Initially The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje struck me as a rather bland story populated with a host of rather improbable characters and told in a very episodic manner. As it developed, the book took on the characteristics of a Bildungsroman in which a physical journey to a new life (in this case an ocean voyage) acted as an extended metaphor for the passage from childhood to the beginnings of adolescence. And then approximately half way through, it underwent a completely unexpected change of approach and became far more reflective and enigmatic.
And they do have some extraordinary assortment of travelling companions. Ondatjee populates his novel with amongst others, a Ceylonese circus troupe, a reclusive multi millionaire who lies in his stateroom dying from rabies (the boys believe his illness is the result of a curse); a mysterious woman who is prone to throwing novels overboard and a man who tends a secret garden of medicinal and deadly plants deep in the ship’s bowels. For added interest, they discover a prisoner who is taken onto the decks at night in shackles.
Most of the first half of the book is taken up with the boy’s escapades as they explore, snoop and eavesdrop. “We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst, ” says Michael the narrator. But misunderstand much of what they see and fail to comprehend some of the signals and it’s left to the adult reader to fill in the gaps.
Around about page 180, this episodic, fragmentary narrative changes direction as the narrator (the adult Michael) leaps forwards many years to relate what happened to the boys once in England. Even then, this is not a linear story as Michael flips from an episode on the boat to a moment in his later life when he was able to understand the significance of that episode more clearly. He reflects also on some of the people he encountered on the ship and how later life revealed what was hidden from him during the voyage. Even then, the novel ends with many questions unanswered. Was the mysterious novel reader, really an undercover intelligence agent? Did the prisoner really escape? What is the nature of the relationship between Michael and his cousin Emily who was also travelling on the boat.? The answers are never revealed. Ondatjee simply suggests and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. I’m still puzzling about one of the very last pieces of dialogue in which, having met up with Edith after decades of silence, she tells him. ‘You cannot love me into safety.’
There is no big drama or turning point in this novel. Its impact comes from the lyrical quality of Ondatjee’s writing and the enigma which which he ends. It’s not as redolent with atmosphere or meaning as his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient but its more quiet style nevertheless makes a lasting impression.
Note: I corrected the name of his cousin after an astute reader spotted I’d put Edith, not Emily.