…this lovely, shimmering book…is a tender meditation on how a child can be "smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future"…Mr. Ondaatje succeeds so well in capturing the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood…
The New York Times
…mesmerizing…As he did in his great 1992 novel, The English Patient…Ondaatje conjures images that pull strangers into the vivid rooms of his imagination, their detail illumined by his words.
The New York Times Book Review
The feline quality of Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table will appeal to anyone who wants to curl up with a playful novel that can bite…lithe and quietly profound: a tale about the magic of adolescence and the passing strangers who help tip us into adulthood in ways we don't become aware of until much later.
The Washington Post
"Who realizes how contented feral children are?"
In Michael Ondaatje's seventh novel, three boys run unsupervised through paradise, as attracted to evil as it is to them. Hannah Arendt's insight notwithstanding, the evil they encounter turns out to be exotic, not banal. However, because The Cat's Table recounts a 1954 voyage to London from the island formerly known as Ceylon, in an era when an English ship's upper echelons wouldn't have begun to acknowledge cruelties inflicted by racial and social class prejudice, it's hard for the narrator to see that evil exists in any form but that of the institutional: wealthy white passengers and the ship's officers who do their bidding. The title refers to Table 76, where eleven-year-old Michael is assigned to eat, along with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin; a washed-up jazz piano player; a botanist transporting poisonous and medicinal plants; a retired ship dismantler; a silent tailor; and Miss Lasqueti, pale, peculiar, in possession of a laugh "that hinted it had rolled around...in mud."
The Cat's Table is the inverse of the Captain's Table, "the least privileged place." Cassius, who is instinctively democratic -- "I never saw him side with anyone in power" -- embraces the invisibility lack of status endows. No one notices the boys unless they're swimming in the First Class pool or have lashed themselves to the deck to witness a storm and require rescue. So they inhabit shadows and "see through the layers of authority." Secrets unveil themselves. Michael's cousin Emily trysts with a Singhalese magician. A shackled prisoner exercises by moonlight: "He is said to have killed a judge." Even Miss Lasqueti, skeptical about justice as it applies to Ceylon, warns Michael not to romanticize the prisoner: "He's probably not the sweetest chocolate in the box."
These details describe just the frame of the novel. The Cat's Table tells two stories. One is Michael's linear coming-of-age story, which reads, by itself, like a renovated version of "Billy Budd." Embedded within this narrative are scenes that report, in collage fashion, what's happened in London and Canada years after the end of the journey. Many novels contain both a framing story and embedded story, and they generally use separate genre conventions for each -- for instance, the framing story might be subtly realistic and the embedded story mythic, fabulous. The structure of The Cat's Table is unusual, though, in that that both the story about the childhood voyage as well as the story about the adults' later lives in London and Canada are mostly realistic, until the very last pages, when both stories suddenly produce old-fashioned climaxes and revelations.
This sense of realism is more pronounced because Ondaatje's methods blur the line between fiction and memoir. The novel's narrator shares a name with the author, who was raised in Ceylon, and the adult Michael, like the author, lives in Canada and publishes books. Moreover, the prologue begins in the novelistic third person ("[H]e climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life..." ) but abandons this for the more autobiographical first person ("I wonder who he was, this boy...this green grasshopper") and finally narrates in first person from such a temporal distance that the novel reads like one of those memoirs written by a retired British peer ("It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe this voyage...").
And most of the novel mimics life's lack of plot, too. Character sketches seem to accrue in a merely serial way. In life, we travel expecting to meet fellow passengers and part unchanged, and yet we read novels expecting the protagonist to meet fellow passengers and find his future altered by them. The bulk of The Cat's Table avoids this familiar arc. Pending its long-delayed finale, it records charming, ostensibly random scraps of eavesdropping: "I asked him, 'How can it be an aphrodisiac and a laxative?' And he said, 'Well, it's all in the timing.' " Like a classic modernist novel, then, most of The Cat's Table works at resembling the disorderliness of experience, life's accidents and caprices, shunning plot's patterns and purpose. Slow and stately, it seems to sail to a stop, not to fruition. Then the final pages kick in, employing plot contrivances at breakneck speed: thematic accords and previously concealed character interidentities that rival those found in Dickens, and a (melo)dramatic cloak-and-dagger climax achieved by sleight of hand, as well as a potent concoction that induces hypnotized obedience followed by amnesia -- effects as conveniently sequenced as those produced by an aphrodisiac that later works as a laxative.
