Dirk's Reviews > The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
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's review
Jun 27, 2012

it was amazing
Read in May, 2012

Michael Ondaatje's later novels, starting with Anil's Ghost, (It happens I've never read The English Patient) have a magic grip on my imagination. I listened to The Cat's Table as recorded by Ondaatje himself. Many writers are terrible readers, for example T.S. Eliot, and some are valuable to listen to for the insight it gives you into their sound rhythms, like William Faulkner or Ezra Pound, although they are not exactly wonderful readers. Ondaatje is a fine reader, not as good as the best actors, but good enough to make his prose expressive and, of course, his voice creates another layer of metafiction.

The novel consists of an adult, 'Michael Ondaatje' narrating his voyage as an 11-year-old in 1954 from his native Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to London, with flashes forward that explore the significance of events on the voyage in his life and the lives of his friends on the boat. This work occupies a sort of electric dawn world somewhere between novel and memoir and between verisimilitude and adventure. The narrator, whose presence constantly supports the reality of the story, speaks of himself as 'Michael Ondaatje', but things happen that could not very well happen. Somewhere he says:

“There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually, do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.”

It is the sense of a gradual lifetime process of our attachment by events to a carapace of significance that gives this work its gripping, shimmering form and evocativeness.

The writing in the sense of prose in The Cat's Table is always good and sometimes startles your consciousness with remarkably vivid images. Several characters are fully and sharply presented. They posses the resource of unforeseeable but inevitable actions that give fictional characters fully human life. With the exception of the boy, the characters are delineated only by their words and actions. Somewhere Ondaatje quotes a film director to the effect that the audience should never feel it knows more about the characters than the author does. Occasionally this rule leads to awkward means of exposition such as conversations overheard by people hiding in lifeboats and a long letter from one of the characters intercepted by another.

Unlike Divisadero, this novel is very tightly plotted. It is an adventure story, with hairs-breadth escapes and mysterious events, and what seem to be minor incidents and characters that prove surprisingly consequential.
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