Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE CAT'S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje (2011) McClelland & Stewart, 265 pages

Perhaps I should have cottoned on to the fact that this might be Ondaatje’s most personal novel to date with the epigraph from Joseph Conrad’s YOUTH:
And this is how I see the East…I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.” For, it is a cannibalized part of Ondaatje’s own youth that we read about between the pages of this unexpectedly intimate narrative that reads oftentimes like memoir.

It’s the early 1950s and an eleven-year-old boy named Michael boards a ship in Colombo, bound for England. It is “not the magic or the scale of the journey” that concerns him, but “that detail of how [his] mother could know when exactly [he] would arrive in that other country. And if she would be there.”

He is assigned Table 76 for all of his meals: “the cat’s table…the least privileged place,” far across the dining room from the desired Captain’s Table. There he meets two other boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, as well as an eclectic group of eccentric and fascinating adults who help him to pass the time as the ship sails across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and finally to the coast of England where a new journey awaits him.

Michael discovers a cousin on board, the beautiful and elusive Emily who becomes his confidant, as well as the mysterious night walks of a shackled prisoner that he witnesses with Rahmadhin and Cassius while they are hiding in the darkness near one of the lifeboats and one evening “it was as if he was conscious of us there, that he had picked up our scent…He gave a loud growl and turned away.” Breaking curfew, the boys smoke piece by piece a cane chair on a forbidden deck, slide into the swimming pool, float on their backs and feel as though they are “swimming in the sea, rather than a walled-in pool in the middle of the ocean.”

One morning Michael is persuaded by a man known to him as Baron C. to help with a project. That project involves being greased in black oil and slithering through little barred windows of other passengers’ cabins in order to open the door for Baron C. to pillage valuables. It is during one of these excursions that Michael catches sight of himself in a mirror: “the first reflection or portrait that I remember…the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years—someone startled, half formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet.” In the blink-of-an-eye I can conjure a similar moment for myself as I’m sure you can as well. It is paragraphs such as this one that reminded me of Coetzee’s little novel YOUTH. You wouldn’t be amiss in comparing the two men of letters there.

One of the great charms of this story is the interspersed and seemingly random snippets of overheard conversation that Michael dutifully records in school examination booklets he carries with him:

“I thought she was a blue-stocking, at first.”
“Pickpockets come out during a storm.”
“I told your husband when he offered me a three-day-old oyster that it was more dangerous to me than having a sexual act when I was seventeen.”
“Trust me—you can swallow strychnine as long as you don’t chew it.

Though, I did wonder how an eleven-year-old could puzzle out the correct spelling for strychnine.

Those who are already committed Ondaatje fans will delight in THE CAT’S TABLE and those who are new to this Booker-Prize winning author and accomplished poet will find eleven-year-old Michael’s voyage between the two worlds of his youth an enchanting one.

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