With utter certainty, I can claim that I’ve never ever been remotely disappointed by a Michael Ondaatje title. Until now, alas. Here’s my very best advice to you about this, his long-awaited new title, The Cat’s Table: read it page by page for yourself only; do not choose the audible option, even as the venerable Ondaatje himself narrates. Really. At least with this work, Ondaatje’s voice unfortunately expresses a sense of detachment so visceral that bonding with the book’s protagonist proves difficult at best …
Perhaps his distance might be explained in the “Author’s Note” at title’s end, in which Ondaatje insists, “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.” That narrator, ironically, is also named Michael, also born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), also moved to England at the age of 11, and also grew up to be a writer with a Canadian address. As if to downplay those similarities (but why?), Ondaatje’s voice unintentionally results in a disengaged, aloof narration.
In Colombo late at night, Michael, the 11-year-old narrator here, boards the big ship Oronsay alone: “… 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.”
As the ship begins its journey, Michael is placed at Table 76 for his meals, also known as ‘the cat’s table’ – “the least privileged place,” he quickly learns. His tablemates include “two other boys roughly my age,” who become his adventurous companions throughout the voyage and beyond. One friendship will last a lifetime; the other will remain a spectral presence. Michael’s three-week passage will include other memorable characters – his beguiling distant cousin Emily, a mysterious criminal about whose offenses no one seems to be quite sure, late-night gambling bunkmates, and a young deaf girl who is magic on a trampoline. In between “Departure” and “Arrival,” Michael intersperses fragments from his adult life, fluidly passing from past, present, future, and back again, offering elliptical details of what followed that pivotal multi-sea crossing.
All my favorite literary elements are here: non-linear time, sparse but profound writing, characters with mysteries to be solved (or not), fateful reunions, etc. etc. If only had known to read, not listen; the iPod failed me for sure this time! So perhaps as I impatiently anticipate Ondaatje’s next book, I’ll have the time to re-read, re-discover. re-imagine Cat’s Table all for myself …