"THE CAT'S TABLE." By Michael Ondaatje. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.
Eleven-year-old Michael has no expectations for his three-week journey from Ceylon to England, where he will attend a new school. His uncle and aunt, whom he lives with, do not make a big deal about it. He's not given any advance details about the ship he'll be on, doesn't know how big it is or how many passengers it will hold. He doesn't even know that his distant cousin Emily will be aboard. All he knows, really, is that he is supposed to meet his mother when the ship finally docks, and he wonders if she will be there.
In "The Cat's Table," which reads like a memoir but isn't, Michael Ondaatje, author of the Booker-Prize winning novel "The English Patient," takes his readers on a journey back into childhood, that mystifying time when we were aware of the grown-ups around us, interacted with them and examined them, and yet we really were oblivious to so many things, almost blind to the realities before us that we didn't have the ability to understand.
The ship, with its seven decks and more than 600 passengers, is a microcosm of society. There are first-class travelers, ship workers, entertainers, scholars and even a prisoner. Michael finds himself, along with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, at the bottom of the social ladder, assigned to the dining table farthest away from the prestigious Captain's Table. This "Cat's Table" of diverse travelers becomes the nucleus of his new life at sea.
The three boys, though different in temperament, bond in their shared curiosity. Together, they befriend the ship's boisterous piano player, Mr. Mazappa, who teaches them lessons about life and music. Mr. Daniels, a botanist, takes them into the bowels of the ship where he has an exotic garden growing. The boys stay up late and hide on deck, waiting for a glimpse of the prisoner when he is brought out for air.
In the early morning, they scurry onto the First Class deck and slip into the pool. Then they start waking up even earlier to watch a girl on roller skates as she laps the deck 50 or 60 times.
They are spies, reporting only to each other. They start to see Emily in clandestine meetings with the Hyderabad Mind, one of the entertainers in what is called the Jankla Troupe.
Ondaatje is a patient and poetic storyteller. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn important details about Michael's life after the voyage. These contextual pieces are laid out bit by bit. We learn that Michael is now grown up and has children. We learn that he continued his friendship with Ramadhin and became close to his sister and their family.
The narrative becomes two-fold. On one hand, we continue to see events through the eyes of the innocent 11-year-old Michael. But we also simultaneously begin to see a bigger picture. Ondaatje creates a gradual sense of darkness and gloom, a context that tells the reader that something went terribly awry on that voyage. The surprising truth slowly unveils itself to the reader, just as it slowly unveils itself to Michael, who discovers only in his adulthood what really happened on that ship.
The ship, it turns out, is a metaphor for childhood itself. During that time, we move forward, but not of our own volition. We are, in many respects, simply along for the ride. As adults, it is difficult to remember what that was like. And at the start of this literary work, in fact, Ondaatje writes in the third person about Michael for a few pages "I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was." He then switches to a first-person narration, which he stays in for the rest of the book.
Ondaatje's novel also reminds us that our life's journey is often shaped by strangers, just as Michael's life was forever changed by and connected to the events of this 1950s trip. This constant shifting of life's course continues long past our childhood. As Michael says, remembering his shipmates, "it would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat's Tables of my life, who would alter me."
-- Catherine Mallette