At the age of eleven, Michael boards an ocean liner bound for England. With his friends Cassius and Ramadhin, he explores the ship and befriends eccentric passengers: Mr. Fonseka, a literature teacher from Colombo who displays the "serenity and certainty" Michael has observed "only among those who have the armor of books close by"; Mr. Daniels, who has transformed a section of the hold into an exotic garden; the musician and blues fan Max Mazappa; an Australian girl who greets the dawn by roller skating fiercely around the deck; Miss Lasqueti, a woman with a surprising, hidden background who is traveling with dozens of pigeons; a hearing impaired Singhalese girl named Asuntha, and others. "Simply by being in their midst," the boys are learning about adults, including those assigned to sit with them at the low-status Cat's Table, situated at the opposite end of the dining room from the Captain's Table. Michael's other lessons include his first fleeting experience with love and desire, as well as a taste of European racism, both subtle and (particularly in the case of the ship's captain) overt.
Two other passengers Michael knows only by sight. Sir Hector de Silva, a wealthy but ill passenger in Emperor Class accommodations, has bad luck with dogs, perhaps because a spell was cast upon him. At the opposite end of the social spectrum is a prisoner, rumored to be a murderer, whose midnight strolls on the deck -- closely guarded and in chains -- the concealed boys observe with fascination.
Michael Ondaatje keeps all these characters in motion like a master juggler. They are a fascinating bunch, and Ondaatje weaves them in and out of the narrative while maintaining a perfectly balanced pace: not so quick that the story whizzes by without time to appreciate its nuances; not so deliberate as to lose its energetic force.
At its midway point, the novel skips ahead from the 1953 voyage to events that occur twenty years later in Michael's life, events that trigger memories of the friends with whom he bonded on that formative journey. Although the writing in that section is exceptionally strong and quite moving, it has an out-of-joint feel, particularly when the flash forward ends and the voyage resumes. Subsequent interruptions to tell the reader of future events are shorter and more seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Eventually those passages become essential to the story; they complete it. Ondaatje writes: "Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place." The perspective that Michael gains with time, after reconnecting with individuals he met on the voyage, permits him (and thus the reader) to reinterpret events that occurred on the ocean -- particularly a moment of drama that becomes the story's nucleus, and that Michael can only understand fully many years later. For that reason, although The Cat's Table could be viewed as a coming of age novel, I think Ondaatje is suggesting that we spend our lifetimes coming of age -- that is, acquiring the wisdom and perspective of adulthood.
There is a restrained, graceful elegance to Ondaatje's prose that every now and then made me stop, blink, and reread a beautifully composed sentence or paragraph. He writes with affection of dogs and artists, of the needy and of those who give selflessly of themselves. This is a marvelously humane novel that works on a number of levels, but most of all, it is a joy to read.
I run hot and cold on Michael Ondaatie's writing. However, his new book, THE CAT"S TABLE, resonated in a part of my mind long ignored. In some of his other works, DIVISIDERO and THE ENGLISH PATIENT, to mention a couple, he uses many unlikely characters in the telling of his story that seem to run together with no special destination or closure. To me the books are disjointed and not very interesting or realistic. In Cat's Table, he uses the same formula but with more satisfying results. In fact, having been something of a scoundrel in my early years, the boys in this novel reawakened my early existence with their endless curiosity, mindless pranks, and earthy delight in just being boys.
I'm getting ahead of myself. As Ondaatje said, during an interview, the storyline is "A boy (Michael) gets on a boat...and gets off a boat." Fortunately, for us, the author understates the events that subsequently happen. Interest is added when we get to meet a couple of other boys and the three of them ramble unfettered around a large ship, finding opportunities to spy, to assist in burglary, smoke unknown substances, speculate on human behavior, and develop hot-blooded hormones over attractive girls. I too, at that stage of development, had similar adventures, although my spying was done through grass and brush along a small creek. I peeked through tree branches and gaps in large rocks rather than through the pipes, cables and railings found on a big ship. But I saw a lot of stuff, as these young fellows did.
The boys are joined in their journey from Sri Lanka to England by a tailor, a botanist, a burned-out pianist, a retired ship junker, and a mysterious spinster, all of whom join the boys at their dining table far away from the elite near the Captain's table, hence the name the Cat's Table, a term Ondaatje learned from a German publisher. We also meet a chained murderer, a deaf girl, a high society woman who largely neglects her role as Michael's caretaker and Michael's comely cousin, the igniter of young libidos. All these interesting characters fall into place under Ondaatje's skillful manipulations. The reasons for and details of the ship's journey will remain undisclosed here, as will the flash-backs.
