Friday, September 9, 2011

the cat's table

When I first picked up The Cat's Table, my only thoughts were: what a great cover. I didn't know that Michael Ondaatje was eminent or renowned in any way as a writer. It's only as I've come across a few reviews since I started reading it that it's become clear that this is the case.

And I'm glad I didn't know this, as I was able to read the book without expectations of any kind. As it happened, without being told that I should like the book, I was sucked into it from the start. It's odd, because usually I criticise books that don't have a clear, strong plot arc. And the structure of this is certainly not clear, but it is masterful. Moreover, the writing is amazingly precise and unpretentious while it is also compelling, beautiful.

The Cat's Table is the story of a different Michael, an eleven-year-old boy in the 1950s who crosses the oceans between Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and London in the Oronsay, to join the mother he has not seen for four or five years. The journey is a mere three weeks - but it is remarkable for the people Michael studies and grows to understand as they sit at what is called 'the Cat's Table', the least important group of diners on board the ship. While Michael is 'bursting around the place like freed mercury' with his friends Ramadhin and Cassius, the journey is having an indelible effect on their lives to come.

I know now that this is Ondaatje's sixth novel. Apparently it is a "notable departure" from his other work. It also has an autobiographical tinge to it - Ondaatje himself took the same journey as a boy - but the writer explains: "Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat's Table is fictional - from the captain and the crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator."

I loved the book. It's very readable, very engrossing. The adventures of Michael and his comrades are absorbing and funny and sometimes shocking. I particularly enjoyed Michael's forays into thievery, and the time he and Cassius strap themselves spreadeagled to the ship in order to watch a storm.

This isn't just a list of amusing stories about three disobedient little boys, however. It's written thoughtfully, by an older man looking back and fighting to recover memories and questions from the time. Always, underneath what is going on, is Michael's broken family life, his hidden confusion, and his dislocation from his Eastern home and movement towards the most English city in the world.

The most interesting thing about the book for me was the way it records lessons that the boys learned, subconsciously, about the people that were around them. I loved the introductions to different characters, all of whom were considered with some depth for their most interesting qualities. The intriguing Miss Lasqueti. Mr Hastie, with his tall stories. The beautiful and generous Emily. The deaf girl, Asuntha. Sir Hector de Silva, the millionaire under a curse, travelling to England with a retinue of servants to find a cure for his hydrophobia. Mr Daniels, with his secret collection of plants hidden in the bowels of the ship.

In any case, it seemed to us that nearly all at our table, from the silent tailor, Mr Gunesekera, who owned a shop in Kandy, to the entertaining Mr Mazappa, to Miss Lasqueti, might have an interesting reason for their journey, even if it was unspoken or, so far, undiscovered. In spite of this, our table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. 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.

The novel is just as remarkable for its writing, which brings moments before us like photographs or feelings. It is always possible to see through Michael's eyes, and to understand why a moment is beautiful or interesting to him. It is encouraging to read novels that are simply yet beautifully written, readable, unassuming - that don't try too hard to be clever - and still manage to be breath-taking.

It's four stars from me.

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