Up until somewhere near its midway mark, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – the story, primarily, of a boy’s voyage on a ship from Colombo to England in the 1950’s – proceeds with a certain deceptive simplicity. The boy, named like the author as Michael but known to most of his fellow passengers under the nickname Mynah, is the 11-year old child of divorced parents on a migratory journey, being sent to reunite with his estranged mother. While this echoes, biographically speaking, Ondaatje’s own early background and departure from Sri Lanka, an author’s note insists that this is a work of fiction – and indeed, the events on board the Oronsay are fraught with such drama and intrigue that one would not necessarily imagine otherwise.
At sea for twenty-one days, Mynah befriends Ramadhin, whose troubled heart lends him a cautious nature, and the confident, thrill-seeking Cassius. The trio find themselves assigned the same table at mealtimes – the eponymous Cat’s Table, as one of the other diners calls it, far from the Captain’s and seemingly not of particular ranking or importance. Free of serious adult supervision for the most part, the boys enjoy the small autonomies of travelling alone – sliding on polished floors, dive-bombing into the pool and staying up late – alongside varying encounters with others onboard, who reveal, by their own examples or in direct interactions, numerous things about adulthood that will tincture their understanding of life for a long time afterward.
He remains friends with Ramadhin after they walk off the gangplank, and eventually becomes a part of his family, but loses touch with Cassius. Still, he never stops circling his old friend in some way: a successful writer in adulthood, Michael goes to an exhibit of Cassius’s paintings – inspired, he discovers there, by their time on the Oronsay – and signs the guestbook as ‘Mynah’ yet leaves no address. And although he says that he has rarely thought of the voyage, its impact on the way he understands consequence, relationships and change is profound, deeply sublimated.
And this is where something shifts in the narrative. About halfway through the book, the adult Michael’s voice becomes truly adult in its reminiscences. There is a kiss that “knocks the door down for the next few years”, “an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie”, and suddenly we are seduced – here again is the idiom Ondaatje is famous for.
While the sustained intensity of The English Patient or Anil’s Ghost, to name his two most acclaimed – and stunning – novels, never quite manifests in the same way, The Cat’s Table contains its moments of beauty. If the name Michael appropriated for a narrator who is adamantly fictitious is a sort of reverse red herring, then there are others that the devoted Ondaatje reader will recognize and delight in. On board the ship is a handicapped girl who had once become a trapeze artist, after tracking down a long-lost aunt in a troupe that performs in “a new village in the southern province every week”. Immediately evoked is a poem from his 1998 collection Handwriting entitled “Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus”. This is what it means when an artist, over the course of his career, successfully creates a whole world in his body of work – wandering it, the reader finds herself in familiar rooms.
Later, in the book’s most breath-catching passage, the one most reminiscent of the elegance of his earlier prose, Michael reads a letter from the hitherto incomprehensible Miss Lasqueti to his cousin Emily. Both had been on the ship: the former is the one who has so named the Cat’s Table, the latter is onboard by coincidence, but her presence affects and alters the young Mynah deeply. Lasqueti writes of a time in her past when she had fallen under the spell of a powerful man, just as Emily has, and of what the experience taught her and what had been taken from her as a result. In one luminous line, she mentions in passing the artist Caravaggio, for whom Ondaatje named a protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient.
What begins as an adventure story is thus revealed to be a novel about adulthood as disillusionment and the untraceable origins of damage. What happens to Mynah on the ship is not anything as obvious as trauma; he is simply an observer, and in this way the events of those three weeks influence him in a subtle but indelible way. And there are events aplenty: how could there not be, when his co-passengers include a prisoner, a botanist transporting an entire garden across the world and a businessman with a curse on his head, to name just a few.
Good books by great authors sometimes suffer on account of their siblings. Though by turns moving and delightful, The Cat’s Table is not Ondaatje’s most wondrous work, but it helps to keep in mind that this is a book by a master of his craft being compared to other pieces of his own oeuvre. It is not an opus composed at the height of his powers, but coasts on a pleasant, if modest, plateau.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.