Michael Ondaatje is a controversial writer that readers either adore or loathe. I don't think, however, there's any doubt that he is an author who conveys atmosphere and conversation in a clear and descriptive manner. Mood and place are masterfully conveyed. His writing is spare and lucid, with no cerebral words that need to be found in a dictionary. The only word I recall that stumped me was ayurvedic. It wasn't even in my Webster's Collegiate. I later found it pertains to the ancient Hindu science of health and medicine.
Ondaatje is a poet which probably explains why he is so adept at manipulating the intricacies of space and time. He explains that a poet doesn't say everything in his poems. He says one-third of what should be said is left for the reader to figure out. That's what he tries to do in his novels. That could be the reason he is so controversial among serious readers...some don't want to read between the lines to figure out his storyline. In my opinion, that's not the case in Cat's Table. This book is lighter than some of his others and, although flash-forwards to the future are here, the storyline moves with fluidity and a plainness that made my heart thump and my mind reach for memories. That's what a good book should do, ignite the reader's mind.
but I am not sure I "got" a lot of what was going on in this novel. While I loved the first third of the book, the last two-thirds eroded that sentiment.
"The Cat's Table" is the story of Michael, an 11-year-old who is put on a ship for a three-week voyage from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England. Through his assignment to the "Cat's Table," he meets up with two other boys about his age and various other characters (and there are a few at other tables whom he knows or gets to know).
The first part of the novel is told exclusively from the point of view of 11-year-old Michael and it is highly entertaining and enjoyable to observe his exploits and hear his observations from them. Thereafter, the book skips forward and backward in time, so we hear from the adult Michael about things that happened to him and other characters since the trip, as well as his recounting of some of the events that took place on the ship from the vantage point of recollection, rather than observation. It is a result of this frequent change of time and perspective that I got somewhat lost in and bogged down by the book.
In addition, as the story is told by Michael, what he observes and chooses to tell us is all we really know about the other characters in the book; there is very little opportunity to observe them directly. As a result, I never really came to care much about any of the charactersin the novel. In this regard, I find it interesting to note that "The Cat's Tale" contains more characters than are in several of Michael Ondaatje's other novels COMBINED. I think this fact serves to highlight that Ondaatje is better than most authors at creating beautiful pictures and atmospheres with his words, but is not nearly as good at creating fully realized characters.
I give the book three stars for it wonderful beginning, its beautiful language, and flashes of insight into human nature (generally, rather than of any specific character). I can't give it any more than three stars, however, because of its convoluted storytelling and its failure to move me.
on October 8, 2011
It's difficult to write this review; in some places this novel is brilliant and in others, plodding. The novel starts out strong as the narrator, a young boy, boards the Oronsay from Ceylon to England. He is traveling alone, and his traveling companions become his dinner mates at the cat's table (the table farthest from the Captain's). The narrator is an inquisitive boy, and through his eyes we witness the happenings on the ship-- some everyday and mundane, and others intriguing. There is a prisoner aboard the ship, and this instantly captures the attention of Michael, the narrator, and his two friends. Michael's powers of observation are fairly astute, and the writing is powerful and sharp. The early part of the book reminded me of Life of Pi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and if I were reviewing this first part alone, this would have been a five star review without question.
The ship is a microcosm of society, and Michael's understanding of the divide between classes, and the relationship between children and adults, is cemented on this journey. His learning about the workings of the world in this shipboard snapshot of the larger world are compelling and endearing, and the author deftly captures his changing views as he grows up aboard the ship.
In the later part of the book, however, the tone seems to change-- it becomes darker, and this wasn't the trouble so much as the sudden feeling of being more distant from Michael and the other characters. We move between Michael's present adult life, and his time as a boy on the ship. More characters become involved in the story, but we never really get to know any of them enough to feel a connection. This makes it difficult to stay invested in the story. The mystery surrounding the prisoner does heat up, lending some interest. But unfortunately, the plot toward the end of the book seems to just skim the surface. I had hoped for it to go deeper and was disappointed that it didn't.
