The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

If there was a short list of “love ‘em or leave ‘em” Canadian authors, I am pretty sure Michael Ondaatje would be joining Margaret Atwood at the head of the list. Both have their passionate defenders (and prizes to show their worth); both have their implacable critics (don’t ask Mrs. KfC what she thinks of Atwood). I am in the middle of both debates. Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is for me a major work of significant value and much of Atwood’s early work also rates — but I have moved to the “over-rated” side of the argument with the last few works from both authors. Without giving too much away in the first paragraph of this review, I’d say The Cat’s Table has pulled me back to the positive side of neutral as far as Ondaatje is concerned.

While the narrator is now an older adult, the central story of The Cat’s Table concerns his 11-year-old self who boards a ship in Colombo, Ceylon (a couple of decades before it became Sri Lanka), headed for public school in England. That scenario has some obvious autobiographical references for Ondaatje, so let’s deal with that first by reproducing his Author’s Note from the end of the book:

Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional — from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator. And while there was a ship named the Oronsay (there were in fact several Oronsays), the ship in the novel is an imagined rendering.

If you are one who has been following this year’s Man Booker Prize, that description is going to raise comparisons with Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and I would say those comparisons are entirely fair. Like the Barnes, this too is a novel of reminiscence, an adult quietly but deliberately looking back on how a specific period in his youth permanently influenced his life.

To establish a sense of Ondaatje’s narrative voice, here is an excerpt from the opening pages as his narrator boards the ship headed to England from Colombo:

He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet — nothing ahead of him existed — and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there.

The young narrator is on his way to England where he will be met by his mother, estranged from his Ceylonese father for some years (how will she recognize him when he arrives, he wonders), but first there is the lengthy voyage across the Indian Ocean, up the Gulf to the Suez, across the Mediterranean and finally on to the Mother Country. It is a new life to be lived with this weeks-long, floating “world” as its transition, its onboard “home office” aptly captured by “the Cat’s table” which supplies the novel’s title.

It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another, although I recognized Cassius had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him.

The cat’s table on the boat doesn’t only feature the boys. Mr. Mazappa is also there — he plays the piano with the ship’s orchestra and gives piano lessons in the afternoon. Another “person of interest” is Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who is doing safety research on the boat and has the run of the ship which the three boys will exploit to good effect. And there is a botanist and a tailor — in the “world” of the voyage, each of these characters will have a role. Also on the boat but travelling in first class and hence not a regular at the table is the narrator’s beautiful cousin, Emily, and a friend of his family who is nominally his chaperone for the voyage, although her cabin is several decks above his.

The contained world of the voyage will occupy most of the first half of The Cat’s Table and, given that not much happens in this book (smuggling a dog on board is a major plot development), I won’t be offering any spoilers. In true Ondaatje fashion, he brings to life this contained cast and creates his own version of “drama” as the Oronsay moves toward the United Kingdom and the narrator’s new life. There are a series of set pieces that are as rewarding as any I have read this year as Ondaatje engages the story-telling side of his tool-kit.

Story-telling is only part of his kit, however. It has been a feature of the author’s recent work, particularly in his last novel, Divisadero, that it takes a dramatic narrative turn midway through the volume and the author begins, almost literally, a different book. That happens in The Cat’s Table, although with much less of the disruption than I found in Divisadero. Once Ondaatje has established the onboard characters and the narrator’s attachment to them, the novel moves more and more into how this voyage and the people whom he met on it have influenced the rest of his life.

Again, not much happens (if you want “action” in your reading, this is not a book for you) and I don’t want to spoil. But I do have to say that the latter half of the novel had me completely enrolled as the narrator looked back on how this sea voyage had sowed the seeds for the rest of his life.

The resulting picture is ephemeral and incomplete — in visual terms, it is Impressionist, not realist. Ondaatje only gives us some elements; the reader needs to fill in the missing gaps, with the help of the background provided in the first half of the book. Inevitably, as is true of any “memory” novel, some aspects simply cannot be explained or have been distorted in the narrator’s mind. Normally, I don’t like to supply quotes from late in the book, but I will make an exception in this case since I do think it frames the entire book without giving anything away. It occurs as the Oronsay lands in the United Kingdom:

As soon as I reached the foot of the gangplank I lost sight of Cassius and Ramadhin. A few seconds had passed and we were separated, lost from each other. There was no last glance or even realization that this had happened. And after all the vast seas we were not able to find one another again in that unpainted terminal building on the Thames. Instead, we were making our way through the large crowd nervously, uncertain as to wherever it was that we were going.