Old-fashioned plot machinations not only produce a tidy, yet manic climax for the childhood story but for the contemporary story, too, where they strain credulity less elegantly. Ayurvedic medicine can't justify the startling discoveries that take place in London and Canada, or the arrival of an especially implausible letter from a long-lost shipboard acquaintance, a letter so detailed it reads like an excerpt from a Victorian novel. In the final scenes, Michael and Emily hash out the what-must- have-happened like a detective and sidekick, or perhaps a therapist and patient exploring recovered memories.
Quibbles aside, The Cat's Table is a wildly ambitious novel that bravely depicts not just the prosaic, institutionalized version of evil- colonial privilege-but also the moral blindness that sometimes came in its wake, lapses of judgment originating in sympathetic identification with fellow insignificants, the least privileged and most maligned. In fairy tales, captors are evil and victims are virtuous. In life, however, victims have often been schooled in terror, so they're sometimes amoral, willing to sacrifice innocents. Or perhaps any cross-section of humanity includes its portion of sadists. Ondaatje give us a portrait of prejudice -- and a portrait of fatally careless reactions to prejudice, too. He also gives us two sets of storytelling conventions: the most modern and least enchanted storytelling conventions, and the most ancient and magical. If the seam between these modes of storytelling is ragged, even glaringly conspicuous, the seam between a mid-twentieth-century childhood lived in the fragrant garden of Boralesgamuwa and an adult life lived afterward in England and Canada is glaringly conspicuous, as well, a seam closing over a gap between cultures so incompatible that a ship's passage across it isn't a journey leading toward adventure but diminishment. The adult Michael reflects: "Grandeur had not been added to my life...but taken away."
Debra Monroe, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, is the author of four books of fiction and one memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain. Reviewer: Debra Monroe
In Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize–winning The English Patient, an 11-year-old boy sets off on a voyage from Ceylon to London, where his mother awaits. Though Ondaatje tells us firmly in the “Author’s Note” that the story is “pure invention,” the young boy is also called Michael, was also born in Ceylon, and also grows up to become a writer. This air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure: young Michael meets two children of a similar age on the Oronsay, Cassius and Ramadhin, and together the threesome gets up to all kinds of mischief on the ship, with, and at the expense of, an eccentric set of passengers. But it is Michael’s older, beguiling cousin, Emily, also onboard, who allows him glimpses of the man he is to become. As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace, such as in this description of the children having lashed themselves to the deck to experience a particularly violent storm: “our heads were stretched back to try to see how deep the bow would go on its next descent. Our screams unheard, even to each other, even to ourselves, even if the next day our throats were raw from yelling into that hallway of the sea.” (Oct. 7)
From the Publisher
“The Cat’s Table is just as skillfully wrought as Ondaatje’s magnum opus The English Patient, but its picaresque childhood adventure gives it a special power and intimacy . . . He is a master at creating characters, whom he chooses to present, memorably, as individuals. This choice is of a piece with the freshness and originality that are the hallmarks of The Cat’s Table.”
—Wall Street Journal
“A joy and a lark to read . . . Within a few pages of the book’s opening, The Cat’s Table has done a miraculous thing—it has ceased to be a book, or even a piece of art. It is merely a story, unfolding before the reader’s eyes, its churning motor a mystery about what it is exactly that happened on this boat . . . Told in short bursts of exposition so beautiful one actually feels the urge to slow the reading down, the novel shows us how the boy assembles the man.”
“The Cat’s Table is an exquisite example of the richness that can flourish in the gaps between fact and fiction . . . Ondaatje has an eerily precise grasp of the immediacy of a child’s world view, and an extraordinary sense of individual destiny . . . It is an adventure story, it is a meditation on power, memory, art, childhood, love and loss. It displays a technique so formidable as to seem almost playful. It is one of those rare books that one could reread an infinite number of times, and always find something new within its pages.”
—Evening Standard (UK)
“This book is wonderful, offering all the best pleasures of Ondaatje’s writing: his musical prose, up-tempo; his ear for absurd, almost surreal dialogue, which had me laughing out loud in public as I read; his admiration for craftsmanship and specialized language in the sciences and the trades; and his sumptuous evocations of sensual delight . . . In many ways, this book is Ondaatje’s most intimate yet.”
