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Onyx reviews: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Readers of the latest novel by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, might be forgiven for checking the book's spine to see whether it says "fiction" or "non-fiction." The protagonist is an 11-year-old boy named Michael who is on a fantastic voyage by himself aboard a steamer from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and Red Seas, through the Suez Canel into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic, ultimately to England. Ondaatje took this same trip in 1954, so it is reasonable to suspect that the novel may be thinly veiled autobiography. The author, though, claims that he does not remember the trip well, so he had to fictionalize the story and all of the characters in it.

The title refers to the table placed as far as possible from the Captain's table in the ship's dining room. Michael, traveling by himself on the three-week journey aboard the steamer Oronsay, having been sent by his aunt and uncle to join his mother in England, is relegated to this table, along with two other boys of similar age, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an assortment of colorful individuals who for various reasons don't merit a better location. In truth, these are the most fascinating people on board, despite their lack of privilege. The rich, the narrator observes later in life, are boring and predictable. Not so these people. "What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power."

Michael, who the others nickname Mynah because of his habit of repeating everything he overhears aboard the ship, isn't entirely alone. A friend of his aunt and uncle's traveling in first class has been tasked with keeping an eye on him. His cousin, the beautiful 17-year-old Emily, is also making the trip. However, neither one has much time for him and he spends the three weeks getting into an endless assortment of trouble with his new friends. Their mutual pact is to do something forbidden every day. Because they are below the sightlines of most adults, they wander the ship with impunity. The only time they are noticed is when they are caught doing something that can't be overlooked, like the time they lash themselves to the deck during a typhoon. 

They're in close quarters with adults for the first time but somewhat invisible to them. They sleep little, prowling the decks late at night when everyone else is abed. They sneak into the first class dining room before it opens to sample the wares and swim in their pool, hide in the life boats, descend into the bowels of the ship normally forbidden to passengers, and make friends with a number of adults. They don't spend any time discussing the lives they left behind or the new ones that await them in England. They are completely wrapped up in the moment in a world that is barely big enough to contain them. It isn't until they dock in Tilbury that Michael stops to wonder whether he will recognize his mother, who he hasn't seen for five years, or whether she will know him.

Among those they encounter on their way to England in the hope of starting a new life are a pianist, a woman who has a cargo of pigeons that she sometimes wears on deck in the pockets of her coat (she also has a habit of flinging crime novels overboard when they don't satisfy her), a teacher of English literature, a botanist who has a garden of exotic plants—some of them beautiful but poisonous—in the ship's hold, just past a risqué painting of a woman astride a gun barrel, a tailor who is unable to speak, a man who spent his life disassembling other ships, a philan­thropist dying of rabies who continues to have bad luck with canines—perhaps even a curse—and a thief called the Baron who enlists Michael's help. There is a fake psychic and a troop of performers who seduce some of the travelers with their exotic lives, and a shackled prisoner who is brought onto the deck at midnight for exercise. Rumors about the natures of the man's crimes float around the ship. Michael also has a roommate who works in the onboard kennels and hosts late-night bridge games in their room. Not every one who starts the journey makes it all the way to England.

The book seems at first to be simply a collection of vignettes and adventures, often in short chapters, beautifully rendered and interspersed with little observations and overheard snippets of conversation. Poetic, in a sense. Later, though, the story leaps ahead to recount some of the things that happened after Michael arrived in England. How he kept in contact with one of his shipboard friends, but not the other. How those lives interconnected, not always for the right reasons. He attends Cassius's art show, which features paintings inspired by their trip, all with the skewed perspective of a child looking up at adults or peering down from one of their discreet vantage points, but he doesn't get to see his one-time friend. He also loses touch with Emily for years, but receives an unexpected letter from one of the former denizens of the cat's table that opens his eyes about some of the things that happened aboard the Oronsay and about this particular character's past.

One of the novel's thematic statements comes late in the book. "Viewers of 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. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them." This applies to novels as well. Though Ondaatje reveals a bevy of fascinating characters to his audience, it would be a mistake to think that he has laid all of their secret hearts bare. 

What is fascinating is that, though the trip was clearly important to the boys, and it gave them their first peek at the adult world that awaited them, it wasn't entirely a formative experience for all of them at the time. Michael dabbles with larceny and with sexual curiosity aboard the ship, and forges friendships, but for the most part these don't stay with him.  For years, he says, he barely remembered the voyage. Much of what happened on board the Oronsay didn't reveal its true import until much later in life. The journey was an "innocent story within the small parameter of my youth." The main thing he brought away from the trip was an idea of how the world worked and an awareness of how the people relegated to the various cat's tables in life are often the most important and influential. Like the seemingly safe art depicted in a tapestry shown to one of the characters, the power is always underneath.

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