The Cat’s Table

by Michael Ondaatje
An interesting amalgam of autobiography, novel and short stories.

‘Michael’ narrates the story of his three-week sea voyage from Sri Lanka to England at the age of eleven, with glimpses, in the later pages, into his subsequent marriage and episodes from his life as a writer.  It is hard to believe that the Michael of the story is not Ondaatje himself, and indeed he suggests that the story is at least partly true.

The ‘cat’s table’ of the title is the table in the ship’s dining room furthest from the Captain’s table – and thus occupied, so Michael and his companions assume, by the lowest-rankings passengers. The success of this book lies in the author’s ability to tell the story of each of the occupants of the cat’s table with compassion and humour, and to show that these supposedly insignificant people are as interesting and relevant as anyone with power or influence. That he shows this through the eyes of a young boy and his similarly-aged companions makes this also a coming of age story.

My favourite quotation: “It seemed to us that all at our table … might have an interesting reason for their journey, even if it was unspoken or, so far, undiscovered. … 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 themselves.”  (p. 81)

This is the nub of the book. Each individual has an interesting and important story, and these read like a collection of short stories. But the ‘novel’ also has an overriding story, as the characters interact and their behaviour has a knock-on effect on others, or on their own later lives. For instance, Ramadhin’s decision to smuggle a dog on board at Port Said results in the kennel-keeper  being wrongly blamed and losing his job. Emily’s involvement in the escape of the prisoner Niemeyer with his daughter plagues her – and Michael – in later life. The characters themselves, especially Michael and his two young friends, develop through their experiences on board the liner Oronsay.

I felt that this book did not work as a novel. The stories are too distinct from one another, and the attempts to tie them together are clumsy. For instance, Miss Lasqueti’s long letter to Emily recounting her experiences in Italy, as a young woman seduced by a bullying and powerful man, does not seem adequately explained by any need for education that Emily may exhibit. And what is the relevance, to the main story, of Ramadhin’s early death and Michael’s subsequent marriage to his sister?

It was an easy book to ‘trip through’, but it didn’t really grab me.