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]
on October 21, 2011
Michael Ondaatje's admirers await his books with patient anticipation. In return, Ondaatje crafts works such as The Cat's Table, one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.
I say narratives because The Cat's Table encompasses many stories: in its seemingly straightforward telling of a boy's 21 days on a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, its deeply complex characters offer glimpses of chance encounters and intermingled lives. The book is a palimpsest, the story of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, told by his older self who happens to be a well-known writer, written by Michael Ondaatje, who includes a disclaimer that while he took a similar trip as a boy, this work is purely fictional. These three Michaels intersect with one another in a memory play seen through the lens of the ship. The language and reflections are mature: this is the understanding only an adult can bring when he looks back at himself years later, trying to come to grips with how the smallest of actions can ripple through many lives over many years.
The titular Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table, the least prestigious spot in the dining room. The characters who gather around it pass through young Michael's shipbound existence, from his two contemporaries who raise hell with him all over the ship to the adults at the table. You get the sense that an entire novel could be devoted to any one of these subsidiary characters, even though they figure in only small ways in Michael's story.
Without ever belabouring a description, Ondaatje fills the reader's world with the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship and the ports it slips through. He also inverts the idea of the ship as a closed-off setting, creating a wonderland with myriad decks and enough forbidden places to keep a gang of three boys busy for weeks. It is peopled by ailing millionaires, live pigeons, unseen violinists, and the prisoner, a mysterious figure whose close-guarded nightly walks become a focal point for the boys, giving their days structure and their imaginations fodder. And there is always the sense that there is more to see, more to hear and overhear, than anything Michael and his friends can comprehend.
Memory and time are as fluid as the ocean the ship traverses, a moment in childhood with momentum but no fixed address. The narrative is overall a linear one, starting at the beginning of the journey, ending when the Oronsay arrives in England, but this is also a collection of stories. As the older Michael reflects on a particular character, events jump forward in time, following that character's interaction with Michael throughout the years before looping back to pick up where we left off on the ship. We arrive at the end of the book a little wiser, a little changed, just as the characters at the Cat's Table are.
Without falling into the triteness of a typical coming-of-age story, The Cat's Table offers a refined, note-perfect journey of how three weeks can alter the course of lives. I genuinely cared for these people and their misadventures, and when it was time to depart for other shores, I was left hoping that I would run into them again.
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on September 12, 2011
I cannot review this delightful book without raising one question that Ondaatje does not answer definitively until his afterword: its genre. Nowhere on the title pages is it called a novel, and indeed it begins as an autobiographical memoir. A boy, aged eleven, embarks on the SS Oronsay in Colombo for the three-week journey from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England. At the first meal, he is assigned to the table farthest away from the Captain, the so-called Cat's Table, the least significant. His companions include two other boys of around his age, Cassius and Ramadhin, who become his fast friends in their explorations of the mysteries of the ship and its passengers, starting with the odd assortment of people at their own table: a genial tailor who never speaks, a spinster lady with surprising resources, an impoverished musician who regales them with colorful stories, and a ship-breaker who takes them into the hidden corners of the vessel.
The facts all pan out. The boy, we learn, is called Michael, and eventually he will move to Canada and became a writer. The real Michael did indeed make such a voyage, and the description of his early life checks out; you can Google Map his school, and almost his house. I confess to a momentary disappointment, for I generally prefer fiction to memoir. But this reads almost as fiction, through Ondaatje's skill in portraying shipboard life as a succession of snapshots, brilliant, enigmatic, or bizarre. Bizarre too are many of the other passengers aboard, as Michael extends his curiosity beyond his immediate neighbors: a circus troupe, a deaf young girl, a rich industrialist dying of rabies, an aristocratic cat-burglar who presses Michael into service as his cat. And a mysterious chained prisoner allowed on deck for exercise only after midnight. The whole voyage seems like a scrapbook for a fiction writer, sensory experiences, strange glimpses into the adult world, brief encounters which his imagination will parlay into the stories of a lifetime. We recognize seeds that will flower into the great scenes in his other books: the episode in THE ENGLISH PATIENT where Kip shows Hana the Arezzo frescoes by the light of a flare, for instance, prefigured by a vast pornographic mural in the ship's hold, or the dockside activity at the Suez Canal illuminated by sulphur lights as the ship moves inexorably past. This is the formation of a writer, taking place before our eyes.
