Sunday, January 8, 2012

Ondaatje's story of a voyage comes in on cat's feet

Revelations in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table quietly creep up on both reader and story teller as Michael, the narrator, recalls a sea journey that shaped him.
He relates a 21-day voyage aboard the Oronsay he took when he was 11 years old from Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), to England. Michael Ondaatje took such a voyage in 1954, and acknowledges that the situation is autobiographical, but the incidents are not.
Narrator Michael, now a writer of some renown, had long remembered the journey as “placid.” It is, he says, when prompted by his children and seen through their eyes that he reconsiders it.
He reflects: “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally with no knowledge of the act, into the future.”  

               It is at Table 76, the cat’s table, the dining table farthest away from the Captain’s table, the least privileged place, that Michael meets the two other “feral children” who will become his partners in mischief.  With the defiant, exuberant Cassius and the cautious, quiet Ramadhin, Michael scurries about the ship, invisible to officials.  Fellow adult diners at the table include Mr. Mazappa, a pianist who has “hit the skids” and speaks with colorful language;” Mr. Nevil, a retired ship’s dismantler;  Miss Lasqueti, a spinsterish woman with real pigeons in her coat; Mr. Daniels, who is transporting a botanical garden, and Mr. Gunesekera, a silent tailor. 
Other adults who influence include an aunt in first class who trades tidbits of gossip over tea, a teacher who shares his love for books and the smells of home, a baron and most influential, a cousin, the free-spirited Emily de Saram, who teeters much more closely and dangerously on the brink of the adult world – at age 17 than Michael. Emily gets mixed up with a traveling troupe of acrobarts, street performers and an illusionist.
The preteen boys quickly learn the lay of the ship, their “castle” comprising seven levels that include first class,  the deck, the engine room, a section where chickens are kept, another where fish are prepared,  and  the hold where an indoor garden full of exotic  and poisonous plants grow. Deep in the hold there’s a mural of nude women and even a jail complete with a prisoner, who is taken in chains for a deck walk each night. No corner – except the captain’s bathroom – seems impenetrable by the boys. Like small rodents, they nest during the day in a turbine room and hide from and spy on the adults from the lifeboats. They even learn the course of the air duct work and watch the ballroom from struts in a false ceiling.
“I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.”
Beginning with pilfering food from first class, swimming at odd hours in whatever pools they please, and smoking twigs from a cane chair, the three grow ever more daring in their ventures into the forbidden corners of the adult world -- a world where there are predators and those who save children from becoming prey.
As the voyage progresses it becomes more than a passage through the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea finally to England. More than an exploration of the ship. More than a meeting with several interesting adults including those at the cat’s table.  More than a young boy’s adventure story.
It becomes a journey fraught with mischief, mysteries, curses, perils, thievery, Houdini-like possibilities, hidden identities, near death and death.  Along the way, the story told becomes Ondaate’s portrait of a writer as a young man and what follows:  the movement of a heart from innocence to experience.
               The reader discovers that world the way the child does, absorbing its sights, sounds and smells.  Michael learns by listening, observing and dabbling in forbidden substances. He records random snippets of overheard conversations in a child’s examination book.
Once through the Suez the children have “eyes open,” and the narrative changes, veering into the future and a period in London where Michael rekindles some friendships. Then it’s back to the ship and off again into consequences felt in young adulthood and a letter from Miss Lasqueti that layers on more information about what occurred on board.
               Just as childhood seems one endless carefree day after another and time speeds up as one ages, the novel picks up its pace. The final 50 pages fly with intrique, mystery and the letter from Miss Lasqueti that changes the way we view everything.
There’s a moment when the now mature writer, whose current life details we learn almost nothing about, reflects on art. The chapter Miss Lasqueti: A 2nd Portrait begins:
"Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion many would not."
This principle guides writer Ondaatje, narrator Michael and informs the reader about how to approach Ondaatje’s work of art.   The second look at Miss Lasqueti reveals a much more complex and central character in the lives of all the children. So too, The Cat’s Table is best read twice.  I read it once in innocence, soaking in its sensory impressions and the second time in reflection, knowing what was going to happen, piecing the hitherto random pieces together. Even as I write a new revelation pounces.   I suddenly connect to a small but beautiful discussion of Madonnas in the book. My second read shares a feeling mentioned there.
The Cat’s Table is a book that lingers, that haunts. I wake in the middle of the night and it’s there and I’m wondering why Mr. Mazappa debarked the ship when he did?  Why did Miss Lasqueti so abruptly change the direction of an awkward conversation?
I don’t know, but imagine what might have happened, who might have been the responsible for Mazappa’s departure. I invent an answer.  Michael does this too late in the book when he reveals to an older Emily a possible and much more hopeful version of the worst event of the voyage.  This event also impacts Cassius, and it is for him the narrator pens the tale of the voyage. And calls it …..The Cat’s Table.
What a rare a wondrous reading experience!



  1. And a wondrous reading experience in your post, as well. i want to read every book you have reviewed, once I've read your words about it. Thank you, friend! ;o)

  2. Thank you Mike. So far, I have written little about books I'm not so happy with. Generally, I don't bother, but I may have one coming up. We'll see.

  3. Your thorough review of The Cats Table' is definitely the best and most interesting review I've read in the last few months, it's really great, thank you.
    I actually heard Michael Ondaajte talking to Elaine Charles on her radio show "The Book Report" on Sunday and you get to know more about the background of the book and I found out that he has written 13 poetry books, wow that's romantic.
    As I am very interested in people, being naughty like a little boy and love adventure this is definitely the book for me.
    Elaine Charles says that Michael's books are atmospheric and evocative of a place.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I find it odd writing and not knowing if anyone is reading. I'm glad you did.