“There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” - The Cat's Table
Michael Ondaatje insists that this novel is not autobiographical and why should we doubt him? Even so, the intimate and poignant tale certainly feels autobiographical and Ondaatje admits that the story has parallels with his own.
The central event of the book, an eleven-year-old boy's voyage on a big ship by himself from Colombo in what was then called Ceylon to England in 1954, was a journey that the writer himself made at that age. In the end, I suppose the argument could be made that all fiction is autobiographical in that it springs from the writer's imagination and that imagination is a product of his/her experiences. Discerning the autobiographical bits becomes a circular and rather pointless exercise, I think. Better to just relax and enjoy the book. And there is a lot to enjoy about this book.
Eleven-year-old Michael sails alone on the Oronsay on a three-week voyage at the end of which his mother is to meet him in Tilbury in England. He had been living with an uncle in Colombo and going to school there. Now he will go to school in England.
Although he is alone, there are a few other people on the ship who are known to him: his older cousin, the beautiful Emily; Cassius, a boy of his age with whom he had attended school; a family friend, Flavia Prins, who the family asked to keep an eye on Michael.
On the ship, passengers are assigned to particular tables at which to take their meals. The most prestigious, of course, where the elite eat, is the Captain's Table. The least prestigious, farthest away from the Captain's Table is the Cat's Table. Michael finds himself assigned to that table with two other boys his age, the rambunctious Cassius and the quiet Ramadhin. Others at the table included a botanist, a tailor who never speaks, a pianist who claimed to have "hit the skids," a retired ship dismantler, and a woman called Miss Lasqueti, the pigeon lady.
The three boys quickly realize that their very insignificance causes them to be disregarded and overlooked. They are “invisible to officials such as the purser and the head steward, and the captain.” Michael, whose nickname on board has become Mynah, has already been “trained into cautiousness” in the Ceylonese boarding school he attended with Cassius. There “a fear of punishment created a skill in lying, and I learned to withhold small pertinent truths.” The boys put those skills into full play in their adventurous ramblings around the ship.
They find that they are able to observe the adults on board and to learn to read them. They make friends with several of those adults and they expose the boys to the worlds of jazz and literature, as well as to some of the seamier sides of life. The boys also gather at night to spy on a shackled prisoner being sent to England for trial. His crime and fate are mysteries that will haunt Michael forever.
Michael's story is told from the vantage point of adulthood after he has become a writer and moved to Canada. Intertwined with the boys' story is the story of the adult Michael and how the events of that three-week trip affected his passage into adulthood, how he perceived the world and how he lived his life. As he got older, he found that he understood more clearly many of the things that happened between the adults that he observed so closely on that long-ago voyage. Snippets of memory come back to him to enlighten his way, like the beam of a flashlight in a long dark hall. People that he met on the voyage keep popping up at unexpected moments. That brief voyage has turned into the voyage of his life.
Perhaps the main lesson that the boy Michael gains from his experience is the knowledge that "“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” Places like the Cat's Table. It's a fine place from which to observe life, a fine place to learn the craft of telling a story, of writing.
This is a lyrically written book that shimmers with anticipation from one page to the next. It is seductive in its power. It draws the reader in and makes one wish that it will never end. As I turned the last page and realized that I had finished the book, I immediately felt a sense of loss that I would not be hearing more from the life of Michael, in which I had invested so much emotion.
Ondaatje is a skillful writer who has given us an elegantly beautiful book that is a joy to read. I think it may well be the best book I have read all year.