The Cat’s Table

Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table
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The Cat’s Table

Michael Ondaatje

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England - a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat’s Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner - his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever. As the narrative moves from the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story about the difference between the magical openness of childhood and the burdens of earned understanding - about a life-long journey that began unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage, when all on board were ‘free of the realities of the earth’. With the ocean liner a brilliant microcosm for the floating dream of childhood, The Cat’s Table is a vivid, poignant and thrilling book, full of Ondaatje’s trademark set-pieces and breathtaking images- a story told with a child’s sense of wonder by a novelist at the very height of his powers.


michaeloThere’s a wealth – some may say an overabundance – of vivid imagery and lyrical prose in the critically acclaimed novels of Michael Ondaatje. Indeed, his prose can be so richly layered and poetically imagined that it can be frustratingly inaccessible, as many readers of his previous novel Divisidero (2007) will attest. Fortunately, this criticism can’t be levelled at The Cat’s Table, in which Ondaatje’s trademark elliptical narrative style is replaced with a predominantly linear structure and a highly accessible first-person narrative.

Ondaatje presents this as fiction, but readers familiar with his 1982 memoir Running in the Family will likely be sceptical. His protagonist is a Sri Lankan-born man named Michael who recounts a journey that he took in the 1950s, travelling from Colombo to England on the ocean liner Oronsay. (Like his fictional namesake, Ondaatje was 11 when he travelled to England from Colombo in 1954 to join his mother, who had divorced his alcoholic father and moved to London.) One can’t help but feel that the storyline and characters here owe much to memories of this journey, particularly when it comes to the sense of dislocation – physical, cultural and emotional – that resonates throughout.

In the novel, each passenger on the ship is allocated to a particular dinner table. Michael finds himself sharing Table 76 with two boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and a group of adults including a pianist, a botanist and the mysterious pigeon-fancier Miss Lasqueti, who notes at the first meal that they have been assigned the least-privileged location in the dining room, as far as possible from the Captain’s Table (hence the book’s title). Exploring the ship with Cassius and Ramadhin, learning the stories of its many mysterious and eccentric passengers, becomes an educational and emotional rite of passage that the adult Michael acknowledges as being the single most influential experience of his life: ‘Sometimes we find our true and inherent selves during youth. It is a recognition of something that at first is small within us, that we will grow into somehow.’ On board the Oronsay, Michael experiences friendship, kindness, exploitation, adventure and the first stirrings of sexuality. And the motley group of diners at Table 76 will influence him the most – ‘It would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.’

The themes of the book are those Ondaatje returns to again and again in his novels and poetry: the relationship of the present to the past, the links between memory and history, and the uneasy relationship between biography and truth. And as always, the writing is simply magnificent – Michael, Cassius and Ramadhin explore the ship ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’ and Miss Lasqueti ‘had a laugh that hinted it had rolled around once or twice in mud’. Few contemporary writers can match his mastery of metaphor.

In a 2008 discussion with Colum McCann, Ondaatje described himself as ‘just one of those people who imagines others’ lives’. Here, he does this to magnificent effect. Highly recommended.

Virginia Maxwell is project manager of Readings’ annual *Summer Reading Guide*.

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