coming of age novels

READING: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

READING: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

How is it that the child’s eyes have the wonder still attached? Reading Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table reminds me of this. I’m jealous of his story. I want to be that eleven year old aboard a great ocean liner with no adult supervision. I do. The freedom of it, the waking early to swim in the first class pool, napping in the afternoon down in the turbine room so as to stay up late and catch glimpses of a transported prisoner as he exercises on deck. It smells of childhood. To be considered the least important of passengers and placed at ‘the cat’s table’, as far from the captain’s table as possible…how glorious. I don’t remember my childhood enthusiasms so much, but I know they felt like this. They were thrilling and, so my young self thought, dangerous. This novel drew me into my child mind as I romped across the Indian Ocean with Ondaatje’s three young characters.

Ondaatje tells this tale from the perspective of Michael, who, as an adult delves into his past and the seminal voyage from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to London in the 1950’s. There is a lovely lyrical movement between the boy and the man and back again. Innocence and knowing. Black and white, and grey. Michael is eleven years old when he sets off across the Indian Ocean to join his mother in London. He is going into an unknown world, but in the interim the world of the ship provides him with a stepping stone and a place to dip into the complexities of adulthood to come.

He quickly befriends two other unaccompanied boys, the more cautious Ramadhin and Cassius, the daredevil. Ondaatje shows us these different versions of being and positions his narrator between them in temperament. We effortlessly align ourselves with Michael somewhere down that middle road or on that high sea. The three boys roam the ship freely (except for first class, of course) coming into contact with a range of unusual adult characters, who they attempt to understand.

“…the three of us bursting all over the place like freed mercury: stopping at the pool, then the ping-pong table, watching a piano class with Mr Mazappa in the ballroom, a small nap, a chat with the one-eyed Assistant Purser – looking carefully into his glass eye as we passed – and visits to Mr Fonseka’s cabin for an hour or more.”

Amongst the adult characters is Miss Lasqueti, who is travelling with a cage of pigeons and wears a specially designed vest with pockets so she may take the birds on deck. There is Asuntha, who is deaf and carries a deadly secret and Sir Hector who lies dying in his stateroom from a curse. Mr Daniels tends a garden of medicinal and poisonous plants in the hold which he is transporting to London for scientific purposes. Then there is Michael’s bunkmate, Mr Hastie, who by day is a kennel keeper of the passenger’s hounds and by night an expert bridge player. There is the members of the Jankla troupe, who entertain the passengers and a mysterious prisoner, being escorted to London for trial. These are but a few of the people the boys come into contact with. At one point Michael is selected by a shady character, known as the Baron C, to squeeze through the grills on top of the first-class cabin doors for a bit of thievery.

“I could not wait to tell the others at the next turbine room meeting what had happened to me.  I felt my authority grow. But in retrospect I see that what the Baron gave me was another self, something as small as a pencil sharpener. It was a little escape into being somebody else, a door I would postpone opening for some years, at least until I was beyond my teens. Those half-blurred afternoons remain with me.”

At the beginning of the book, Ondaatje supplies us with small vignettes of each character before passing on to another. We meet them in flashes here and there, as the boys do in making their way around the ship, but over time we come to know more of them and the narrative begins to take hold. There is daring and tragedy to come, but I won’t spoil that here. Needless to say, what happens has lasting effects on the lives of the three boys.

Along the way, we experience things such as this:

“She half sat up, then remembered the robe and reached for it. But what I saw hit me at the base of my heart. There was a tremor within me, something that would be natural for me later but at that moment was a mixture of thrill and vertigo.”

It’s lovely stuff. Ondaatje is a master storyteller and the book is peppered with pearls like those above. Despite the author and his main character sharing the same name and country of birth, Ondaatje has assured us the book is entirely fictional. However, so real is his portrayal of his young character, it does start one wondering.  Then again, we say to ourselves he is capable of such realism in his fiction. We have seen it before in novels like The English Patient.  So fact or fiction?   It doesn’t seem to matter.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Book Reviews