It’s easy to conclude that Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, The Cat’s Table, is autobiographical, a thinly disguised story of the writer’s own voyage from Ceylon to England when he was eleven years old. But that assumption is too reductive, denying the writer his extraordinary imagination. Yes, in 1954, Ondaatje did make a similar journey when he was the same age as his main character (also called Michael), but the parallels end there. Clearly, what has compelled the writer to return to that early incident in his life is his interest in the age-old trope of the journey, as old as literature itself. Near the end of his novel, Ondaatje’s main character observes, “This journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth…. With just three or four children at its centre, on a voyage whose clear map and sure destination would suggest nothing to fear or unravel. For years I barely remembered it.”
Michael’s story, i.e., his eleven-year-old narrator’s story, begins innocently enough. He’s about to embark on a steamer in Colombo by himself, leaving his farther in Ceylon and joining his mother who is already in England. Thus, he’s largely on his own, though there are a couple of distant relatives also on the ship, expected to keep an eye on him. In the dining room, he’s been seated at the cat’s table, table 76, “the least privileged place,” as one of his table companions observes. There are two other boys roughly his own age also seated there, and besides those boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, a motley group of six adults, all single and deceptively nondescript. But dining is not of much interest to the three boys who quickly become inseparable.
As boys will, the three become known on the ship for their rowdy shenanigans. They are up all hours of the night, sleeping during the days. There is hardly a space on the ship that they don’t penetrate, though one of their usual meeting places is a covered lifeboat, hanging above the upper deck but close enough that when they hide there, they can both see and overhear what the people below them say. Much of the conversation they overhear is confusing, though Michael records in a notebook some of the lines that particularly perplex him: “How can it be an aphrodisiac and a laxative?” Or, “Trust me—you can swallow strychnine as long as you don’t chew it.” Or, “I told your husband when he offered me a three-day-old oyster that it was more dangerous to men than having a sexual act when I was seventeen.” Michael’s own sexual awakening will be part of his confusing journey.
For the three young boys, the voyage on the Oronsay is not only educational but also revelatory. It’s not very long before the boys discover that there’s a prisoner on the ship who is permitted to exercise on the deck, in chains, late at night after most of the travelers have long gone to bed. The mystery of the prisoner slowly enters into the deceptively simple plotting that Ondaatje uses throughout the story, though the clues and the connections that are being established early in the novel only become apparent toward the end. Michael himself learns that there are adults who can be trusted and others who cannot. The Oronsay is like so many ships in literature: a microcosm of people, replete with their foibles, weaknesses, and confusions. But what Michael subsequently takes away from the voyage is a clear understanding of people who are complicated and those who are not.
The Cat’s Table does not limit itself to the three-week voyage but includes flashbacks to Michael’s earlier life in Ceylon as well as flash forwards to the narrator’s conflicted life after the journey. Some of the characters he encounters on the ship re-enter his life much later, often revealing important pieces of information about events that he did not understand at the time. And, most powerfully in this magical novel, Ondaatje uses the three week voyage on the ship as the point of departure for his main character’s subsequent journey through life. As he remarks on one occasion, “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” Finally, then, Michael’s journey on the Oronsay is like all great travel narratives: dangerous, though fortunately the innocence of youth slowly becomes the steady rudder guiding one safely into the future.
Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is a wonder.
The Cat’s Table
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 272 pp., $26
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.