Michael, the 11 year old narrator of The Cat’s Table, is leaving 1950s Ceylon (the colonial name for Sri Lanka) to be reunited with his mother, an earlier migrant to the UK, and to start senior school in England. Boarding the Oronsay, the liner that will take him up through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean, he finds himself installed for mealtimes at the cat’s table, ship parlance for the least favoured table and the furthest from the captain’s table. Also seated there are two other boys, the rebel Cassius and the physically frail, Ramadhin, with whom Michael will form a tight knit gang, exploring the ship and treating it as their own private kingdom.
The ship’s other passengers make up a colourful and varied bunch, each with their own stories, which Ondaatje tells us largely through the medium of the boys’ observations. The Cat’s Table also cuts back and forth from the ship’s journey to the adult life of Michael in London, in which he clears up some of the loose ends of the episodes that take place on board and shows how their experiences on the Oronsay continue to affect the lives of the three boys long afterwards.
My only previous experience of Michael Ondaatje was The English Patient and, although I largely enjoyed it and found the writing to be wonderful, I found the ending a little unlikely and was slightly put off by his take on racism and imperialism. It may be because The Cat’s Table doesn’t really seek to address issues like this (although there are, inevitably some references) or it may be simply that it is a book that appealed to me more, but I thought it was simply wonderful and a compelling read.
At one level, The Cat’s Table is a fantastic picaresque novel, almost a collection of tales about the characters that inhabit the Oronsay, from the “gentleman” burglar, the Baron, who uses the boys as his accomplices by oiling them up and sending them through narrow window gaps to open the doors of passenger rooms, to the tycoon, Sir Hector da Silva, who lies in his cabin, on his way to London to seek a cure for his mysterious illness. There is Mr Daniels, who keeps a secret garden of poisonous plants hidden away in the ship’s bowels and the elusive Max Mazappa, jazz pianist and purveyor of wise advice. Using the closed society of a ship at sea, Ondaatje creates a profusion of fascinating characters whose stories increasingly interlock as the novel progresses and they form alliances or reveal relationships.
At the same time, the episodes told by the adult Michael reveal just how much the events on the ship affect not only the boys but also some of the other passengers and counterpoint the innocence and fun of the shipboard episodes with a more mature understanding of the world and a sadness brought on by more experience of life. This deepens the book and turns it from a story about a journey across the sea into a story that is as much about Michael’s journey from child to adult, from joyous innocent to a wiser but sadder man.
On top of this, we are also given something of a mystery story. Early on in the novel, the boys, lurking in a lifeboat at night, spy two guards taking a shackled prisoner for a walk on deck. As the book progresses, the boys speculate on the identity of the prisoner and the reason for his being on the ship. The pieces of the puzzle are gradually revealed and the links between him and certain of the other passengers, including Michael’s cousin, Emily, are drawn together, culminating in a shocking but uncertain conclusion to the sub-plot.
Ondaatje himself made a similar journey by ship to the UK from Sri Lanka in the early ‘60s and there is a great temptation to focus on the extent to which The Cat’s Table is autobiographical but, frankly, I’m not sure that this kind of focus has any great point and actually detracts from the overall experience of the book.
This is a book that explores loss, growth, the impact of journeys both physical and emotional and the effect of childhood events and experiences on the adult psyche. It’s also warm, funny, fascinating and a highly enjoyable read. Quite simply, I loved it. I don’t rate books but, if I did, this would be a five star effort from an author with whom I am not always in sympathy.