The Cat’s Table does not so much tell a story (although it does do that as well) as sketch the outlines of another one — for me, the best part of it was the way that it set my mind rolling on similar aspects of my own history and encouraged me to fill in those gaps. That is a substantial accomplishment for any novel. Certainly, I was in the right frame of mind for it (and I won’t be fighting any reader who finds this novel too unfocused to meet their needs) — for this reader, The Cat’s Table was a most rewarding achievement.

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35 Responses to “The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    The positive side of neutral? Not sure how much of an endorsement that is?

    So what does mrs KFC thnk of Atwood?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Guy: That’s the overall Ondaatje rating (he was in quite negative territory after Divisadero). This one was quite good. A Booker jury that was more inclined towards thoughtful novels (it was eligible for this year’s Prize) could easily have included it on their longlist.

      • Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

        I thought Divisadero was awful. So bad, in fact, that I am sadly reluctant to read any new titles of his. And this review, though on the positive side, doesn’t change my mind. Sadly, Ondaatje and Ian McEwan (another one of my “fallen-out-of-favour” favourites) seem to have lost their mojo. At leat Margaret Laurence had the good sense to know when to stop, going out full guns blazing with The Diviners.

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          This one is definitely better than Divisadero, although I share you frustration. Check out Kimbofo’s review — I think she captured some aspects of the book that I did not address in my review.

  2. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Mrs KFC (that would be me) thinks Margaret Atwood is a highly overrated, and extremely sef-regarding author whose best work was completed 20 years ago.
    She thinks Alice Munro is wonderful – a Canadian icon, ditto Margaret Laurence. .

    • Brett Says:

      It would appear that Mrs KfC is not alone in her opinion of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. What a luxury that we have so many fine writers in Canada that we can engage in such a discussion!

    • Guy Savage Says:

      I’ve really liked some of Atwood’s short stories (I have a couple of collections here), but that’s been it.

    • kimbofo Says:

      I’m glad to hear that. I’ve tried two Atwoods and liked them, but didn’t think they were anything special. I wondered perhaps if it was just me…

    • Lee Monks Says:

      I completely agree: Atwood is of no interest whereas Munro is a genius. Too Much Happiness has moments of such vividly brilliant observation as to be slightly scary at times.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, done Mrs. KfC. I may have to return to an early Atwood after Giller reading is done so that this debate can be taken up in full.

    • emilyluxor Says:

      Hi all,

      I appreciate your observations on Atwood and Munro. I adore Alice Munro so it’s good to find myself in your company, on this blog! But I have to say, ‘Alias Grace’ was so finely written, to me it didn’t seem like an Atwood novel. It seemed effortless, whereas most of Atwood’s novels seem to be overwrought and certainly overthought. So perhaps the 20 year limit could be moved up to 15 or so?

      • RickP Says:

        Back to Atwood/Munro. This is where I show my lack of depth in some areas. After a long hiatus, I returned to reading literature about 5 years ago so I’m a little behind.

        I’ve only read the Blind Assassin by Atwood. I’ve only read The Progress of Love and Runaway by Alice Munro.

        I have high regard for the Atwood book. I didn’t care for The Progress of Love . I very much loved Runaway.

        I’ll need more Atwood and Munro data before really forming an opinion.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I should note that Peggy does have a book out this October (In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination), essays on speculative/science fiction. That’s where she and I parted ways.

      Rick: I also thought The Progress of Love was one of Munro’s weaker collections, so don’t give up on her.

      • Kate, Sydney Says:

        I have also had to part ways reluctantly with Margaret Atwood since she started writing her futuristic novels. I thought her brilliant with The Robber’s Bride, Alias Grace and Cat’s Eye but….. I have also recently discovered Margaret Laurence and agree with Mrs Kfc. She is very, very good.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      I agree about Margaret Laurence, Mrs KfC. I think I have only read one (The Diviners) but I suspect her books are consistently good.