—Globe and Mail (Canada)
“A treasure chest of escapades from a pitch-perfect writer, an immaculate observer of the dance of humans, giving us an intoxicating mix of tenderly rendered boy’s eye perspective and the musings of the older narrator looking back on this intensely formative voyage . . . It is a classic, perfect premise for a novel packed with possibilities. Put it in the hands of one of the most subtle and surprising masters of world writing, Michael Ondaatje, and unalloyed joy lies latent in every sentence and sensuous quirk of the narrative. This is simply blissful storytelling . . . Think the seafaring Joseph Conrad, with an invigorating infusion of Treasure Island, a touch of Mark Twain.”
—The Scotsman (UK)
“Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize–winning The English Patient . . . [An] air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure . . . As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A graceful, closely observed novel that blends coming-of-age tropes with a Conradian sea voyage . . . Beautifully detailed, without a false note: It is easy to imagine, in Ondaatje’s hands, being a passenger in the golden age of transoceanic voyaging, amid a sea of cocktail glasses and overflowing ashtrays, if in this case a setting more worthy of John le Carré than Noel Coward . . . Elegiac, mature, and nostalgic—a fine evocation of childhood, and of days irretrievably past.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Ondaatje is justly recognized as a master of literary craft . . . The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, something of a Dantean experience.”
—Annie Proulx, The Guardian (UK)
“Ondaatje’s wondrous prose feels more alive to the world than ever before . . . This is a simpler story, more simply told, than Ondaatje has accustomed his readers to . . . Yet The Cat’s Table is no less thrilling in its attempts to capture beauty in its various and terrifying forms.”
—Financial Times (UK)
“Richly enjoyable, often very funny, and gleams like a really smart liner on a sunny day . . . The magic of this fine book is in the strange inventiveness of its episodes. Ondaatje is really the master of incident in the novel, and the enchantments wash over the reader in waves . . . The beauty of Ondaatje’s writing is in its swift accuracy; it sings with the simple precision of the gaze.”
—Daily Telegraph (UK)
“The Cat’s Table is Ondaatje’s most accessible, most compelling novel to date. It may also be his finest . . . Ondaatje’s prose is, as always, stunning . . . The Cat’s Table is a breathtaking account not only of boyhood, but of its loss. It is a novel filled with utterly unique characters and situations, but universal in its themes, heartbreakingly so, and a journey the reader will never forget.”
—Vancouver Sun (Canada)
“An eloquent, elegiac tribute to the game of youth and how it shapes what follows . . . One of the strengths of the novel is the sheer brilliance of characterization on show. The bit players on board the Oronsay are almost Dickensian in their eccentricity and lovability . . . In The Cat’s Table, he has not only captured with acute precision the precarious balance of his characters’ existence on the move but also the battle that adults wage for the retention of the awe and wonder they once took for granted in their childhood. Ultimately, Ondaatje has created a beautiful and poetic study hre of what it means to have your very existence metaphorically, as well as literally, all at sea.”
—Independent on Sunday (UK)
“A novel superbly poised between the magic of innocence and the melancholy of experience.”
“Is there a novelist who writes more compellingly about tenderness than Ondaatje? . . . The Cat’s Table is a voyage of discovery for the reader as well as for its narrator. I loved the book, was dazzled by its language, and looked forward to turning each page to learn what would happen next.”
—Montreal Gazette (Canada)
“The Cat’s Table deserves to be recognized for the beauty and poetry of its writing: pages that lull you with their carefully constructed rhythm, sailing you effortlessly from chapter to chapter and leaving you bereft when forced to disembark at the novel’s end.”
—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“So enveloping and beautifully rendered, one is reluctant to disembark at the end of the journey . . . The best novels and poetry possess a kind of bottomlessness: each time a reader revisits a masterful work, she finds something new. Though the ocean journey in The Cat’s Table lasts a mere 21 days, it encapsulates the fullness of a lifetime. This reader will undoubtedly return to it and unearth new treasures from its depths.”
—Quill and Quire (Canada)
"The journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth," says the narrator of his voyage aboard the Oronsay, which carried him through the Indian Ocean to England and his divorced mother. But for 11-year-old Michael, things shift from the moment he is seated at "the cat's table," the least propitious spot in the dining room. Michael enjoys wild escapades with the two other boys at the table, quiet Ramadhin and hell-raiser Cassius, while befriending the mismatched adults at his table as well as his card-playing roommate, who tends the ship's kennels. Others on board include Michael's older cousin Emily, who takes up with the magnetic head of a performing troupe while protecting a deaf and frail-looking girl named Asuntha, and a heavily chained prisoner. The relationship among these four characters precipitates crisis, but we're not led to it systematically; instead, Booker Prize winner Ondaatje (Anil's Ghost) flashes forward to Michael as an adult, showing us how unwittingly we lose our childhood innocence and how that loss comes to affect us much, much later. VERDICT Writing in a less lyrically wrought style than usual, Ondaatje turns in a quietly enthralling work. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/4/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
THE CAT’S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje
He wasn’t talking. He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels. They entered the Fort and the car slipped silently past the post office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, passed St. Anthony’s Church, and after that he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbour, with only a string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.
