01 March 2012

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

A memorable journey
This is the story of a sea voyage from Sri Lanka to Britain, told by one of its passengers, looking back to his time on it as a young boy with two other boys of the same age. It’s a story filled with every element of drama – not just the usual seaboard romance and idle crime but such delicious features as terrifying illness, a mysterious prisoner, an intense young woman with a disability that turns out to play an essential role in the plot, a terrible storm that causes danger to the children and results in mayhem on board, an exotic herb garden that could bring the passengers intoxication – or even worse … and too many more to list here.
But this book is not all masala. I would read it over again for the way its language and imagery wash over your emotions and intellect. Here, as an example, is a small description of what the boys saw at Aden Market when they (slyly) went ashore:
I was used to the lush chaos of Colombo’s Pettah market, that smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut (a throat-catching odour), and mangosteens, and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall. Here was a sterner world, with fewer luxuries. There was no overripe fruit in the gutters. There were in fact no gutters. It was a dusty landscape, as if water had not been invented. The only liquid was the cup of dark tea offered us by the carpet salesman, along with a delicious, permanently remembered almond sweet. Even if this was a harbour city, the air held hardly a particle of dampness. You had to look closely, for what might be buried away in a pocket – a petite vial of oil for a woman’s hair, folded within paper, or a chisel wrapped in oilcloth to protect its blade form the dust in the air.
Each short chapter offers vignettes: a look at the different characters, new angles, thoughts and insights. They hang well together and build together to form a powerful story. I was particularly impressed because Michael Ondaatje’s last book, Divisadero, was so bad – neither well written, nor interesting, nor, to my mind, any sort of redeeming feature.

In a book about childhood memories, one of the most critical attributes is the difference between what the child actually experienced and the perspective of the adult telling the story, and there is a brilliant balance between the two in this book. In the privileged position of being invisible to ship officials such as the Purser, the Head Steward, and the Captain, the boys learn about life. There’s an Australian woman they watch carefully, observing that none of the female members of their families behaved this way. Why is their table called the Cat’s Table? They discover that each one on it has an interesting reason for the journey – even if unspoken, or as yet undiscovered.

Yet, the table’s status was minimal while those at the Captain’s Table were constantly toasting one another’s significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.
They experience total independence, smoking twigs broken off from a cane chair that they lit and sucked at. (Because of his asthma Ramadhin was not enthusiastic about this, but Cassius was eager that they should try to smoke the whole chair before the end of our journey.)
Most interesting of all is that our narrator’s name is Michael. So is this a true story of his own journey from childhood to adolescence? There’s a disclaimer at the end. And yet – in the author’s list of ‘thank-yous’, there are indications that much is rooted in reality.
It’s nice to wonder.

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