Review: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (2011)

This is the draft of my review of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – recently published in Wasafiri:

Review: Ondaatje, Michael. The Cat’s Table. London: Jonathan Cape, 2011. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-224-09361-3, £16.99, 286pp

‘You fellows know that there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.’ (Joseph Conrad “Youth” 11)

Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel takes on the might of the sea-chronicle to narrate a voyage between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950s through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, Michael, or ‘Mynah’. The narrative of The Cat’s Table revolves around the intense friendship between Mynah and two boys he meets aboard the Oronsay. The trio relish their freedom and become increasingly nocturnal as they sleep in their daytime ‘nest’ and roam the liner at night, transgressing the starchy etiquette and tightly defined class divides of the daylight hours.

The boys are seated at ‘table 76’, the ‘Cat’s Table’, which is ‘the least privileged place’ (9): the table furthest away from the Captain’s Table. In a typical linguistic manoeuvre, Ondaatje dives beneath the surplus vowels and consonants of ‘Captain’s’ to extract the compressed ‘Cat’s’: the locus of energy and excitement on the ship. Here, pleasure and pain are concentrated in unlikely places: the ‘wickedly beautiful’ flowers of Mr Daniel’s secret ship garden, Mr Mazappa’s obscene lyrics, Miss Lasqueti’s coat of pigeons and hidden revolver, the shackled prisoner, secret nighttime meals in the dark bowels of the ship, card games, dogs. The boys cultivate an intimate knowledge of the Liner, from turbine propellors to the fish-preparation room, and the extraordinary experiences of the ordinary occupants of the Cat’s Table merge with the hinges, seams and belly of the ship. These vibrant experiences sit in contrast with the proceedings of the more expansive, lavish ‘Captain’s Table’ where in the shallow ‘familiar rhetoric’ of head table ‘nothing of lasting value ever happens’ (81). Thus, despite its deceivingly simple language, The Cat’s Table marks a return to the highly aestheticised championing of the subaltern seen in his earlier novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987).

Of course, it is not the first time that Ondaatje makes the literary voyage between Sri Lanka and England, or draws on the architecture of ships and voyages to tell stories. In fact, the hulk of the Oronsay also anchors the narrative of Anil’s Ghost, where the Orient Liner that had previously sailed between Colombo and Tilbany Docks becomes a storage area for the Kynsey Road Hospital at the north end of Colombo Harbour, and a makeshift lab for forensic work on the skeleton, ‘Sailor’. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an author whose work is so intimately tied to an island, the metaphor of the sea appears often in Ondaatje’s poetry where, ‘The sea is in the leaves/ the waves are in the palms’ (Handwriting). The trope of the lit vessel crossing dark water also recurs in Ondaatje’s work, from the distinctive image of Patrick as ‘criminal’ swimming towards the privileged light of the Cherokee (Skin), to the crossings and re-crossings of Ondaatje’s family between Southampton and Colombo where ships ‘spill’ their nationalities (Running in the Family). In fact, Running has many similarities with The Cat’s Table, and they share a simplified syntax and concern with investigating autobiographical details, whilst being avowedly ‘fictional’. In both books, faint memories are swelled with dates, ‘interlocking them all as if assembling the hull of a ship’ (Running). Although autobiography leaves an obvious generic mark on The Cat’s Table, there are also several other important genre-fiction features at work, including the sea tale, the detective novel, adventure fiction, and the epistolary form. The text is also saturated with water. The ship crosses three oceans and two seas, and the Suez Canal and the ship’s swimming pool are the sites of some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes. The voyage occurs in the decade after the formal end of British colonialism, but like Cook’s Nile Steamers in Egypt, the Orient Liners cannot be extricated from the historical capitalist expansion of colonialism. Ironically, the ship’s eventual arrival to the humble industrial waterways of England is an anticlimax after the drama of the journey.

Ondaatje’s literary voyage contends with the weight of the ship metaphor, which notoriously inhabits an in-between space, an autonomous body politic, and a place where people can make themselves. At the same time, the spectres of the great writers of the sea loom over the text: the likes of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. The ‘strong bond of the sea’ between Ondaatje’s boys, the retrospective narration, and the unique perspective given by the ship in The Cat’s Table are all features used in Conrad’s “Youth”, directly referenced by Ondaatje’s epigraph: ‘And this is how I see the East . . . I see it always from a small boat’ (Conrad “Youth” 35).

The novel utilises this perspective to great success. The boys’ unforgettable encounter with the Suez Canal, ‘El Suweis’, inscribes the immense and frenetic human activity that underpins the channel that was the subject of the Suez crisis in this decade, and reinserts lived experience into political accounts of the crisis. The success of this scene relies on the boys’ perspective from the ship, as they hang precariously over the railings ‘gulping in air, taking it in’, witnessing ‘the fragmentary tableux below’. The older Michael revisits these living scenes in Cassius’s huge canvas paintings ‘that filled the three rooms of the Waddington Gallery’, and recognizes ‘the exact angle of vision Cassius and I had that night, from the railing, looking down at the men working in those pods of light’ (143).

Whilst such bursts of filmic brilliance appear throughout the novel, the first half of the book is strangely marked by a looseness of prose that departs from Ondaatje’s usual poetic bareness. This is constituted by a surplus rather than productive literary excess. Although the overall structure is premised on brevity – from the simple vocabulary and short sentences, to the brief two or three page ‘chapters’ that structure the novel – there is paradoxically an overall thinness and bagginess of language. The relationship between the three boys doesn’t shine with the visceral force of Billy the Kid, or convincing energy and rawness of Coming Through Slaughter. Nevertheless, the meandering threads gradually come together through the accumulation and repetition of detail, so that the narrative is pulled taut in its progression towards the hugely accelerated pace of the last thirty pages. These final pages are marked by a concentration of prose and action that show Ondaatje at his finest. This culminates in the breathtaking scene in which the shackled prisoner, Niemeyer is repeatedly plunged under the cold waves, with his handcuffed arms around his daughter’s neck, as she passes a key from her mouth to his.

The frustratingly undulating narrative of The Cat’s Table insists on lingering upon the three brief weeks of the voyage, which are easily forgettable to onlookers, but constitute a pivotal, and permanent journey in many of the passengers’ lives. This permanence distinguishes Ondaatje’s maritime ‘illustration of life’ from Conrad’s, whose seamen frequently traverse the seas. For many of the passengers on the Oronsay, this is a sole trip between an old life in Sri Lanka, and a new one in England. Ondaatje brilliantly provides glimpses into the nascent potential of this journey through the creation of unforgettable sparks amongst rolling waves of prose.


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