      I have only read one Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, which I liked very much) but I started her last one and was too annoyed by page 3 or 4 to continue.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, you might be interested in this review/feature on The Cat’s Table in the Irish Times http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2011/0908/1224303692594.html

  4. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve only read Anil’s Ghost so I’m no Ondaatje expert but I thought that was excellent and I’d like to read more by him. I lived in Sri Lanka for 4 years as a teenager so I think that’s what drew me to his most overtly “Sri Lankan” book as a starting point.

    I’m not that drawn to this or Divisadero, but In the Skin of A Lion, Coming through Slaughter and The English Patient are all on the list.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I thought Anil’s Ghost was fine, but didn’t rave over it. I do think In the Skin of a Lion is one of the best novels I have read about how Canada came to be (the “concrete” image in the book is the construction of the Bloor Street viaduct in Toronto) — and its focus on the working and immigrant class is something that is very timely. If you lived in Sri Lanka (I opted to use Ceylon in my review since that was what it was called in the time the novel is set — and I think the imperialist overtones are quite relevant), I would certainly recommend this novel. Just as the Irish are a “displaced” people in some ways, this book has overtones of that — I think you will also find the way that Ondaatje builds Michael’s personal “community” of friends on the ship, and through life, a worthwhile reading venture. The book is not quite as good as Lion but it would be a close second choice on my Ondaatje list.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      The only Ondaatje I have (tried to) read was Anil’s Ghost and I gave up on it as I didn’t like the way the story was told. I tend to reject books where the author tells me about how the characters feel or what they think. I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment of Anil’s Ghost, as it’s been a while since I tried it. I will certainly give this latest offering a try though.

  6. Isabel Says:

    I received an ARC at the American Library Association meeting and am not finished yet.

    What I find amazing is that many children were sent on such a long voyage by themselves, without supervision! A pedophile would have enjoyed such a journey.

    And that the auntie who is supposed to be looking after the boy barely has any time to be bothered with him.

    I am still at the part where the ship is crossing the Suez Canal, so I can’t give any more comments.

    I liked the “English Patient” novel better than the movie. I couldn’t finish “Coming Through the Slaughter”; it felt disconnected. I haven’t read anything else by him.

  7. marco Says:

    I loved In The Skin of A Lion. It definitely was one of my Desert Island Books for a time. After that I read his books more or less in reverse order of publication : Coming Through Slaughter, Running In The Family, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the poetry collection There’s a Trick With A Knife I’m Learning To Do . All brilliant, though of course Slaughter and Billy (are meant to) have a more jagged feel than Lion.
    The English Patient was the first bump in the road, Anil’s Ghost unsatisfying, Divisadero still lies unread in my Tbr for fear of further disappointment.

    @leroyhunter

    You might also be interested in Running in the Family , a “fictionalized memoir” about his family and childhood in Sri Lanka.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: For me Divisadero was two books. The first half was very good but just when Ondaatje had me interested in all the characters, he abandoned them and went somewhere completely different for the second half of the book. For me, the “shift” is this book was much more effective as the older narrator moves deeper into his life.

  9. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’ve only read two by Ondaatje and loved them both! The Skin of a Lion (see http://wp.me/phTIP-1KD) was brilliant and I’ve just read The English Patient (http://wp.me/phTIP-37R) with plans to read more by this amazing author.
    But Atwood? Based on what you say, I am almost afraid to read any more of her books now in case I’m disappointed! I’ve read 6 Atwoods starting with The Handmaid’s Tale and liked them all, though the only one I’ve reviewed on my blog is Cat’s Eye. (http://wp.me/phTIP-1dw). Perhaps she is like Iris Murdoch who refused to be edited as her success grew – and her later novels are the poorer for it?

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: My problem with her work started with The Handmaid’s Tale, although the two after that (The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace) were a return to form. I am not a fan of speculative fiction and dystopian worlds — Atwood is now preoccupied by it and has become increasingly political and polemical, using her writing as part of a broader agenda which doesn’t interest me very much. I don’t think the issue is lack of editing as much as it is a dramatic change in focus. And I should note that her last two works (which I did not even attempt) do have their fans.

  11. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’m with you there on speculative fiction, Kevin, I don’t like it much either. But for me, The Handmaid’s Tale transcended its genre and was eerily prophetic when we realised what had happened to women under the Taliban.
    I have had Alias Grace on my TBR for far too long – I’ll have to get to it one day!

