Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Cat’s Table

Michael Ondaatje
The Cat’s Table

Jonathan Cape, 2011

It is the story of an 11-year old boy Michael (or as he is called - Mina) on his three-week trip aboard the "Oronsay" from Sri Lanka to England. In the book the protagonist Michael and Michael Ondaatje itself (according to Wikipedia) has much in common: the writer, too, like the protagonist of this age, has left Sri Lanka, also lived in England, became a writer, lived in the States, in Canada. But this is hardly a fictionalized memoir of the writer, the book is taken as fiction.
”Cat's table” from the title of the novel is a place where passengers from the lower strata meet. Among them is Michael, two of his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, Michael’s cousin Emily, and dozens of other characters, about whom we learn from the narrator. To somebody Michael devotes several chapters, for someone a couple of pages. In England, the boy is waited by his mother, who left Sri Lanka four or five years ago, so the boy himself does not even remember what she looks like and when she left. Michael is taken care by one of his aunt (the so-called aunts and uncles are all adults on board, so this woman has no real kinship with Michael) in the first class, but they rarely see each other, so that the boy is traveling alone.
The three boys quickly become friends, get up with the crack of dawn, meet each other and spend all day in the overall company. The first surpsise on the ship for them is the fact that at night on the deck a criminal goes for a walk who goes to court in England.

Ondaatje’s novel is a kaleidoscope of fates, and the most interesting is that time there is essentially condensed to three weeks, and the place at all to the size of the deck. The novel is written in clean English, so clean that you think that it is well rinsed in seawater. Although the book's title refers to a place where people of so-called second-class gather in the novel, there is no opposition between rich and poor, higher and lower classes. Those, who gather at the Cat’s Table, have interesting fates, sometimes full of secrets, the rich yet seem to be the object of study rather than jealousy. The narrator almost never have to face aristocrats on the ship, so terminally ill Sir and Michael’s aunt are the least deep characters in the novel, they are even more cartoonish.

The world of childhood is full of puzzles, and Ondaatje adds to the book as individual subplot real mystery, with a convict, murder, secret intrigues. This does not hurt the book: it does not appear that the author added the detective elements just to amuse the reader.

The narrator, in his memoirs about post-Oronsay period, says reader\viewer should not be considered novel’s characters stupidier and worse than himself. These words can be assigned to Ondaatje: the book is written with such love for its characters that the reader can not help but love them.

However, it should be remembered that at the heart of the book the memoirs of eleven-year old boy, and therefore you should not trust everything he says. Certainly, there was something exaggerated, something the boy hid, but the cast of the memory of the three-week journey from one life to another one is delight.

1 comment:

  1. I'm quite glad I chose to read this book as it completely changed my perspective of Ondaatje as a writer. While I'm not going to profess that he'll become my favorite author, this is a wonderful book and well worth the time spent reading it.
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