by Michael Ondaatje; Knopf, 2011; 269 pages; $26
Halfway through his exhilarating new novel, Michael Ondaatje has the writer at the core of his book explain that “there is always a story ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” Ondaatje wraps this truth in a coming-of-age novel that is as good as any book likely to be found this year.
It is the early 1950s when a very young 11-year-old, “green as he could be about the world ... climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life.” The Oronsay leaves Ceylon bound for London with young Michael, two other boys and an assortment of other “insignificant” passengers confined to the cat’s table, the one far removed from the Captain’s Table.
At the cat’s table, Michael discovers petty thieves, acrobats from a small rural circus, card players, bird enthusiasts, botanists and tailors. They are introduced to jazz and bridge and literature. He becomes acquainted with most of the ship’s crew, from kennel keepers to captain. Most winningly, he meets two boys his own age: Ramadhin, overly cautious because of an irregular heartbeat; and Cassius, who’s as reckless as Michael.
There is also the criminal in irons who walks the deck late each night.
As they try to relieve the boredom they find at sea, the three boys devise as many ways as they can to break rules as they observe the peccadilloes of the others confined to the periphery of the ship’s dining room and culture. Stories unfold, often overheard from a lifeboat the boys hide in, all touching Michael in ways only the adult Michael will come to comprehend.
It is Michael’s interest in a trio of women that structures the novel. He, and especially Cassius, are taken with the silent Asuntha, whose mysterious agenda becomes harrowingly evident at the close of the novel. There is Miss Lasqueti, who always seems to be more than she shows the world. Especially, there is Michael’s exquisite older cousin, Emily, who, though she is someone who will never be seated at a cat’s table, shares Michael’s secrets, shows him how to see himself “with a distant eye,” and allows him to confront his manhood.
Yet The Cat’s Table is by no means just a boy’s adventure tale. Michael Ondaatje has beautifully captured in his seamless, deceptively simple prose, a writer’s attempt to strip events down to their essential truths, only to discover that supposedly essential truths are really just partial ones. One of the most beautifully rendered illustrations of this discovery is in a “2nd Portrait” of Miss Lasqueti that reveals her as something other than the supposed spinster she appears to be.
Ondaatje encourages us to see with many sets of eyes. Some of the most lyrical passages involve young Michael’s observations re-seen by the adult Michael, now a writer, who understands that final judgment should never really exist, who continues to see in that three-week sea voyage of his youth the only truth to hold on to, that “it would be strangers like these, at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.