Oct 17 2013
The most striking thing about The Cat’s Table is the effortless quality of Ondaatje’s prose, full of vivid and colourful images seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old. The story seems to sweep you in without you being aware of it. It is as simple as it is dreamlike, weaving in every character with such ease that they seem to already be vaguely familiar.
A Sri Lanka-born Canadian, Ondaatje’s life seems intimately connected with this work of fantasy. Its protagonist is named Michael and journeys aboard a ship from Sri Lanka to England — just as Ondaatje himself had done at the same age. Moreover, with the boy growing up to be a writer and migrating to Canada, the book could be easily mistaken as woven round the story of the author’s life, if not for the end note — clearly stating that though it “uses the colourings and locations of memoir and autobiography”, the story is fictional.
The three-week journey aboard the Oronsay is full of incredible images — the wild run of a child left to himself for the first time. Michael and the two boys he befriends — Cassius and Ramadhin — are assigned to the Cat’s table for their meals, which is “the least privileged place”, far from the Captain’s table. For the three, however, this fact is of no consequence as they explore every tiny bit of the ship, collecting images, nuggets of interesting information, and sentences overheard from fellow passengers.
The narration is crisscrossed in places with episodes from a grown-up Michael’s life, subtly revealing the deep effects that the wild 21-day adventure had, not just on him but on his two companions as well. The world of adults and the things occurring within it are presented in a perfectly non-judgemental manner, such that would only be possessed by an eleven-year-old, who, while watching a movie on the ship’s deck, remarks: “The plot was full of grandness and confusion, of acts of cruelty that we understood and responsible honour that we did not.”
In the process, we are treated to images that are astonishing and entertaining at the same time: a man with an entire garden, artificially-lit and unbelievably magical, hidden inside the dark bowels of the ship; a woman who carries birds about the decks in the pockets of a specially designed coat, and the two boys, Michael and Cassius, tethering themselves to the hull to experience the fury of a sea-storm.
Then there are the people whose tales both amaze and influence the children: Mr Mazappa the man of music, who played with the ship’s orchestra and gave piano lessons or Mr Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who tells them how “in a breaker’s yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.”
One image after another unfolds with barely a ripple, so that when the sudden twists occur, they are least expected. The book is much like the sea voyage it describes; sways you gently and moves you deeply, just as the people at the cat’s table affect Michael: ‘It would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”