Today is Michael Ondaatje’s 72nd birthday. He is best known for The English Patient, but I’m posting my review of his most recent book.
Review of The Cat’s Table
In 1954 an eleven-year-old named Michael takes a 21-day sea voyage from Ceylon to England. He joins two other young boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, in exploring the ship.
For meals the three boys are seated at the cat's table, the least privileged place most opposite the captain's table, but "What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power" (75). From a position of obscurity, the lives of others can be observed: the boys "witness the fragmentary tableaux" (128) around them. By snooping and eavesdropping, the boys encounter the interesting and the important: "So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement" (129),
Aboard the ship, the boys are "for the first time by necessity in close quarters with adults" (27). They are befriended by a coterie of colourful, quirky characters who give them glimpses of the adult world and provide them with lessons in music, literature, biology, history, and life. The encounters with adults expose them to friendship, longing, dishonesty, secrecy, and sorrow.
The book is not just a memoir of a boyhood adventure. It is a coming-of-age story. The trip is a metaphor of Michael's rebirth; the Suez Canal which connects the west and the east can easily be seen as a birth canal between childhood and adulthood. Michael may be "startled, half formed" (84) but he tries "to understand and piece together the adult world, wondering what was going on there, and why" (27). Passing strangers help him in ways he does not fully understand until adulthood.
As a pre-adolescent on the sea voyage, Michael takes on the role of a careful observer. This role serves him well in his adult life and career; he becomes a writer
According to Ondaatje, "the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography" (267). It seems he has returned to his own sea voyage from Ceylon to England and has parlayed it into a book to convey themes about the benefits of the overlooked position and hindsight.