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.