The Joy of Adventure Told by a Master Craftsman
Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table: An Indigo Review
A Beautiful Adventure
Michael Ondaatje. The guy is no slouch, let’s be honest. Put aside the 13 books of poetry he has written and ignore his best known work, The English Patient, for a moment and just take a look at its follow-up, Anil's Ghost. It won the 2000 Giller Prize, the Prix Médicis, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, the 2001 Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Award. For a mere mortal of a writer to have one book win that many accolades would probably be enough. But then Ondaatje, of course, also won the Booker and another Governor General’s, amongst numerous other awards, and those just for The English Patient, an international bestseller that went on to be translated to the screen and win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And again, this from a guy who is as much a novelist as he is an award winning poet.
But a name this big, with credentials this long, and with previous works so lyrical as to even make Toronto’s Bloor viaduct a thing of poetry and beauty (see In The Skin of a Lion), it can be intimidating. While captivating and often stunning to some readers, works like The English Patient can come across somewhat abstract, with plots that aren’t Hollywood formula easy to follow, with stories not necessarily unfolding in simple chronological order, at times leading some readers to find it hard to ground themselves in time and space. It is to that point that his latest novel, his sixth, comes as such a refreshingly accessible surprise. The Cat's Table is easy to follow, you always know where the characters are and what’s going on. A big part of that clarity, of that almost childlike simplicity, perhaps, is thanks to the story being told from the perspective of an 11 year-old boy, or at least, of a man looking back at his adventures and experiences of a three week journey he took in the 1950s when he was 11.
The boy, whose name like his creator’s happens to be Michael, is traveling on a ship from Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) to England where his mother is waiting for him. The best moments in the book take place on that ship, named the Oronsay, and good thing too considering this is where the majority of Ondaatje’s tale unfolds. Mostly this is the story of the various characters Michael and his two young friends meet on the ship, particularly those that sit with them each meal in the ship’s dining hall at the “cat’s table,” a term Michael learns, or at least this fictional Michael learns, from one of the adults at the less than desirable table, number 76, they are to sit at for all three meal of all three weeks of their long journey across so many seas.
In reality, the cat’s table, which Ondaatje explained just recently to host Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s radio program, “Q,” is a German phrase, apparently, referring to the least desirable place to sit in a room, for example, the table nearest the kitchen or bathroom. In the novel, the cat’s table is the one furthest from the Captain’s table, where kids like Michael and his two friends sit, as well as grownup ne’er-do-wells, like Mr. Mazappa, a musician who goes by the stage name Sunny Meadows, and Miss Lasqueti, who spends most of her time sitting around the ship’s pool reading detective novels only to then, on finishing their last pages, toss them overboard in disgust. Mr. Mazappa and Miss Lasqueti like to sneak off together between dinner courses to smoke cigarettes outside the dining hall on the ship’s deck. Miss Lasqueti is also noted for telling “ribald” jokes and for supposedly elbowing Michael’s friend, Cassius, in the crotch, or so the young boy tells his friends.
To that end, the cat’s table is also, as one character puts it, the most interesting place to be. Ondaatje explained on “Q,” that a famous person once told him that the head table is the worst place to sit at a given event. That’s where all the dignitaries are put and being in their finery remain all buttoned up, extra careful of what they can and cannot say. In other words, there’s nothing interesting said at their table at all.
In rather stark contrast to the heavy and often quite challenging abstractions of his previous works of fiction, there is a remarkable lightness to The Cat's Table, the joy of adventure told with the master craftsmanship of a writer at the height of his powers. In returning to elements of his own childhood – while the author has made abundantly clear in interviews and in the book’s afterword that this is not a memoir, there are certainly plenty of autobiographical similarities, including the author’s having traveled by ship as a boy from then Ceylon to England – Ondaatje imbues his latest tale with a terrific energy, particularly through the first half of this slim novel when Michael and his two friends, the “exuberant” Cassius and the “quiet” Ramadhin, explore the ship and get into all kinds of mischief. You could say there is something of a cat’s nature in the three boys’ when it comes to their never ending curiosity. Like kittens unspooling yarn and getting into every cupboard in the kitchen these three boys race up and down the ship in search of adventure and story. And we the reader get swept up in the utter enthusiasm of their escapades.
Despite the potentially confining nature of a novel set almost exclusively on a ship, Ondaatje presents all sorts of intrigue along the way, both in the boys’ discovery of the ship’s various rooms, from the dog kennels below to the captain’s room above, to the parade of characters met, like Michael’s wealthy aunt, Flavia Prins, who is in first class and wants little to do with her nephew. The most interesting character of all, though, at least to the young boys, is the ship’s prisoner. A near mythic character, like something out of a Dickens novel, he is being sent to England to be tried for supposedly killing a judge. The boys stay up late each night to watch at that special moonlit hour when the prisoner is taken on deck for his nightly walk, a walk he is of course forced to do in shackles. Whether those shackles remain in place for the length of the novel is of course a different question.
Despite the aforementioned simplicity and clarity of the storytelling in the The Cat's Table, Ondaatje’s lyrical touch and poetic sensibilities are still certainly held within these pages – spread, in fact, all over them – be it in the assured storytelling or the wonderful choice of detail. When caught misbehaving in the ship’s pool one day, the boys are banned from swimming for three days. This “meant that all we could do was skulk the perimeter, pretending we were about to jump in.” Meanwhile, a bamboo cane wielding school master, Father Barnabus, is so succinctly summed up as a man who “never used words or reason. He just moved dangerously among us.” Perhaps the most elegant touch of all is the quiet confidence evident in the rhythm of Ondaatje’s language, that master class of writer who can pull you so gently from one sentence to the next, making the job of reading so easy (leaving, of course, the heavy lifting, editing, polishing and sweating to the writer).
One hundred and sixteen pages into The Cat's Table, not quite halfway through this wonderfully buoyant work of prose, Ondaatje, the poet, allows himself and his reader four lines of verse. They sit there on the page, at a chapter’s end so spare and strong – there to simply pierce through your heart while somehow embracing your soul.
Broken heart, you
What a small
place to be.
This is a beautiful book. Not perfect, perhaps. Not for everyone, to be sure. But beautiful no doubt.