At Home in Transit: The Cat’s Table
October 10, 2011, by John Pluecker
In Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje returns to the space he’s perhaps most at home. Several reviewers of the book have said this home is the island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, where the author grew up. Yet in fact, the novel does not really take place in the island nation, but rather in the space between Ceylon and London on a ship called the Oronsay making its slow three-week journey from East to West. There is an element of autobiography to the story; however, much like Francisco Goldman’s insistence on the word novel to describe his work, Ondaatje also steadfastly affirms the book as a novel, not as memoir. And this despite the fact that the main character and the author have a lot in common: both are named Michael, both leave Sri Lanka to go to England at the age of 11 and both eventually wind up as globally recognized authors. While perhaps frustrating for some, this mixing of fiction and non-fiction does not bother this reader in the least; in my case, I’ve always enjoyed this sort of wild intermingling of fact and fiction (that ultimately ends up questioning the very existence of fact). So in this novel, Ondaatje returns to his home of perpetual transit, writing about the small world that comes to life onboard the Oronsay.
As in many of Ondaatje’s novels, his focus is not on the powerful, but rather on those individuals whose lives are affected by larger world battles and happenings, but who have little control over the outcome. In this novel, Ondaatje focuses in on the lives of three young boys—Michael himself (nicknamed “Mynah”), the daredevil Cassius and the pensive, sickly Ramadhin—as they explore the ship and its motley assortment of adult passengers. The boys all sit at the Cat’s Table, the least prestigious portion of the ship’s dining room, far removed from the Captain’s table. But as always, Ondaatje is interested in what happens at the margins; as he says, “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”
The fun of the book, its verve and power is derived from the adventures of these three boys as they voyage across the Indian Ocean, through the port of Aden, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and off to England. None of the boys will be the same after the voyage and the perils and precarious situations they live through will leave them forever altered.
Remember you’ll have an opportunity to hear Ondaatje read and answer questions this evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Get your tickets now.