Read this quiet, poignant book for the quality of its prose, but prepare to be surprised by the force of its plot. The Cat’s Table is the story of a three-week sea voyage on the ocean liner Oronsay, as seen through the eyes of 11-year old Michael. It is 1954 and Michael has set sail from his native Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) en route to London, where his mother awaits. It is not unlike the voyage the author took in the same era, at the same age as his main character, though the author’s end notes assure the reader that this is a work of fiction.
Although Michael makes the journey alone, he is monitored lightly by an aunt who is keen to keep her distance from the lower class passengers (Michael is traveling, if not in steerage, then at the lower end of second class) and lovingly by an older cousin, Emily, whose secrets Michael stumbles upon in the course of this brief but life-altering journey.
The ship, Oronsay, is a universe in Limbo, an in-between world. Its passengers tarry there, being slowly transported between continents, through several seas, into uncertainty and new lives, or perhaps returning to former lives after many years away. It is a complete world, with social classes, economics, politics, geography, love, crime and death.
It is at the “Cat’s Table”- the dining room assignment that is farthest from the enviable situation of the Captain’s Table- that Michael, nicknamed Mynah, befriends Cassius and Ramadhin, two boys also traveling alone from Ceylon. The three boys do what comes naturally to pre-teens confined to large boat for weeks on end: they mischieve with gusto. Their insignificance as passengers renders them nearly invisible to the ship’s crew, so they explore at all hours of the night, discovering a shackled prisoner who is brought the deck late every night, a young women who trains on her roller-skates in the pre-dawn stillness of the dining room, a mural of naked women gracing the engine room. Michael even aids robbery in the high seas when he is coated in motor oil and sent slithering through a small window to open the door to a well-mannered thief. The boys risk several lives in their greatest shenanigan, which occurs during a raging storm.
While the rest of the passengers focus on the end of their journey and the start of their new lives in Europe, the trio of boys lives entirely in the present. It is through Mynah’s keen awareness of the now that we come to know a host of fascinating and bizarre characters. And it is through the voice of the narrator, Michael/Mynah as an adult, that we realize the profound importance these three weeks and these characters have on Michael’s intellectual and emotional development.
As the Oronsay advances toward England, the narrative shifts more often from the voyage to Michael’s teenage years and young adulthood. He reveals gradually what happens to his partners in adventure, Cassius and Ramhadin, and leads us into his middle years and the present. It is as gentle a transition as sailing on a calm sea. At first it seems as if the scenery never alters until suddenly land looms ahead. You realize a tremendous shift has taken place, that cultures and climates have transformed in the slow change of latitude.
Ondaatje’s writing is so beautiful; it is contemplative, effortless, supple and elegant. Not a word feels superfluous. No emotion is overwritten, no scene overly-dramatized. He moves quietly but steadily forward, never leading, just merely taking the first step that you willingly follow. Flawless.