He could hear the stray dogs that lived on the quays barking out of the darkness. Nearly everything around him was invisible, save for what could be seen under the spray of a few sulphur lanterns—watersiders pulling a procession of baggage wagons, some families huddled together. They were all beginning to walk towards the ship.
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. Stewards began handing out food and cor- dials. He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk. He’d never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya. He was wide awake. The cabin was below the level of the waves, so there was no porthole. He found a switch beside the bed and when he pressed it his head and pillow were suddenly lit by a cone of light.
He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
He woke up, hearing passengers running along the corridor. So he got back into his clothes and left the cabin. Something was happening. Drunken yells filled the night, shouted down by officials. In the middle of B Deck, sailors were attempting to grab hold of the harbour pilot. Having guided the ship meticulously out of the harbour (there were many routes to be avoided because of submerged wrecks and an earlier breakwater), he had gone on to have too many drinks to celebrate his achievement. Now, apparently, he simply did not wish to leave. Not just yet. Perhaps another hour or two with the ship. But the Oronsay was eager to depart on the stroke of midnight and the pilot’s tug waited at the waterline. The crew had been struggling to force him down the rope ladder, however as there was a danger of his falling to his death, they were now capturing him fishlike in a net, and in this way they lowered him down safely. It seemed to be in no way an embarrassment to the man, but the episode clearly was to the officials of the Orient Line who were on the bridge, furious in their white uniforms. The passengers cheered as the tug broke away. Then there was the sound of the two-stroke and the pilot’s weary singing as the tug disappeared into the night.
What had there been before such a ship in my life? A dugout canoe on a river journey? A launch in Trincomalee harbour? There were always fishing boats on our horizon. But I could never have imagined the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea. The longest journeys I had made were car rides to Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains, or the train to Jaffna, which we boarded at seven a.m. and disembarked from in the late afternoon. We made that journey with our egg sandwiches, some thalagulies, a pack of cards, and a small Boy’s Own adventure.
But now it had been arranged I would be travelling to England by ship, and that I would be making the journey alone. No mention was made that this might be an unusual experience or that it could be exciting or dangerous, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear. I was not forewarned that the ship would have seven levels, hold more than six hundred people including a captain, nine cooks, engineers, a veterinarian, and that it would contain a small jail and chlorinated pools that would actually sail with us over two oceans. The departure date was marked casually on the calendar by my aunt, who had notified the school that I would be leaving at the end of the term. The fact of my being at sea for twenty-one days was spoken of as having not much significance, so I was surprised my relatives were even bothering to accompany me to the harbour. I had assumed I would be taking a bus by myself and then change onto another at Borella Junction.
There had been just one attempt to introduce me to the situation of the journey. A lady named Flavia Prins, whose husband knew my uncle, turned out to be making the same journey and was invited to tea one afternoon to meet with me. She would be travelling in First Class but promised to keep an eye on me. I shook her hand carefully, as it was covered with rings and bangles, and she then turned away to continue the conversation I had interrupted. I spent most of the hour listening to a few uncles and counting how many of the trimmed sandwiches they ate.
On my last day, I found an empty school examination booklet, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a traced map of the world, and put them into my small suitcase. I went outside and said good-bye to the generator, and dug up the pieces of the radio I had once taken apart and, being unable to put them back together, had buried under the lawn. I said good-bye to Narayan, and good-bye to Gunepala.
As I got into the car, it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there. It was not the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.
And if she would be there.
I heard a note being slipped under my door. It assigned me to Table 76 for all my meals. The other bunk had not been slept in. I dressed and went out. I was not used to stairs and climbed them warily.
In the dining room there were nine people at Table 76, and that included two other boys roughly my age.
“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”
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. I had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him. He had been notorious and was even expelled for a term. I was sure it was going to take a long time before we spoke. But what was good about our table was that there seemed to be several interesting adults. We had a botanist, and a tailor who owned a shop up in Kandy. Most exciting of all, we had a pianist who cheerfully claimed to have “hit the skids.”