Or do we see the writer fully formed? At several points from the middle of the book on, he will leave the ship and leap forward a decade or so, delving into adult emotional territory that belongs to a quite different dimension from those shipboard experiences. In one extended passage, he closes the circle of his long friendship with Ramadhin and his family near London. There are facts here that are not to be found in the online biographies of the real Michael Ondaatje, but those things are partial anyway. More importantly, he reveals a tenderness, vulnerability, and dangerous penchant for self-protection that you might not find even in the most frank autobiography. So fact or fiction? Or truth plumbed to a depth that only fiction can achieve? The matter is put to rest, I think, much later in the book, when he quotes a long letter from the single lady at the Cat's Table. Almost a short story in itself, this must be fiction since it is impossible to think of the author appropriating such a private letter by a real person. Especially since it was not written to him, but to his slightly older cousin Emily, a passenger in First Class. Michael's contacts with her and the intensity of his first love form a deepening subtext that blossoms into the book's brilliantly dramatic climax, followed by a moving epilogue when they meet up years later in the Canadian Gulf Islands, a passage of tender melancholy reminiscent of the later sections of his novel DIVISADERO.
Autobiography as fiction is not entirely a new form. JM Coetzee has been doing this for some time, most recently in SUMMERTIME. But Ondaatje is more immediate, more sensual, and ultimately more revealing. Curiously enough, as the texture changed to the older writer looking back, I thought of the book I reviewed just before this, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes, also clearly making fiction out of autobiography. That is currently short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Ondaatje's latest belongs in this company too, and if it were up to me it would win.
on October 31, 2011
This is a beautiful tale that unwinds itself at a leisure pace and packs a wallop ending which I won't tell). Based on the real event of Ondaatje's own travel from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to England when he was a young boy, the tale centers around a young boy called Michael traveling to see his mother after years of absense (Ondaatje does point outbthat most of the events and characters were made up). The Cat's Table refers to the table the boy and his companions are positioned to eat at which includes two other boys, his older cousin, a musician down on his luck, a botanist and an eccentric woman who wears a jacket for her pigeons. Quite the cast. As the tale unravels there is more here that meets the eye - enter a band of circus performers, a mute girl and a prisoner who is kept below decks and two policemen to watch the prisoner. Something seems a miss?
Ondaatje marvelously weaves the tale by first telling us about the journey and then jumps to the future explaining what has happened to various lead characters. Then one grasps that our Michael is searching for clues about an event that happens during that journey. He does so easily that the travel tale becomes a mystery without myself realizing it and yet it is a reflection about the last vestiges of childhood that occurred on that trip.
Like Liesl Schillinger's review in the New York Times, I too was awed by the ease and depth of the story. A truly enjoyable read.
on September 13, 2011
I have always admired Michael Ondaatje's writing and this time out is no exception. The Cat's Table took me back to my Atlantic Crossing en route to England (from Canada) in 1960; the book revived scenes from my own voyage that sprang back to life for me as young Mynah (fearful and fearless) traveled over, around, above- and belowdecks on the Oronsays, en route to England. For me, any piece of writing that, because of its essential truth, becomes personal to the reader in the course of its narrative is writing of the highest order. Ondaatje's ability to craft a novel that weaves multiple strands from other lives into that of his central character is peerless. Everything feels inevitable, appropriately placed. Years after the fact, I still recall moments from The English Patient or Anil's Ghost. I applaud and envy the texture of the writing and the circularity of this narrative. I will now, for a long time to come, be recalling moments from The Cat's Table too. This is a book not to be missed.
"Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall," -- Isaiah 40:30 (NKJV)
It's easy to mistake this novel for an autobiography. That's how good it is.
Michael Ondaatje deals with perspective in this story, taking as his starting point the awareness of an eleven-year-old boy on a sea voyage from Colombo to be reunited with his mother in England. In such circumstances, the boy is on the bottom of the social ladder that always seems overly important on board a ship. The book's title refers to his status as one of those assigned to the dining table furthest from the Captain's table, which is, of course, the acme of social status. The cat's table, by comparison, is at the outer edges of civilization.
Due to finding two boys he can pal around with, the boy's days and nights are filled with adventures. They probe into places that adults easily overlook or disdain to consider. As a result, they spot subtle dramas at odd hours that grab their attention. Their adult companions at the cat's table are harder for the boys to figure out. However, any gestures of sympathy and friendship are quickly grasped and enjoyed.
It's a more perilous voyage than one might imagine, as youthful pranks and escapades sometimes have important consequences.
In a few places, Mr. Ondaatje moves forward into the future to reveal "what happened next" to add shadows and dimensions to the relationships among the characters on board. These sections felt a bit awkward to me by adding a little too much intrusion into the main story's pacing and timing.
The plot may seem a bit over the top to some. I disagree. I thought the plot's scale was necessary in order to explore the book's fundamental focus on the limitations of perception and perspective. The Cat's Table certainly rewards a close reading of the novel as you go. There's an element of a mystery story here that you need to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy the story on the first reading.
Yes, this book deserves at least a second reading. You'll marvel at the author's skill when you do. It's most impressive.
When was the last time you read a novel that demanded an immediate rereading? It's all too infrequent in my experience.
Michael Ondaatje returns once more to his youth to craft a memorable, and at times poignant and electrifying, odyssey of a young boy's sea voyage from his native Ceylon to distant England in "The Cat's Table", which is a notable addition among his novels in a long, productive, and illustrious literary career, though it falls short of his earlier classics "The English Patient" and "Anil's Ghost" (However, I do regard it as among the best novels published this year that I've read, having been engrossed with Ondaatje's simple, yet quite lyrical, prose so much that I found it impossible to put down.). His latest is neither another routine coming-of-age novel nor one that recalls wistfully, with ample pathos, the loss of innocence of a young boy at the cusp of adolescence. Instead, Ondaatje uses this seaborne odyssey as a means of allowing his young protagonist, Michael, as an adult, to recall and then to reflect on, the subsequent fortunes of himself, Ramadhin and Cassius (his two young friends aboard the liner Oronsay) and his cousin Emily (another fellow Oronsay passenger) looking back on the voyage itself as a key momentous event in their respective lives.
Ondaatje introduces us to the three boys and rather undistinguished adults sitting at the "cat's table", the one furthest from the Captain's table in the liner's dining room. There's Max Mazappa, the ship's pianist dreaming of reviving his prior successful career in music, Ceylonese botanist Larry Daniels (who, like the boys, is making his first trip to Europe), and an English woman, Perinetta Lasquetti, a pigeon fancier, en route home to England with her small colony of pigeons. Michael and the others receive from them a first-rate education on jazz and on the sex lives of women. From his older cousin Emily, he feels the first stirrings of adolescent sexual arousal. There are also two shadowy figures, looming large within the imaginations of the boys and adults, as though they are unseen specters haunting the ship; the shackled prisoner, a Ceylonese murderer, seen by Michael and the other boys at night, pacing the deck under guard, and the bedridden, hydrophobic Ceylonese businessman, whose ultimate fates will follow equally disastrous courses during Oronsay's three-week long sea voyage.
