Friday, June 1, 2012

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

Cover image from McLelland.com

The Cat's Table (McClelland & Stewart, 2011), portrays a journey taken by an 11-year-old from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England by ship in the early 1950s.

With a motley crew of others, Michael, Cassius and Ramadhin dine at the table farthest from where the Captain presides. Widely divergent characters, the boys spend the voyage together, determined to do "one forbidden thing" each day.

Cassius, the iconoclast who grows up to be a painter, relishes being "one of the insignificants at the Cat's table." The quiet Ramadhin, with his weak heart, smuggles a puppy on board the ship in Aden, and is devastated at the unforeseen disaster that ensues. Michael recognizes in his fellow passenger Mr. Fonseka the "serenity and certainty...only seen in those who have the armour of books close by."

Michael Ondaatje is a poet; like his other books, this novel is full of living imagery, from the "slow-moving aunts...joined at the hip by gossip and status" to the "already evaporating footsteps" of the Australian girl rollerskater who bathes fully dressed in the outdoor shower after her morning workouts.

The novel moves slowly, images piling on one another. Miss Lasqueti angrily flings unfinished novels into the sea and carries pigeons in the cushioned pockets of a specially designed jacket; the silent tailor turns out to be an undercover policeman. Mr. Daniels, the gardener, serves a dinner below decks where the guests are "gently misted" along with the indoor garden. The hot, humid engine room contains curare and other toxic plants, "enough to poison a dictator."

A prisoner who is exercised on deck late every night is said to have killed a judge. The Baron seeks out a thin, athletic boy, and uses this child to help him break into other people's cabins and steal things, then leaves the ship at first landfall with his loot.

"Like any experienced dog," the boys absorb the world around them. They watch different pilots bring the ship through the Suez canal and Gibraltar and up the Thames estuary. By the end of the voyage, the three friends have lost much of their innocence, and shared an experience that has uniquely changed each of them.

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