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Commenting on real world issues such as the Taliban treatment of women is pretty much what speculative fiction does. That’s the point of it in large part.

    I remember Linda Grant once saying on twitter how something wasn’t sf because it was really about our world. It was an odd comment. Some sf is about made up futures, but plenty is only about that on the surface and underneath isn’t about the future at all.

    Still, not that I plan to defend Atwood. A sniffy writer who looks down on the genre she’s part of. Her whole redefinition of herself as someone who writes speculative fiction, not science fiction, is just embarassing. It seems odd to choose to write in a genre and then pretend not to.

    On Munro I was talking about the 1980 Booker shortlist recently and I noticed that Alice Munro was on it. Given how strong that year’s list was, and Kevin’s praise for her, I think I need to reconsider Munro. Where would you suggest starting Kevin?

  13. Lisa Hill Says:

    I don’t want comment on the definition of speculative v science fiction because it appears that the only books I’ve read in such genres are Atwoods, Asimov’s Foundation and The Stepford Wives. I don’t know enough about it. However The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 well before the Taliban began their rule in Afghanistan in 1996 and took women back to the Dark Ages. And while the Islamic Revolution in Iran took place in 1979 and its ideology opposes equality of the sexes and reversed many civil rights, women are not wholly excluded from public life and can still attend university and work in the civil service and elsewhere. Even in Saudi Arabia which is more repressive, women are allowed to attend school and go to work. So if Atwood was commenting on real world issues in 1985 she was drawing a long bow…

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Not necessarily that long. The Taliban are just one manifestation of an age-old desire to control women. I didn’t have the impression Atwood was writing about a specific example of a group in our world, but I very much had the impression she was nonetheless writing about our world through an SFnal mirror – and that’s far from an unusual thing to do. The Taliban were just another (admittedly unusually extreme) manifestation of a wider and much older phenomenon.

    The Stepford Wives similarly uses SF (Levin wrote a fair bit of it) to hold a mirror up to the real world.

    Foundation though, that really is just about a made-up future.

  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oops, accidentally repeated myself in that post. Sorry.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Lisa: I’ll leave the SF debate to you two — any comments that I would make would have the definite advantage of not being affected by actual experience. I do agree with Max however that Atwood seems to want to deny what it is that she is actually writing.

  17. marco Says:

    The Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by a visit to Afghanistan in 1978; under traditional custom the life of women in poor rural areas wasn’t much different from now.

    While The Handmaid’s Tale may be seen as a response to the conservative backlash against feminism as well as the rise of the Religious Right in the early 80s, it doesn’t add much to the table with respect to the exploration of gender themes advanced by authors like Russ, Tiptree Jr, Charnas, Piercy, Haden Elgin during the great season of Feminist Science Fiction in the 70s.

  18. Buried In Print Says:

    Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. And it looks like a great conversation about other Canlit icons that I missed because I was avoiding Michael Ondaatje’s latest. And for no good reason, as it turns out. I’d heard a lot of ‘meh’ and some outright disappointment, so I approached it with caution; but I’ve finished it at last, and I enjoyed it almost as much as I enjoyed In the Skin of a Lion. Although that was my first of his, and so has a special glimmer of nostalgia in my reader’s experience. (My thoughts are here if you’re interested.)

  19. Shawna Says:

    I finally found some time to read a book! Thank you for this review, Kevin, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and the subsequent discussion about Canadian literature that took place in the comments. I haven’t read Divisadero (not for any good reason, I just didn’t get to it) and am thinking now that I might just skip it altogether because I quite like all the other Ondaatje books that I’ve read, including this one.

    I found it interesting that you mentioned the lack of action in the book because until you pointed it out I hadn’t really realized that it wasn’t there. I think I found the characters and the little stories in this book rich enough that it distracted me from the lack of action.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Two years after reading, I would say that memory brings back certain scenes quite vividly, along with the overall sense of the journey. I do think the strength of the novel lies in the way that Ondaatje uses it to compile a collection of experiences as part of the maturing process — and I also think that is biographical, although it hardly matters.

      As for Divisadero, I would certainly say that it can be safely skipped, unless you are an Ondaatje completest.

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