The Cat’s Table
Knopf, 288 pp.
I love Michael Ondaatje’s work. I haven’t read all of it but several years ago I discovered The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and later, Secular Love, a collection of poetry. Then I found The English Patient and marvelled, yet again, at his superb way with words. He remains a poet-craftsman. Every sentence, every word, is honed to an exact fit and yet seems totally natural and organic. Like John Banville, he also has that way of quite suddenly focusing on a moment that might be passed over and imbuing it with taut meaning. In ‘The Cat’s Table’, for instance, there is an epiphany at a party where the narrator’s wife adjusts the strap of her dress while dancing with another man and it is suddenly clear that the marriage is in trouble. It’s only a simple-seeming gesture and it’s totally convincing.
The Cat’s Table is Ondaatje’s latest novel and it’s probably his most accessible. He reads like a memoir and, indeed, I’m not convinced that at least some parts of are not based in fact.
It’s the 1950s and an eleven-year-old boy, Michael, is traveling, if not alone, then certainly unsupervised, by ship to England where he will meet his mother. Flavia Prins, an older society lady, is to “keep an eye” on him but, in fact, they only meet a couple of times the entire trip. His older cousin Emily is on board but rather than be his supervisor, he becomes her confidante. There are two other boys who become his friends, the frail Ramadhin who is to stay a lifelong friend and the tearaway Cassius. The book comprises the boys’ adventures on the ship and their interaction with their fellow diners at the Cat’s Table -- the table that is at the social antipode of the Captain’s Table. It’s the place where the “insignificant” people dine. Among these people are Max Mazappa, a musican who is given to pronouncements on women; Mr. Daniels who is transporting exotic plants to England; Mr Fonseka, a teacher of literature and Miss Lasqueti and her pigeons. Some figure more prominently than others, but these and other character are all woven into the experiences of the boys. There’s an Australian girl who rollerskates around the deck at dawn, an ailing multimillionaire, a deaf girl. None of these characters, however, read as caricatures and, as I’ve said before, the novel reads more like a memoir than a novel. So I found it a little odd that in the final pages some of the ‘threads’ of the story were pulled together to present a plot. I didn’t feel it was necessary, nor did it add to the book. Really, the stories and the ruminations thereon were enough.
About half way through the book the action moves for a while to a time many years after the events on the boat and the implications of some of the events on the ship take on new significance.
I do realize that there are those who are deeply frustrated by a lack of plot. Actually, most of the negative reviews that I’ve seen of this book mention being unable to finish the book for that very reason. So, caveat emptor.
However, the book is beautifully written -- just gorgeous at times -- and deeply humane and generous. It is compassionate about what is involved in growing up and seems to suggest that it’s a process that lasts a lifetime. I think I agree with that.