Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje, is a captivating coming of age story about three boys who make the long journey from Columbo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England on The Oronsay, back in 1954. The protagonist is eleven year old Michael, who befriends two other boys his age, Ramadhin and Cassius. They are each traveling without parents, and so at mealtimes, they are seated with a random group of adults who seem  like a ragtag group of less fortunate people. It is one of these, an eccentric woman traveling with pigeons, who coins the name of their table and declares it the least privileged spot, being as far away from the captain's table as possible.

During these twenty-one days, these boys get into various kinds of trouble, witness unusual and frightening events, and begin to look outward in more observant, mature ways than they ever have before. Specifically, these boys are awakened to how much lies beneath the surface of seemingly boring, ordinary adults. The denizens of the cat's table, for instance, are most intriguing. These characters are well presented, with a beautifully crafted amount of development twined with enough mystery to challenge the reader's imagination, leaving much to ponder.

As Michael, Ramadhin, and Cassius take the long cruise through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean, new worlds open up for them, in both positive and negative ways; towards the end of the trip, there is a very disturbing event which remains mysterious.

This story is not told linearly. Instead, Michael moves back and forth between his momentous journey and his present life. Very little is said about his early life in Sri Lanka, or about his very first days in England with a mother he hadn't seen for about three years. I got the feeling that his story became somewhat anti-climatic after this magical time he spent on The Oronsay, that he never experienced anything so intense ever again, and that the rest of his life was all about interpreting what had happened during those days at sea.

As an adult, Michael does receive more enlightenment about what he'd witnessed during his eleventh year, when his mind was growing to include the a larger world, while still clinging to a vestige of magical thought. Of course, these things are not completely illuminated, but then, they never are. Ondaatje chose the right place to let Michael go on without the reader.


Though Michael Ondaatje states that this work is a novel, not based on fact, there are aspects that must be autobiographical, namely the fact that Ondaatje moved from Columbo to England in 1954, when he would have been eleven years old. And he did make such a voyage alone, but states that he barely remembers it, and that the adventures in this story are completely fabricated. Also, like his novel's character, he became a writer. 

Anyway, both thumbs up! I enjoyed this one immensely.


Doug Pascover said...

I noticed that the plot sounded potentially autobiographical.

It's funny, I loved The English Patient, hated the movie and haven't read any Ondaatje since I saw the movie. I bet I've watched some movies by the director.

TLP said...

Sounds good. As usual, you write a very interesting review. I might look for this book in the library.

actonbell said...

Doug, I saw the movie years before reading it, so now I look back and say that I liked both the movie and original version of The English Patient, though the two are so very different. I really like how Ondaatje writes and plan on reading Anil's Ghost sometime in the not very distant future.

Mom, I'm sure you'll like it:)

actonbell said...

Oh, and Doug, I do have to wonder whose decision it was to shift the focus of the story--probably the director' does seem odd. Good thing I waited 'til later to read it!