Book Reviews - Fiction
The Cat's Table
By Alidë Kohlhaas
Michael Ondaatje has a way of drawing the reader into a world of the imagination that is, strangely enough, not far removed from reality. He lets the reader identify with his characters and the places in which he sets them, bringing alive our hidden memories that are buried through elapsed time or because they are someone else's memories told to us long ago. He did this with The English Patient, and he now has done so again with his The Cat's Table
It is a book that places its protagonist on a passenger ship on a 1954 voyage from Colombo, Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), to Tilbury dock on the north shore of the Thames. He happens to be an 11-year-old boy called Michael, who may or may not have been Ondaatje. But it matters little because this is such a magical tale, filled with humor and pathos, that it is clearly a work of the imagination inspiredperhapsby the writer's own experience when he made a similar voyage at the age of 11 from Colombo to England.
Young Michael befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. The latter is a thoughtfully, quiet asthmatic, the former, perhaps true to his Roman name, a mischief-maker. As it is mostly with shipboard friendships, that with Cassius ends on arrival in England. Michael, however, finds himself drawn into the life of Ramadhin, though in later years they, too, drift apart. That this happened leads the to some soul-searching in the adult Michael, who is the narrator of this story. It is through adult eyes that we get to journey on the Oronsay, traversing the Indian Ocean, which led to the Arabian and Red Seas, then the Mediterranean, and finally north to the Atlantic and the English Channel to the Estuary of the Thames. But the adult manages to capture this three-week journey very much in the voice and perception of the world of childhood. The boys discover that the adult world cannot always be trusted, but mostly that being seated at the Cat's Table, far away from the place where the important people were seated with the captain, offered some advantages. Namely the far more interesting adult companions on that table than they might have imagined possible on the day they embarked on this voyage.
The Cat's Table offered to the three youths the companionship of the outcasts of the ship's society: a pianist in a downward career, a mute tailor, a lady who hides pigeons in the pockets of her jacket and loves to read thrillers which she throws overboard if they displease her, a botanist, and a retired ship-dismantler. The botanist introduces the boys to his world of exotic plants, which he carries in the cavernous hold of the ship, where the colors of the plants in the artificial light returned to the boys the colors of their native country after having spent a lengthy time in which everything above deck appeared to them to be nothing but gray, blue and white. To Michael and his companions the garden felt "as if we had dreamt it."
There are mysteries as well for the boys to observe and solve as they sneak at night into lifeboats to watch the stranger, who is allowed out only at night, shackled and guarded; they meet a dubious baron, who persuades Michael to assist him in some cabin break-ins; they discover the first class pool in the very early morning hours where they swim when no one expects that anyone will be up. And then there is the question, "who really are the mute tailor and the pidgeon lady?"
Michael eventually moves on to a new life in Canada, but he discovers on a visit to London that Cassius has become a painter and goes to an exhibit of his former friend's work. Only poor Ramadhin is condemned to remain stuck in a solitary life in his parents' home in England, bound there by his illness. Michael seeks no re-connection with his former ship's companion, Cassius, which finds an echo in my own experience. Having made a lone voyage at age 14 to Canada, where its mysteries absorbed me and eventually took me to places that my fellow travelers, so full of suspicion of the lone girl, would never have dreamt of going and a life they couldn't really imagine. Shipboard relationships are best left alone and open to the imagination.
What is so revealing and refreshing about this novel is that Ondaatje makes no social or political judgments in The Cat's Table. He simply allows the story to unfold and invites us to take part in the journey. It is a wonderfully visual and visceral book that makes it, to this reviewer, one of the best Canadian books of the year.
N.B. The Cat's Table was a finalist for the Giller Prize, which was won by Half-Blood Blues by the young writer, Esi Edugyan.
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