It's a worthwhile read by an obviously talented writer, but based on the first part of the book I had hoped for a much stronger finish.
I never read THE ENGLISH PATIENT, nor have I seen the movie, but I was intrigued by the premise of THE CAT'S TABLE: an eleven-year-old boy is sent on a twenty-one day ocean cruise from Colombo, Ceylon, to England alone. Adventures ensue.
Actually he's not that alone. His cousin Emily is aboard as is another female relative in first class that he rarely sees. He also has his own stateroom; an adult roommate shows up later. The boy, Michael, has two buddies, Cassius and Ramadhin. Cassius is the more adventurous of the two while Ramadhin has a heart problem that constricts his aggressiveness. The Cat's Table is supposed to be as far away from the captain's table as you can get, but the people who eat there don't seem all that deprived. Miss Lasqueti is some kind of Mata Hari, and there's a man with a garden in the bowels of the ship that he shows to the boys. Michael's roommate is the kennel master and there's a feral dog that Ramadhin brought on board that causes him grief.
A rich man with rabies is also on board. Michael falls under the sway of a sort of cat burglar named the Baron, who uses Michael to crawl through the transoms of various state rooms, including the rich man's. He doesn't steal much. Just when this story line gets interesting the Baron leaves the ship at Port Said. There's another story line involving a prisoner who takes his exercise around midnight each night; the boys are always there watching. Emily has built a relationship with this man's deaf daughter, Asuntha.
When the ship enters the Mediterranean Ondaatje grows bored with the happenings on board ship and skips ahead to the future where we find out what happened to the boys. Michael also receives a letter from Miss Lasqueti intended for Emily. She had heard Micheal speak on the BBC. He had no idea where Emily was, so he read the letter. Once again it doesn't tell us much, only that Miss Lasqueti was worried that Emily wound succumb to the charms of a magician friend of Asuntha's, much as Miss L. had to a much older man. She had written the letter at the time of the budding relationship but had for some reason never given it to Emily. Michael and Emily meet again much later on an island near Vancouver and again we learn next to nothing. Would it have killed him to ask about the magician or about her friend Asuntha?
Periodically Miss Lasqueti, a mystery book lover, will hurl a book over the side of the ship when it proves too unrealistic for her. About the only suspenseful scene in the book is when the prisoner makes a break for it. This was when I had my Miss Lasqueti moment and felt like throwing this book overboard. Ondaatje makes a point of insisting that there never was any ocean cruise, that this is fiction. If so, he forgot the conflict, the climax, and the resolution.
on October 12, 2011
Through most of The Cat's Table, it is easy for the reader to imagine sitting across from an older narrator, Michael, and listening to a memoir that starts when he embarks on a voyage at the age of eleven by himself. For example, this sense is supported when Michael digresses, "There are times when a storm invades the landscape of the Canadian Shield, where I live during the summers ...," before continuing to tell about a storm that happened on the voyage. The perspective is important because an eleven-year-old may notice incidents but only understand them years later while remembering for a memoir.
The first exception to the first-person narrative is in the first chapter, when Michael refers to himself the third person, as if the he does not gain a sense of self until the ship has set off to sea. Michael continues to discover his place in the world and his gradual coming of age while at a gathering in his thirties, "And when I looked up later through the glass doors into the house, I realized that all the adults were inside and we were the children in the garden."
The second exception to the first-person narrative requires the reader to suspend disbelief because it presents an Asuntha's back-story about a hard-of-hearing girl who plays a central role in the story. Perhaps Michael is to have learned the back-story from his older cousin, who was the same age and befriended Asuntha. As an aside, it is also interesting to ponder the juxtaposition of Asuntha and another central character, who could not speak.
The final exception occurs when Michael reads a private letter that was intended for his cousin. The letter contains additional context that is so important for this memoir and to thicken the plot. This is a wonderful story that is at the same time approachable and also fascinating. I recommend that you read it.
on August 22, 2012
I should state up-front that this is my first Ondaatje experience in terms of reading(I did see the movie "The English Patient" and loved the story) and so perhaps I missed---of just flew by---the prose and style that so many of the 5-star reviewers picked up on, almost without exception. Clearly, Mr. Ondaatje has his legion of very loyal fans as many writers do.
