(Published in the Business Standard, October 5, 2011.)

The Cat’s Table
Michael Ondaatje
Jonathan Cape,
PRICE NOT MENTIONED, 287 pages

“There’s a great line by Ornette Coleman about music,” Michael Ondaatje said in a recent interview. “He says you begin with the territory and what follows is the adventure.”

In his sixth novel, Cat’s Table, Ondaatje knows both his landscapes well. There is the Oronsay, a liner that feels like a castle to the 11-year-old boy who boards the “first and only” ship of his life, bound for England in the 1950s. When most writers use a ship as a setting, it remains just a backdrop, a convenient way to bring a band of characters into close contact with each other in extreme isolation. The sea acts like the white space on the page—anything could happen here, where the normal rules of life on dry land stand suspended.

For a few writers, though, Joseph Conrad, Patrick O’ Brian and now Ondaatje, the sea is elemental in the best sense of the term, and a shipboard journey may either bring forth powerful passions in its inhabitants or strip them down to their elemental selves. The nine people Michael will meet at Table 76, the least privileged and the most distant from the Captain’s Table, include two boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and “several interesting adults”. Cassius, Ramadhin and Michael will form a gang whose actions on board the Oronsay range from the exuberantly exploratory to the actively dangerous.
If The Cat’s Table feels like a memoir in parts, this may be because Ondaatje took a similar voyage from Ceylon to England in the 1950s, at the age of 11. “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was,” the narrator writes in the first chapter, and this imagining belongs both to him and to Ondaatje.

The Oronsay is fascinating, from the engine room “at Hades level” to the gold-painted First Class swimming pool. The passengers include a great philantropist who is suffering from hydrophobia, an accomplished shipboard thief called Baron C and Michael’s beautiful cousin Emily, a first-class passenger. There is a shipboard death, a shackled murderer who inspires a plot among the boys to free him, and there are the secretive, often unsavoury lives of the other passengers who sup at Table 76.

But the real adventure, which will reverberate in the lives of Cassius, Ramadhin and Michael long after they have completed their 21-day voyage, is not so much in the plot as in the magnificent strangeness of coming of age on board ship.
In both children’s fiction and novels that feature child protagonists, there is an unspoken acknowledgement that childhood is as mysterious and as alien a world as any unexplored Amazon forest or distant planet. The best novels step into this world acknowledging that writing from a child’s point of view is essentially an act of the imagination as much as an act of reclamation.
There are very, very few can do it—many novels feature child protagonists who are basically miniaturized adults.

Michael Ondaatje is one of three writers who wrote great books underpinned by a basic truth: children see the world with a kind of merciless clarity, and with few of the calming fictions of adult life. The other two were William Golding and Richard Hughes, and it is interesting that Hughes set his eerie little masterpiece, A High Wind in Jamaica, on board ship. His protagonists, like Ondaatje’s in The Cat’s Table, were children carefully separated from their parents; generations of writers have also recognised that it is only when you allow children to be on their own that you can fully understand them.

It is easy to criticize the slender, tenuous, adventure-filled plot that forms the skeletal structure of The Cat’s Table. But it is also an unrewarding exercise. What makes this one of the most compelling and haunting novels of recent times goes far beyond the question of whether it is well-plotted, or whether its deft, deadly vignettes of characters on the Oronsay, offered up in brief chapters, add up to a satisfying whole. “Over the years,” Michael writes towards the end, “confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place.”

Ondaatje offers us three subtly different voices in which to hear this book (it’s hard to escape the sense that The Cat’s Table should be read aloud). There is the voice, filled with a cautious rapture, of Michael the child; there is the assessing voice of the older Michael as he weighs up his regrets against the many tiny illuminated corners of his life; and there is, like a background murmur, the assured voice of Ondaatje himself, the writer in his prime, spinning out one story after another.

It would be a very bloodless reader who could resist the temptation of taking a seat at The Cat’s Table and revisiting childhood as it was, not as we would like to think it should have been. And it would be a very churlish reader who didn’t succumb to the magic of Ondaatje’s summoning up of “all new things in life”, carried by a boat that comes breasting out of the mist.