysterious garden, a burglar who deceives the boys into helping him, etc. The most spectacular adventure occurs when Michael and Cassius have themselves tied on the ship’s deck to experience a storm at sea.

And there are also the mysterious adults, beautiful cousin Emily, a mystifying mature Miss Lasqueti, a musician Mr. Mazappa, a wealthy aunt, Flavia Prins, a card-playing roommate, Mr. Hastie, plus others. Many of them eat at Michael’s assigned table, called the cat’s table because it is the most unworthy, the furthest from the captain’s.

But there is no connection between these adventures, which read like short stories, except showing the boys being exposed to adult life. Until…at certain intervals the author moves the story ahead, to Michael’s life in England and later in Canada, and his subsequent connections to his two pals and to Emily. Whereupon, we understand how all those shipboard adventures helped to form the adult lives of these youngsters. Nothing that happened on that voyage directly affected their future lives, no, but such disparate adventures helped prepare these young people for the adult world.

It is the voyage that is the heart of this novel, but it is those glimpses of future lives that give this novel its body. The novel would have no direction without them. And what works is that these incidents are interpreted from the perspective of adulthood, and that Michael’s later understanding of those experiences gives the work its emotional impact. In this, I disagree with Maslin in the Times who writes that “the melancholy of adult life seems ordinary by comparison.” No, it is the later reflections about that voyage that bring a focus and a sense of completeness to these characters, especially to Michael.

This work is quite different from The English Patient. Its characters are so young, and its setting is basically on a passenger ship. But it is also similar in that it exists on two time levels, and it is the connection between those two levels that gives the novel its meaning. In this case, the adventurous voyage that the boys experience, but do not fully comprehend, has a meaning that influences their later lives. And that influence, like the shipboard adventures, sometimes has a positive impact and sometimes a negative one.

Maslin quotes Ondaatje’s narration: “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You will find in this way the path of your life.” This is exactly how this work is constructed. The boy, innocent in the ways of the adult world, receives a lesson he is not aware of at the moment. And this experience of a world without supervising adults, of a time of no responsibility, will create in him a sense of independence that will both help him and frustrate him in his later attempt to give his life direction.

This novel reads as a very autobiographical work, because it captures so well a youthful rambunctiousness and innocence. But Ondaatje takes pains at the end to state that it is not autobiographical, neither its passengers, its crew, nor its narrative. However, I believe he may well have extrapolated from the impact on him of a real voyage to create this fictional voyage. Certainly, the presence of the ocean, the port of Aden, and the Suez Canal, as well as the shipboard atmosphere (the cabins, the dining room, the deck, the engine room, etc.) are convincingly real. The author had to have had similar shipboard experiences before he created these fresh characters and his narrative.

Michael has two relationships as an adult, one that fails, one that is inconclusive. He marries Massi, the sister of Ramadhin, in what seems an inevitable romance, but the marriage is dissolved by the author as quickly as it is generated, as if Michael’s failure is what matters, not the romance. But I was much more interested in Michael’s relationship with his cousin Emily, who on the ship awakened in him an awareness of sex. As the book closes, he meets her off the coast of Vancouver, and their relationship is left incomplete, but it is an intriguing relationship that the author might well have further explored.

Whether I shall read more Ondaatje may well depend on the story his has to tell. I was intrigued here by a story of youth, as seen from an adult perspective, as I was before by a story of war and responsibility. I am also impressed by Ondaatje’s style, which is simple, yet rich and reflective. And I am most impressed by the emotional and psychological issues that reverberate out of their past. (February, 2013)