- The Cat’s Table
- Knopf, 288 pp.
The Voyage Out
In Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, the journey is (quite literally) the destination. Describing events that unfold on a three-week trip on a steamship between Sri Lanka and England, The Cat’s Table is a beautiful, lyrical reflection on a young man’s coming-of-age and his growing perception of himself and the world around him as he embarks on a sea voyage on the ocean liner Oronsay from his home in Colombo to a new life in London.
The “cat’s table” is the place where the least important passengers on the ship are seated during mealtimes—and it’s where the novel’s narrator, eleven-year old Michael (nicknamed Mynah), finds himself seated, alongside the companions who will subtly alter and inform the trajectory of his life. The cat’s table is where he meets his two school-aged companions, Cassius and Ramadhin, with whom he explores every corner of the ship—but it’s also where he meets the men and women whose lives give him his first intriguing glimpse into adulthood: among them the voluble music teacher, Mr. Mazappa; the kindly, gentle tailor, Mr. Gunesekera, and the mysterious Miss Lasqueti, who seems to be a genteel spinster, but whose mannerisms suggest a hidden life that may be much more interesting.
The narrative moves seamlessly back and forth between the events of the journey itself and the reflections of the adult Michael, now a writer living in Canada. (While he drew from his memories to compose the book, comparisons between the narrative and the author’s autobiography, Ondaatje has insisted, are minimal and beside the point.) Written as a series of loosely-connected vignettes, it unfolds at a slow, leisurely pace—much like the pace of the journey itself. As the journey progresses, the pieces and characters introduced in the first sections begin to fall together, drawing together at last only near the novel’s conclusion.
Along the way, however, there are many vignettes that stand out simply for the sheer beauty and sense of wonder that Ondaatje’s words evoke. One moment emerges as the boys explore an entire garden, lush with beautiful and dangerous tropical plants, that is carried deep within the hold of the ship: they are being transported to England by a naturalist, Mr. Daniels, who invites the members of the cat’s table down for a special dinner in that “hollow and mysterious world of the hold.” Another such moment arises as the ship makes its passage through the Suez canal under cover of night, as the three boys force themselves to stay up to watch a “constantly changing world slip past our ship, the darkness various and full of suggestion.”
While the action on the ship draws to a crisis, ultimately the meaning of The Cat’s Table lies in how the events of this three-week tour continues to resonate in the lives of the travelers who were brought together on the Oronsay, even years after the journey has ended. “It was painful to realize that nothing was permanent, even an ocean liner,” muses Mr. Nevil, a member of the cat’s table whose profession is breaking down ships. “But somehow even that was beautiful…because in a breaker’s yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.” Like the transformed ocean liner, The Cat’s Table shows how one formative event in a young boy’s life can be broken down into impressions and experiences, linked to other people’s lives, other people’s experiences, and be reborn as any number of stories—each as meaningful, beautiful, and deeply personal as the last.