In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table”—as far from the Captain’s Table as can be—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship crosses the Indian Ocean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: they are first exposed to the magical worlds of jazz, women, and literature by their eccentric fellow travelers, and together they spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever. By turns poignant and electrifying, The Cat’s Table is a spellbinding story about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood, and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.
About the Author
Michael Ondaatje is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.
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.”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Cat’s Table, the luminous new novel by Michael Ondaatje, Booker Prize–winning author of The English Patient.
1. The epigraph is taken from the short story “Youth” by Joseph Conrad: “And this is how I see the East.... I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.... It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea.” How does this set up the major themes of The Cat’s Table?
2. How is the voyage itself a metaphor for childhood?
3. Why do you think the opening passages of the book are told in third person?
4. We are 133 pages into the novel before Ondaatje gives us an idea of what year it is. How does he use time—or the sense of timelessness—to propel the story?
5. The anonymity of ocean travel and the sense that board ship we know only what others want us to know about them come into play at several points in the novel. What is Ondaatje saying about identity?
6. For several characters—the three boys and Emily among them—the journey represents a loss of innocence. For whom does it have the greatest impact?
7. Discuss the importance of some of the seemingly minor characters at the table: Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Fonseka, Mr. Nevil. What do they contribute to the story?
8. “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” the narrator realizes (page 75). “Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.” How does this prove true over the course of the novel?
9. How do the narrator’s experiences breaking and entering with the Baron change his way of looking at the world?
10. Discuss the three boys’ experience during the typhoon. How does it affect their friendship and their attitude toward authority figures?
11. How does the death of Sir Hector factor into the larger story?
12. On page 155, the narrator refers to Ramadhin as “the saint of our clandestine family.” What does he mean?
13. When describing the collapse of his marriage, the narrator says, “Massi said that sometimes, when things overwhelmed me, there was a trick or a habit I had: I turned myself into something that did not belong anywhere. I trusted nothing I was told, not even what I witnessed” (page 203). What made him behave this way? How did it affect his marriage?
14. On page 208, the narrator tells us about a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne in which “he spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves.” Why did Ondaatje give us this warning, so far into the novel? What is he telling us?
15. What was your reaction to the revelations about Miss Lasqueti?
16. How do you think her letter to Emily might have changed the events on board the Oronsay? Why didn’t she send it?
17. Miss Laqueti signs off her letter, “‘Despair young and never look back,’ an Irishman said. And this is what I did” (page 231). What does she mean?
18. Discuss Emily’s relationship with Asuntha. Did she, as the narrator suggests on page 251, see herself in the deaf girl?
19. When Emily says to the narrator, “I don’t think you can love me into safety,” (page 250), to what is she referring? What is the danger, decades after the voyage?
20. The narrator wishes to protect Emily, Cassius has Asuntha, and Ramadhin has Heather Cave. “What happened that the three of us had a desire to protect others seemingly less secure than ourselves?” he asks on page 262. How would you answer that question?