How could I resist making Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table my 9th review for the 9th Canadian Challenge? There are no cats on board the ship the Oransay, or at least none that the narrator (Michael) describes. There is a dog that his friends smuggle aboard after a port-of-call visit which plays a significant role in the story, but no cats.
I have not heard it but apparently Ondaatje has some interview where he admits many of the details are drawn from his youth, but then he is adamant this is not an autobiographical novel. I think he is being needlessly precious, but I personally don't care if he was ever on a long boat trip from Columbo, Ceylon to England. It might, however, explain some things if he was sent from one branch of the family to another as an unaccompanied minor with only a disinterested aunt to look in on him from time to time. It is hard to believe this would happen today, though mostly due to the length of the trip (3 weeks) than the children travelling on their own, as this still occasionally does occur on airplane trips, for example.
In any case, Michael gets up to considerable mischief with two other boys he knew from school, Cassius and the somewhat reserved Ramadhin. All 3 of them are taking their meals at "the cat's table," which is the table as far from the captain's table as possible. The adults there are all slightly outcast. To go any further out of the social graces of ship life, you wouldn't be eating with the passengers but with the crew.
Somewhat surprisingly, his father's family paid so little for Michael's ticket that he shares a cabin with a man who works on the boat. He is one notch above the sailors but manages a shipboard dog kennel. There are a few images that are particularly magical in this book, and one of them is Michael watching from the top bunk as his cabin-mate and 3 other men working on the ship play cards late at night under a blue light bulb that makes it seem they are half under water.
This is where The Cat's Table is stronger, showing children in a special liminal space, interacting with a subset of adults in a new way and learning some very interesting life lessons. These intense interactions probably would not happen except for the peculiarities of ship life. These scenes in Michael's cabin remind me in some ways of a few stories from Stuart Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan.
On the other hand, the daytime shenanigans of the three boys reminded me more than a little of Narayan's Swami and His Friends. What is perhaps strange is that I found the antics more tolerable in The Cat's Table than I did in Swami where they rub me the wrong way a bit, maybe precisely because of the topsy-turvy nature of the cruise. (Or maybe I've just read too much Bakhtin for my own good...)
I would say, however, that the structure of the novel is a bit strange -- recounting these shipboard events in what feels
largely like real time (even though we know it is set in Michael's past), but then it takes on more of a retrospective feel, talking
about how one of the three drifted away (and became significant UK
artist). I would even say it is needlessly complex, since it starts on ship, then moves to the present twice and then on the final return to the trip, everything is written in this hybrid style where things are unfolding in what seems to be real time but the watcher knows what will happen. Is it just Ondaatje's typical flirting with postmodernism, or is it his way of dressing up a fairly straight-forward coming of age story with reveals that are less profound than those in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier? The Guardian reviewer was generally not impressed with this shifting around of chronological events, feeling that Ondaatje hadn't quite pulled it off. I liked the novel a bit better as a wistful look back at how a time in one's life could change one profoundly. However, I must admit I would have preferred a novel just focused on the trip week trip without all the fussy bits where Michael is catching the reader up with what happened to him and his fellow passengers.
To talk about this means at least some SPOILERS will be revealed.
The reader finds out that the boy with the sensitive health condition (again perhaps an ironic echo from The Good Soldier) dies in a strange manner. In the aftermath, Michael became close with his friend's sister and eventually they married. However, only a few chapters later we find they divorced.
Then the novel switches back to memories of the voyage, but more clearly rethinking those events in light of newly revealed information, particularly his cousin's involvement with an acrobatic team. It turns out the troupe was secretly trying to rescue a prisoner being sent to England to be tried and hung. Then we switch back to the present where Michael has moved to Canada, and, out of the blue, his cousin contacts him and he meets her on Vancouver Island. What seems to be going on here, even if not 100% acknowledged by the narrator, is that he has been in love with his cousin Emily his whole life but he still doesn't get to act on it. That is really the big secret that hangs over his retelling of stories from his distant past and more recent events. Since this is an improper if not technically forbidden love, his life remains unfulfilled. At least that is my somewhat pessimistic take on the novel. (Whereas the childhood sections are far sunnier and generally upbeat, so judicious editing could make this a much happier if less thoughtful book.) Anyway, The Cat's Table is quite enigmatic and more than a little elegaic. Given that it has made me think quite a bit about the way we relive the past and recreate ourselves in our mind's eye, I would recommend it even though I wouldn't say it is one of the best books I read this year.