Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).
“I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, into the future“(p.4-5).
This boy, whose name is Michael, like Ondaatje’s, shares some of his creator’s history. But how much of his story is invented and how much of this novel is autobiographical is impossible to tell, partly because Ondaatje has created such a believable story-teller. In spite of the fact that Ondaatje says clearly in an Author’s Note that his novel merely uses the “colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography” and is definitely fiction, its brief chapters have the feel of memory and it is a teasing fiction.
Michael, as an eleven-year-old boy, is put aboard the Ocean Liner Oronsay by relatives. He has with him only a small suitcase, and he is to travel from Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as it was then) to England to join his mother, just as Ondaatje once did. The only people he knows on board this ship are Mrs Flavia Prins, to whom he is introduced shortly before he leaves Sri Lanka and who, unlike him, is travelling First Class; and a distant cousin, Emily, a seventeen-year-old who is also travelling alone but who has “her own plans for the voyage”.
Michael and two other boys of similar age are seated for meals at ‘The Cat’s Table’, so-called by Miss Lasqueti because it is “the least privileged place”, as far from the Captain’s Table as possible. Miss Lasqueti and five other adults share the table with the boys and gradually, through Michael’s eyes, we come to know more about all of them. Years later, looking back at his younger self, Michael sees a child who is “as green as he could be about the world”, but Michael has a child’s curiosity about everything and a young boy’s boundless energy. This voyage is to be an education for him in many ways, but Ondaatje’s book is not just a rite-of-passage story, it is a wonderful recreation of a boy’s perceptions and of what it is like to be an eleven-year-old with almost unlimited freedom from normal adult supervision.
Young Michael and his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, organize their time so that they have free run of the ship in the very early morning and late at night. They swim in the First Class swimming pool, slide on the still-wet, freshly-scrubbed decks, spy on people from their secret lair in one of the suspended lifeboats, steal sandwiches when no-one is around, and get up to the usual sorts of mischief which eleven-year-olds are capable of getting up to. But they are also inquisitive and observant, and over the course of the voyage they learn a great deal from and about their fellow passengers.
Miss Lasqueti, it turns out, is not the staid spinster they first thought her to be. Intriguingly, she keeps a cage of pigeons and she wears a special vest with pockets in it for carrying the birds around. She also has “something to do with Whitehall”; and Michael is sure, on one occasion, that he sees her use a gun. Mr Davies, another Cat’s Table diner, takes the boys to see his medicinal garden deep in the bowels of the ship. And Mr Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, introduces the boys to his friends in the engine and furnace rooms. There is also the well-travelled, failed pianist, Max Mazappa, who takes the boys under his wing, regales them with “confusing and often obscene lyrics” and tries to instill in Michael a love of jazz. The fifth adult we meet only towards the end of the book
Other passengers have more exotic stories. Baron C, briefly trains Michael to act as his accomplice in petty theft. Mr Fonseka, whose nostalgic hemp-rope burning lures Michael to his cabin by its familiar smell, is a reclusive English teacher, travelling, like Michael, to a new and unknown life in England. And Sir Hector de Silva, a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist, is bound for Harley Street as a last resort after being bitten by a rabid dog. As I write this, I remember more and more characters, each of whom Ondaatje makes memorable with Dickensian skill. Our narrator, Michael, has a story-teller’s ability to bring them to life and a self-confessed ability “like any experienced dog” to read the gestures of those around him and to “see the power in relationships drift back and forth”, even if he does not fully understand what is happening.
There is adventure when Michael and Cassius are willingly tied to the open deck by Ramadhin during a tremendous storm. There is a mystery surrounding a chained prisoner who is seen by the boys when he is brought on deck by his guards for exercise during the night. There is intrigue, too, in the friendship of cousin Emily with the deaf girl Asuntha, and with Sunil, The Hyderabad Mind, who is a member of the Jalanka Entertainment Troup which performs for the passengers.
Dramatic things happen. There is sadness and doubt. And there is a poignant account of Michael’s meeting with his mother when he eventually disembarks in England. He is full of uncertainty, not even sure he will recognize his mother after their long separation. For her, too, as Michael reflects years later, “it must have been a hopeful or terrible moment, full of possibilities”
It is hard to tell whether it is the fictional Michael or Ondaatje himself who “once told someone” that “this journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameters of my youth”. Perhaps it was both. The Cat’s Table is, in any case, a beautifully told, humorous and adventurous exploration of the mysterious way in which people, events and memory can shape our lives and our own stories.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/