Roger Brunyate's Reviews > The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
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it was amazing
bookshelves: bildungsroman

A Writer's Formation, or a Writer Fully Formed?

I cannot review this delightful book without raising one question that Ondaatje does not answer definitively until his afterword: its genre. Nowhere on the title pages is it called a novel, and indeed it seems to begin as an autobiographical memoir. A boy, aged eleven, embarks on the SS Oronsay in Colombo for the three-week journey from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England. At the first meal, he is assigned to the table farthest away from the Captain, the so-called Cat's Table, the least significant. His companions include two boys of around his age, Cassius and Ramadhin, who become his fast friends in their explorations of the mysteries of the ship and its passengers, starting with the odd assortment of people at their own table: a genial tailor who never speaks, a spinster lady with surprising resources, an impoverished musician who regales them with colorful stories, and a ship-breaker who takes them into the hidden corners of the vessel.

The parallel facts all match. The boy, we learn, is called Michael, and eventually he will move to Canada and became a writer. The real Michael did indeed make such a voyage, and the description of his early life checks out; you can Google Map his school, and almost his house. I confess to a momentary disappointment, for I generally prefer fiction to memoir. But this reads almost as fiction, through Ondaatje's skill in portraying shipboard life as a succession of snapshots, brilliant, enigmatic, or bizarre. Bizarre too are many of the other passengers aboard, as Michael extends his curiosity beyond his immediate neighbors: a circus troupe, a deaf young girl, a rich industrialist dying of rabies, an aristocratic cat-burglar who presses Michael into service as his cat. And a mysterious chained prisoner allowed on deck for exercise only after midnight. The whole voyage seems like a scrapbook for a fiction writer: sensory experiences, strange glimpses into the adult world, brief encounters which his imagination will parlay into the stories of a lifetime. We recognize seeds that will flower into the great scenes in his other books: the episode in The English Patient where Kip shows Hana the Arezzo frescoes by the light of a flare, for instance, prefigured by a vast pornographic mural in the ship's hold, or the dockside activity at the Suez Canal illuminated by sulphur lights as the ship moves inexorably past. This is the formation of a writer, taking place before our eyes.

Or are we witnessing the writer fully formed? At several points from the middle of the book on, he will leave the ship and leap forward a decade or more, delving into adult emotional territory that belongs to a quite different dimension from those shipboard experiences. There are things about Michael's later life that contradict Ondaatje's real biography, and gradually other details emerge that suggest this is indeed fiction rather than reimagined fact. But all the better for it; this is truth plumbed to a depth that only fiction can achieve. The narrator (whom I still can't divorce entirely from the real Ondaatje) reveals a tenderness and vulnerability that you might not find even in the most frank autobiography. The double time-frame that is characteristic of many Ondaatje novels, most notably Divisadero, here becomes a natural interleaving of past and present that is, for me, the warm heart of the book. The things that really moved me were almost all in the later time-frame; they concern the way in which the shipboard things have moved out of his life, and his attempts to recapture some of them are only partial. But this is how it is with all of us as we leave our childhood behind, and the tender melancholy which suffuses the later sections is surely a universal emotion.

There is one character I have not yet mentioned, Michael's slightly older cousin Emily de Saram. Although she is on the boat too, as a passenger in First Class, she contrasts with the gallery of colorful personalities he meets at the Cat's Table. His adolescent attraction makes a still center to those earlier scenes and forms a bond that (as he tells us early on) will continue throughout his life. But Emily will turn out to have been more involved with the climactic events of that voyage than Michael at first realized, and her own emergence from those experiences will form an important counterpoint to Michael's own.

Autobiography as fiction is not entirely a new form. J. M. Coetzee has been doing this for some time, most recently in Summertime. But Ondaatje is more immediate, more sensual, and ultimately more revealing. Curiously enough, as the texture changed to the older writer looking back, I thought of the book I reviewed just before this, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which also makes fiction out of concealed autobiography. That is currently short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Ondaatje's latest belongs in this company too, and it has the stamp of a true winner.
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Reading Progress

September 12, 2011 – Started Reading
September 15, 2011 – Finished Reading
May 16, 2016 – Shelved
August 7, 2016 – Shelved as: bildungsroman

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Ms.pegasus I love your characterization of the writing as a scrapbook of sensory experiences. Those experiences are vividly conveyed, particularly in that passage through the Suez Canal. Great review!

message 2: by Roger (last edited May 14, 2018 07:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Thanks! I'm working on my Warlight review now. The two books have quite a bit in common. R.

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