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.
At the start of the novel we meet eleven-year-old Michael who is put on a ship in Colombo to travel to England where he is to be re-united with the mother he last saw four years earlier. During the three-week voyage on the cruise ship ‘Oransay’, he makes friends with two boys — Cassius and Ramadhin — who are similarly travelling to new boarding schools in England. Wary of each other at first, the boys find common ground in their insatiable curiosity about the activities of the Oransay and their fellow passengers.
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.
Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to expose the human consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Where Dickens sought “to take the rooftops off” in Dombey and Son to show the disease and suffering caused by the relentless pursuit of the capitalist enterprise, in North and South, Gaskell focused on the response of one individual when confronted by poverty and suffering. The result is a blend of genres – a combination of Bildungsroman with Victorian industrial novel.
Gaskell’s protagonist Margaret Hale is jolted out of her pastoral background when her vicar father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience and moves the family north to the mill town of Milton (a psuedonym for Manchester). Margaret’s physical journey to this new region brings about an awakening about the poverty and suffering experienced by the mill workers. Her preconceived ideas about industry and trade, born from her experience of Southern ways, are gradually relinquished as she deepens her friendship with some of the worker families.
She begins with an acute sense of class divisions and distaste of anyone involved in commerce.
I don’t like shoppy people. I think we are far better off knowing only cottagers and labourers and people without pretence….. I like all people whose occupations have to do with land…
But through her growing friendship with the vocal workers’ leader Nicholas Higgins and his gentle daughter Bessy, her sense of class is destabilised. Instead of the socially superior attitude with which she arrives at Milton, she begins to align herself with the workers, to challenge mill owner John Thornton about their conditions and to transgress the accepted boundaries of her class by speaking the language of the working class. Rebuked by her mother she retorts:
If I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it..
Her transgression is complete when she intervenes in a violent scene where she intervenes in a violent scene between John Thornton and a mass of striking workers. In using her body to shield him she steps out of the conventional private and domestic sphere for women, turning herself into an object for public scrutiny.
It’s in the stormy relationship with Thornton, a self made man, that the book shows Gaskell’s concept of how individual feeling fused with social concern can become an agent for change. Margaret refuses to accept his explanations of the relationship between owners and workers which dehumanises the latter by the reductive term “hands”. Under Margaret’s influence and the collapse of his business Thornton learns to treat his workers as individuals and to adopt a more paternalistic attitude towards their welfare.
Their exchanges are at times somewhat tedious (Dickens himself was very uneasy with some of the discussions), as are some conversations with Bessy Higgins as she lies dying from consumption and contemplates the afterlife. I found the use of dialect hard to digest also.
But those are minor points of criticism and don’t distract from my feeling that this was an engaging book.
Why I read this: I included it in my Classics Club reading list on the basis that I’d read Cranford but didn’t care for it and felt there had to be something better by Gaskell. I wasn’t wrong….