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"It would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat's Tables of my life, who would alter me..."
on September 13, 2011
In his new novel, The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje imagines a young boy's three-week sea voyage across the oceans, from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England. Surprisingly, the eleven-year-old travels alone and is, not surprisingly, allocated to the "lowly" Cat's Table, where he joins an odd assortment of adults and two other boys of similar age. In the voice of young "Michael", Ondaatje shares the boys' adventures on the ship with charming immediacy, while an older, adult "Michael" looks over his shoulder, first hardly noticeable, and later, more and more directly reflecting on his own recollections and more. Are we reading a childhood memoir of sorts, a coming-of-age story, a personal journey into the past? Are we reading fact or fiction? May be, all of it. The parallels to the author's life are easily spotted: a childhood in Ceylon, a nineteen fifties journey by ship from there to England... Other parallels to the author's life come into view in the course of the book. Also, Ondaatje suggests in the first pages: "I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was..." In the Author's Note (at the end of the book) Ondaatje is as clear and opaque as can be. If you don't want to know, don't look at the end and discover the journey as it unfolds.
Young Michael and his two new friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, become soon inseparable. They freely roam the huge ship, exploring any nook and cranny they can get into, especially during nights. Cassius is the rambunctious, Ramadhin, the cautious, more reasonable one, conscious of his "weak heart". Michael describes himself as a "follower". The men at the Cat's Table, astutely observed by young Michael, while distinct in personality and behaviour, share, nonetheless, their curiosity for the happenings on the ship - one could call theirs "the gossip table" - and, more importantly, they each provide some kind of "life lesson" for the boys, be it in history, music, literature or biology. The most intriguing passenger at the table, however, is Miss Lasqueti, who appears to have insider knowledge of a very different kind. From time to time, they are joined by seventeen-year-old, beautiful and "mysterious" Emily, a distant cousin of Michael's. Given her "higher social standing" and her placement in the dining room, she can contribute intriguing news for any evolving "story". She knows, for example, much about the dangerous, heavily guarded, prisoner, who the boys have noticed during their nighttime adventures. Of course, Emily also has her secret encounters at night, overheard by Michael hiding in a lifeboat...
For the first half or so of the novel, I am simply charmed by the descriptions of the boys' hilarious or risky escapades on the ship as it moves across the Indian Ocean towards the Suez Canal. We explore the ship's "world" through a child's eyes. The episodes, told more like independent vignettes than in a contiguous narrative, succeed, nonetheless, in carrying our curiosity forward: they captures the atmosphere on ship, provide personality capsules of passengers or crew, and details of their various activities. Once closer to land, we are offered glimpses into the varying landscapes and port cities. While Michael's journey is depicted with gentleness and often lyrical descriptions, something seems to be missing in terms of the story's overall meaning and depth - at least for me. But soon enough, like entering a new section in the book, the voice of the adult Michael takes on a more prominent role. He drops hints how different episodes or people might be connected; he starts asking questions about the veracity of what we have been told, pondering the reliability of his long-term memory...
And, most engagingly, Ondaatje, while continuing to remain within the overall three-week time span of the journey, now leaves it with ease to reveal aspects of past and future of several of the central characters. These mental excursions - relating to Emily, Miss Lasqueti, Ramadhin, etc. and, last but not least, the prisoner - help us fill in gaps within earlier descriptions of episodes during the voyage. They also add an integrating layer to the narrative that I had been hoping for. Finally, they bring us also closer to the adult Michael. It is only later in life that he realizes the journey's importance as "a rite of passage"; a journey that formed him in more ways than he has acknowledged for a long time. In hindsight he can give voice to an emotion that he experienced then and many times since as he grew into an adult as "a desire that is a mixture of thrill and vertigo." Emily, when he meets her again, much later, has the better phrase for what affected them: "We all became adults before we were adults."
In the end, it does not matter anymore - at least to me - whether this book is a novel or a memoir/autobiography. It is a beautifully rendered story of growing up and living with the memories of youth. The novel's language, the tone, the images and the tender approach to his subject suggest that this is probably Ondaatje's most personal and intimate novel in many years. [Friederike Knabe]