When I hear the name Michael Ondaatje, the first thing that comes to mind is The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize back in 1992. In 1996 it was made into a film which won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
I really liked the film version of The English Patient. Strangely, I did not love the novel all that much.
However, this post is not about The English Patient – film or novel. It is about another Michael Ondaatje novel published in 2011 – The Cat’s Table.
The Cat’s Table is about the voyage of the young boy, Michael, aboard the ocean liner, Oronsay, from Colombo, Sri Lanka to his new home, England.
During his 21-day journey, Michael meets a group of interesting people, including 2 boys his own age, who become his friends during the journey, and who have since become somewhat part of his life.
As the 3 boys run around the ship, they encounter many interesting people and experience many strange but oftentimes incredible things. Many of the people Michael talks about during the voyage are those sitting with him at the cat’s table – a term referred to the dining table farthest from the Captain, reserved, most probably, for the least prestigious passengers aboard the ship. This is where he meets the 2 other boys, Cassius and Ramahadin, an eccentric yet secretive musician, a strange woman who takes care of pigeons, a botanist, a kennel keeper, and a silent, enigmatic tailor.
The story is a flashback, recalled and told my a much older Michael. Instead of talking about the experience from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy, off on a sea adventure on his own, Michael tells the story of his incredible journey through the eyes of an older, more experienced man. As an adult, Michael tries to make sense of everything he experienced aboard the Oronsay – to justify his and his friends’ actions and decisions, and to analyze and try to understand the actions of the other people around him.
Though Michael mostly talks about the past aboard the Oronsay, he sometimes talks about his adult life in the present or in the recent past and about the passengers of Oronsay who he had come across after the journey.
Michael Ondaatje claims that the novel is a work of fiction, but it’s hard not to read it as semi-autobiographical. The author shares his name with the narrator of the novel, who is also from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Narrator Michael also reveals that he eventually became a writer and that he spent some time in Canada.
Though The Cat’s Table is about an 11-year old boy aboard a ship, the feel of it is less than that of an adventure, coming-of-age novel and more of a reflective, philosophical flashback returned to in hopes of finding answers to the narrator’s lifelong questions.
To me, the novel was solemn and quiet, and reading it was actually a lot like being on a slow-moving, ocean liner, lying on a deck chair, watching the clouds roll slowly by while feeling the slight swaying of the ship riding the waves.
The Cat’s Table (2011) – Michael Ondaatje
Vintage; 382 pages
Personal rating: 2.5/5