see word of a new work. I opened The Cat’s Table expecting a novel and found I was reading a memoir, which was fine with me. He’s a fantastic writer no matter what. But wait, take a look at the afterword. Not a memoir at all, even though the narrator’s name is Michael and his life journey mirrors Ondaatje’s own from Sri Lanka to England to Canada. From a lesser writer, I might feel cheated. But from Mr. O., it feels more like a rather deft trompe d’oeil. Nicely done.
So, our fictional Michael sets sail as a young boy on voyage from Sri Lanka to England to join his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in some years. He falls in with a variety of companions, most of whom are seated at the ship’s “cat’s table”–the dining area farthest away from the captain’s table. Two of his tablemates are his own age, and they form a mischievous trio whose adventures constitute a concentrated series of life experiences that will influence the rest of their lives. Others are adults who act as ushers into various aspects of moral and immoral worlds and modes of conduct for the three comers-of-age.
Perhaps the most significant of the many events and characters that people the ship is “the prisoner,” a man reputed to have murdered a judge and who is led on a nightly walk around the deck, spied upon by the three young brigands. He is chained and guarded. As various pieces of information emerge both on ship and in later years when the narrator becomes a successful writer, we get hints that perhaps espionage is involved. And there are other mysteries, and we never quite get the whole story about any of them.
If, as I believe, Ondaatje intends the journey of the Oronsay to suggest a journey through childhood and young adulthood (a la Huckleberry Finn), during which archetypal conflicts emerge, he also suggests that a person might spend a lifetime exploring the implications of those conflicts without coming close to solving them. Simple enough concept, of course. But in Ondaatje’s hands, we get more than a straightforward attempt to solve a puzzle. Instead, in the midst of decades of pursuing a daily life, the narrator keeps encountering people and events from those formative years. Learning a little more, discovering further truths or falsity of what he thought he knew, some of which compels action, but most of which seems unknowable, let alone susceptible to influence of any kind. The fact that the narrator views all these levels of experience beginning at the Cat’s Table, or the lowest level of a stratified society, gives all kinds of texture and perspective.
Despite all the praise, I must say I thought too much of the book sailed along over flat and calm seas. Not enough dramatic tension, despite the wait for the prisoner’s next walk or the wonderful storm scene. Other than that, Ondaatje has once again a wonderful piece of writing, and I hope he’s working away on his next one because I’m waiting, waiting, waiting.