The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje, McClelland & Stewart, hard cover $32.
Give Michael Ondaatje credit for not repeating himself. In nearly every book of prose and poetry in his four-decade-plus career, the Toronto-based writer with an enviable international reputation has attempted something differently. Most admirably, he’s never written another The English Patient.
He hasn’t this time either. The Cat’s Table has a different pace, a different approach to story telling and, to my ear, even a different sentence construction than his previous big novels. I’m not even sure if The Cat’s Table counts as a “big novel,” it is such a deceptively casual read compared to some (but not all) of his earlier prose works. It’s also one of his best.
The entire story is delivered in a series of short chapters from one to a dozen pages long. Each delivers a concise episode in the life, thoughts or future of an 8-year-old boy who in the 1940s takes a three-week trip by ship from his home in what is now Sri Lanka to England without his parents. On board he joins up with two other South Asian lads, Cassius and Ramadhin, who call him Mynah. They also form alliances with assorted eccentric adults, most of whom take their meals with the boys at the table furthest from the captain’s — at the “cat’s table” of the title.
Freed from adult supervision, the boys of course have the time of their lives, basically running amuck, spying on the ship’s passengers and crew, investigating the remote corners of the ship, and playing tricks — one of which has fatal, if bizarre and somewhat comical, consequences.
The story grows slowly. Each episode through the first half of the novel helps build our picture of the boys’ world, their individual characters, and the older people of both sexes they meet. Potential intrigues and human mysteries start suggesting themselves. The pages start turning more quickly. Then as the ship moves through the Indian Ocean and into the Suez Canal, the flash-forwards begin. The men who the boys become, their loves, and other figures from their ship adventure appear in different relationships in the days to come.
A major plot line involves a prisoner, a convicted murderer, who is brought up to the deck occasionally in chains leading to all sorts of delicious speculation by the imaginative boys.
On some level Ondaatje has always dealt with the clash and blend of cultures in his work — but not just the kind you might suppose from his recent forays into characters with South Asian backgrounds. He picks at all the fine distinctions between people of different class backgrounds, different professional milieus, different kinds of families — and, as in The Cat’s Table, different ages, natural aptitudes and different statuses as seen through the eyes of youth and maturity.
But this novel is not nearly as heavy as that sounds. The style is direct with relatively short sentences and paragraphs delivering, usually in the first-person voice of Mynah, seemingly innocent, minor observations that nonetheless reverberate emotionally. And in the course of reading, as the small details accumulate they form a chorded background against which the lives are played out.
In my view The Cat’s Table returns Ondaatje to his much earlier, most accessible work like Coming Through Slaughter or In the Skin of a Lion, but at a higher artistic level — the level of the clichéd “art that hides art.” It’s like he’s taken a step back, or sideways, in order to move ahead, a little more accepting of life’s twists now, a little wiser.
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