Readers may find jarring Ondaatje's narrative shifts between the young and adult Michael, and how certain key scenes are rendered differently from the perspectives of Ramadhin, Cassius and Emily. This may be why "The Cat's Table" isn't quite the literary classic that "The English Patient" is, but some may think that they do work, especially when he recounts a pivotal moment at night during the voyage, through the eyes of his long-lost cousin Emily, whom he meets unexpectedly years later, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Readers will certainly appreciate Ondaatje's excellent prose, and that, more than anything else, may be the key reason why his fictional sea voyage is one well worth taking.
Once again, Ondaatje has come through with a sparkler of a novel. Without trying to be too analytical or critical about its contents, because others have already beaten me to the punch, I want to offer some personal observations about this multi-layered, thought-provoking novel. As one who once upon a time took a similar journey to a new land on an ocean liner (the Saxonia), I have no problem identifying with this vast but sketchy experience. For the most part, I have only the few details of my mother's account of the journey to go on, though that does not stop me from often wondering what it was really like. Here was a woman, with two young children in tow, absolutely living on the edge of a new existence and not knowing what to make of it. The concept of the Cat's Table in the novel is an appropriate metaphor for those who seek to understand that new world opening up before them. From a position of obscurity, the lives of others can be observed and entered into in a secretive manner. While I was never allowed the freedom to explore the mysteries of that ship like Michael was with the Oronsay, my older brother certainly was. To this day, it is his vivid recollections of the weird, wonderful, and frightening that shape my understanding of the voyage. Like Michael and his boyhood friends, the initial impact of the intensive and short-lived, onboard experience takes a lifetime to understand, and often only through the lives of others who have a better grasp on the details. Enjoy this novel for what it has to tell us about the deep, dark life currents that run through our earthly existence. There are some incredible moments of adventure on the high seas that take a lifetime to understand.
on February 17, 2012
I chose this book for my book club. It was generally very well accepted, as a beautifully written and clever book on many levels. We are next going to read "Half-blood Blues" and examine why it won the Giller over "The Cat's Table".
on September 23, 2011
Elegiac, enigmatic, eloquent, elegant, evocative, ethereal. And another E for exemplary. Award-winning author Michael Ondaatje is certainly one of the most commanding, gifted, and original authors alive today, a poetic and lyrical writer who constructs stories with piquant, vivid imagery and interleaving, nonlinear storylines, and presents subtle motifs throughout his stories that bring you closer and closer to the emotional core of his characters. This novel has a circular feel, a sense of descending into deeper cavities and ascending from them, too. Although not a character-driven or plot-driven story, the cast is richly exotic, with a Dickensian resonance, and each character is indelibly painted and imprinted on the reader's eye and ear. As you move closer to the close of the novel, you will feel it mounting and ripening; danger, tension, and internal struggles burst like sunset over a ruthless day.
As the cover suggests, much of THE CAT'S TABLE takes place on a ship, a journey in the 1950's where the protagonist moves from his home in Ceylon (Sri Lanka since 1972) to England. At only 11, he is immersed in childhood, and his perspective of adults, especially when reflected upon decades later, is shrouded in doubt, dreams, fantasy, longing, and desire. Ondaatje limns the thin line between contrasts, such as childhood/adulthood, freedom/captivity, memory/history, fact/fiction. This is a highly interpretive novel, with few concrete answers, a richly open-ended journey that, like much distinguished and superlative literature, invites the reader to weave his/her own personal experiences with the narrative at hand.
The text is like resin in the hands. Turning the pages of the book, I sensed the underground botanical garden in the bowels of the ship, the smell of the burning hemp from one passenger's cabin, the seawater splashing on the deck. There's an effect of expansiveness mixed with confinement throughout, which is, to this reader, the very thrill of this book. You will imagine the starry black sky and a crescent moon, the briny odor of the sea, the lanterns swaying and twinkling like stars, the whistles and calls of the maritime, the shadowy passageways underground.
This beautiful, epic story feels both close and faraway, like our memories.