But without any background or experience with his writing, I just didn't get this book. To me, it was an unspectacular tale of three young boys in a ship and a somewhat interesting mystery/plot. No more than that. I have read and seen a lot of movies about coming-of-age stories in a retrospective style. Some were outstanding and memorable, like "Stand By Me" and "To Kill a Mockingbird". This one just seemed an average such tale to me. So we were introduced to several interesting characters in a ship; so three boys befriend each other for a few days and then go on to separate lives; so we see a story unfold from their hidden eyes; so...what?
If the book had a point or something to "say", I completely missed it and that is no one's fault but mine. If Mr. Ondaatje's prose is so fantastic that so many fans read his literature as slowly as possible so they can savor every "perfectly placed" word, then that's a good thing for all of them. But for me, it just wasn't more than a breeze little story, flowingly told.
I don't give it a 3 because in my internal scale a "3" and above is a book that I enjoyed enough to recommend it to friends. I can't say I'd recommend this book to anyone asking me for "a good book".
on October 21, 2011
Michael Ondaatje's admirers await his books with patient anticipation. In return, Ondaatje crafts works such as The Cat's Table, one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.
I say narratives because The Cat's Table encompasses many stories: in its seemingly straightforward telling of a boy's 21 days on a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, its deeply complex characters offer glimpses of chance encounters and intermingled lives. The book is a palimpsest, the story of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, told by his older self who happens to be a well-known writer, written by Michael Ondaatje, who includes a disclaimer that while he took a similar trip as a boy, this work is purely fictional. These three Michaels intersect with one another in a memory play seen through the lens of the ship. The language and reflections are mature: this is the understanding only an adult can bring when he looks back at himself years later, trying to come to grips with how the smallest of actions can ripple through many lives over many years.
The titular Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table, the least prestigious spot in the dining room. The characters who gather around it pass through young Michael's shipbound existence, from his two contemporaries who raise hell with him all over the ship to the adults at the table. You get the sense that an entire novel could be devoted to any one of these subsidiary characters, even though they figure in only small ways in Michael's story.
Without ever belabouring a description, Ondaatje fills the reader's world with the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship and the ports it slips through. He also inverts the idea of the ship as a closed-off setting, creating a wonderland with myriad decks and enough forbidden places to keep a gang of three boys busy for weeks. It is peopled by ailing millionaires, live pigeons, unseen violinists, and the prisoner, a mysterious figure whose close-guarded nightly walks become a focal point for the boys, giving their days structure and their imaginations fodder. And there is always the sense that there is more to see, more to hear and overhear, than anything Michael and his friends can comprehend.
Memory and time are as fluid as the ocean the ship traverses, a moment in childhood with momentum but no fixed address. The narrative is overall a linear one, starting at the beginning of the journey, ending when the Oronsay arrives in England, but this is also a collection of stories. As the older Michael reflects on a particular character, events jump forward in time, following that character's interaction with Michael throughout the years before looping back to pick up where we left off on the ship. We arrive at the end of the book a little wiser, a little changed, just as the characters at the Cat's Table are.
Without falling into the triteness of a typical coming-of-age story, The Cat's Table offers a refined, note-perfect journey of how three weeks can alter the course of lives. I genuinely cared for these people and their misadventures, and when it was time to depart for other shores, I was left hoping that I would run into them again.
Like this excerpt? Read the full review, plus other book reviews, at [...]
on October 17, 2011
I've loved Ondaatje's novels since I encountered The English Patient. This was my fourth. And, like another reviewer, I'm giving this one three stars because the writing is so beautiful - and because the first third swept me away.
But once the ship docked in England, the story went slack. There were still flashes of magic but much of the writing seemed self indulgent. Michael, the narrator, was interesting as a child but not as an adult. And we didn't hear from the other characters except through Michael. What plot we'd seen in the first third vanished.
At times reading the second two thirds reminded me of slogging through a long and not very interesting annual Christmas letter, with a paragraph devoted to each member of the family, another paragraph or two for travels, and maybe a remodeling project....
Readers of the latest novel by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, might be forgiven for checking the book's spine to see whether it says "fiction" or "non-fiction." The protagonist is an 11-year-old boy named Michael who is on a fantastic voyage by himself aboard a steamer from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and Red Seas, through the Suez Canel into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic, ultimately to England. Ondaatje took this same trip in 1954, so it is forgivable to suspect that the novel may be thinly veiled autobiography. The author, though, claims that he does not remember the trip well, so he had to fictionalize the story and all of the characters in it.
