Michael Ondaatje (2012) The Cat’s Table Vintage, London; 384 pp.; ISBN 978-0-09955443-1 (originally published in 2011)
In 1954, eleven year old Michael is put on the Oronsay in Colombo to sail to a new life in London where his mother has been living for several years. This story is an account of the boy’s experiences on that voyage, with some shifts in time to later years when the meanings of some events are clarified or relationships forged on the ship develop in diverse ways. Although the main character carries the author’s name and the journey parallels one taken by the author, Ondaatje has a disclaimer at the end saying that this is all fiction. Well, as much as any self-reflecting novel can be, I suspect.
Michael Ondaatje is a prolific poet as well as a novelist and his writing is considered and evocative. He does an excellent job of seeing the world from the point of view of young Michael and of depicting the boyhood friendship between Michael and his comrades in mayhem, Cassius and Ramadhin. Because much of the world is still new to us at that stage, childhood perceptions are vivid and carry a sense of hidden depths that we tend to lose as we get older. Some things only make sense in retrospect and quite a lot never makes sense at all.
The three boys are unsupervised and quickly explore the ship, even venturing into the forbidden world of first class in the wee hours of the morning. Their days are a mix of carefree play, testing their skills, learning facts and fictions from their fellow passengers and trying to work out some of the undercurrents among the odd array of travellers. There is a nice dichotomy between the delicious wantonness of childhood and a growing sense of how the world is ordered and the motivations that drive people. The futures of the three boys are also emerging: Michael scribbles notes and snatches of conversations in his exercise books and will become a writer; Cassius is observant and contrarian and will become a well-known ‘bad boy’ artist; and Ramadhin, the one whom the others seek out for sensible advice, enters a profession where logic and order rule.
The boys are placed on dining table 76, the furthest away from the captain’s table and thus the lowest in status. Miss Lasqueti, a woman the boys find increasingly intriguing and mysterious, calls it the ‘cat’s table’ and the name sticks. The table has an assortment of characters, each with their own history, and the boys learn a lot about the world from engaging with them. There is also 17 year old Emily, Michael’s distant cousin, who sits elsewhere but who remains an object of interest and source of counsel for Michael.
The boys discover there is a prisoner on board who is taken on late night walks along the decks. He is being shadowed by an army officer and an undercover policeman. The former is highly visible but the identity of the latter is a source of much gossip. The prisoner is linked to a troupe of acrobats and performers on the ship. One of the troupe befriends Emily, as does another girl with her own connection to the convict. As the ship sails from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, the web of intrigue surrounding the prisoner gets more dramatic and comes to a climax that will change the boys’ perceptions of each other and Michael’s view of Emily for the remainder of their lives.
Ships of the Orient Line (later P&O), including the Oronsay, were well known in the three decades after World War II as they transported many migrants to and from Britain and its former colonies, and also captured the early rise of mass tourism at a time when air travel remained a luxury. The captain of this Oronsay has a dislike of his Asian passengers and the young Michael wonders how some of these people will fare in the sometimes unwelcoming cold reality of an England that until now has been an obscure object of pleasant desire. Many migrants thrive, but the shift of home always leaves some adrift.
The boys are fascinated by powerful figures on the ship, especially the captain and Sir Hector de Silva, a wealth philanthropist. But as they watch and encounter these men they realise that those far from power – the denizens of the cat’s table – are far more interesting and admirable individuals. It is a lesson that Michael holds to throughout his life.
Michael and Cassius never meet again after this voyage and this is due in part to the two deaths – and a third assumed death – that occur on the ship. Michael retains a close relationship with Ramadhin but it eventually leads to a complexity and tragedy that the boys in their untroubled youth could not have foreseen. Other characters disappear or remain as echoes in the conversations of others. Only Emily is a constant, but as youth transacts into age the old spell is broken.
This is an enjoyable novel with a rich assortment of people and sub-plots. It is nostalgic, but in a way that shows how much of our youth shapes our lives and characters in unexpected and unpredictable ways.