One reason Michael Ondaatje’s books are so exotic to read is because he is an exotic. He was born in Colombo, Ceylon just like the character Michael in his story. Ceylon is now known as Sri Lanka. He is a mix of the European and Ceylon cultures inherited from his parents. It is entirely possible that his current book The Cat’s Table is somewhat autobiographical. If it is, he is remembering things that happened when he was young. Autobiography often takes the form of fiction because it preserves some privacy and allows an author to wander away from an absolutely factual account. The author does include a disclaimer, however, which denies that these events are autobiographical.
I loved Ondaatje’s first book, The English Patient enough to read it several times after I saw the film. Romance and tragedy thrive in exactly the exotic locales that Ondaatje gives us and such stories are hard to resist.
The Cat’s Table is about a young boy from Ceylon who is put on a ship, basically on his own, to travel to England to be with his mother. In the dining room the cat’s table is the table farthest away from the Captain’s table. It is usually reserved for children and people who have some kind of socially questionable status. Two other young boys are also travelling on the Oronsay. These three boys have no duties and they have the run of the ship. Michael, nicknamed Mynah, is the narrator who shares what the boys get up to. He also introduces us to the other passengers who share the cat’s table. These people become temporary family members who do not interfere much with the boy’s freedom but who keep them somewhat grounded.
We get to travel along with these boys on their journey from Ceylon to England. We know they will never be this free again. We get to explore every corner of this ship, almost every hold, every engine room and we are privy to a number of the types of machinations adults get up to that children are usually protected from. We get to travel through the Suez Canal in the middle of the night and watch the Egyptians sitting by the edge of the canal, on-loading and off-loading goods and people and making sure the Oronsay stays safe on its journey through the canal.
I will leave many of the boys’ adventures for you to discover because I think you will want to become an eleven-year-old and journey on the Oronsay for a while. As usual, the writing is so perfect it will not get in the way of the story.