The title refers to the table placed as far as possible from the Captain's table in the ship's dining room. Michael, traveling by himself on the three-week journey aboard the steamer Oronsay, having been sent by his aunt and uncle to join his mother in England, is relegated to this table, along with two other boys of similar age, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an assortment of colorful individuals who for various reasons don't merit a better location. In truth, these are the most fascinating people on board, despite their lack of privilege. "What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power." The rich, the narrator observes later in life, are boring and predictable. Not so these people.
Michael, who the others nickname Mynah because of his habit of repeating everything he overhears aboard the ship, isn't entirely alone. A friend of his aunt and uncle's has been tasked with keeping an eye on him, and his cousin, the beautiful 17-year-old Emily, is also making the trip. However, neither one has much time for him and he spends the three weeks getting into an endless assortment of trouble with his new friends. Their mutual pact is to do something forbidden every day. Because they are below the sightlines of most adults, they wander the ship with impunity. The only time they are noticed is when they are caught doing something that can't be overlooked, like the time they lash themselves to the deck during a typhoon. They're in close quarters with adults for the first time but somewhat invisible to them.
They sleep little, prowling the decks late at night when everyone else is abed. They sneak into the first class dining room before it opens to sample the wares and swim in their pool, hide in the life boats, descend into the bowels of the ship normally forbidden to passengers, and make friends with a number of adults. They don't spend any time discussing the lives they left behind or the new ones that await them in England. They are completely wrapped up in the moment in a world that is barely big enough to contain them. It isn't until they dock in Tilbury that Michael stops to wonder whether he will recognize his mother, who he hasn't seen for five years, or whether she will know him.
Among those they encounter on their way to England in the hope of starting a new life are a pianist, a woman who has a cargo of pigeons that she sometimes wears on deck in the pockets of her coat (she also has a habit of flinging crime novels overboard when they don't satisfy her), a teacher of English literature, a botanist who has a garden of exotic plants--some of them beautiful but poisonous--in the ship's hold, just past a risqué painting of a woman astride a gun barrel, a tailor who is unable to speak, a man who spent his life disassembling other ships, a philanthropist dying of rabies who continues to have bad luck at the hands of canines--perhaps even a curse--and a thief called the Baron who enlists Michael's help. There is a fake psychic and a troop of performers who seduce some of the travelers with their exotic lives, and a shackled prisoner who is brought onto the deck at midnight for exercise. Rumors about the natures of the man's crimes float around the ship. Michael also has a roommate who works in the onboard kennels and hosts late-night bridge games in their room. Not every one who starts the journey makes it all the way to England.
The book seems at first to be simply a collection of vignettes and adventures, often in short chapters, beautifully rendered and interspersed with little observations and overheard snippets of conversation. Poetic, in a sense. Later, though, the story leaps ahead to recount some of the things that happened after Michael arrived in England. How he kept in contact with one of his shipboard friends, but not the other. How those lives interconnected, not always for the right reasons. He attends Cassius's art show, which features paintings inspired by their trip, all with the skewed point of view of a child looking up at adults or peering down from one of their discreet vantage points, but he doesn't get to see his one-time friend. He also loses touch with Emily for years, but receives an unexpected letter from one of the former denizens of the cat's table that opens his eyes about some of the things that happened aboard the Oronsay and about this particular character's past.
One of the novel's thematic statements comes late in the book. "Viewers of films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them." This applies to novels as well. Though Ondaatje reveals a bevy of fascinating characters to his audience, it would be a mistake to think that he has laid all of their secret hearts bare.
What is fascinating is that, though the trip was clearly important to the boys, and it gave them their first peek at the adult world that awaited them, it wasn't entirely a formative experience for all of them at the time. Michael dabbles with larceny and with sexual curiosity aboard the ship, and forges friendships, but for the most part these don't stay with him. For years, he says, he barely remembered the voyage. The journey was an "innocent story within the small parameter of my youth." Much of what happened on board the Oronsay didn't reveal its true import until much later in life. The main thing he brought away from the trip was an idea of how the world worked and an awareness of how the people relegated to the various cat's tables in life are often the most important and influential. Like the seemingly safe art depicted in a tapestry shown to one of the characters, the power is always underneath.