In the early 1950’s, the 11-year old Michael Ondaatje set sail from his home in Sri Lanka for England to meet his mother and go to school. The Cat’s Table is a fictionalized tale of this journey, he tells us.
On board the Oronsay, Michael (nicknamed Mynah) becomes friends with two other boys–Cassius, a wild, rebellious boy from his school, and Ramadhin, gentle and contemplative, with a bad heart. Also on board is Michael’s cousin Emily, a 17-year-old beauty with whom he is close.
Although Michael’s father has arranged for an acquaintance to look after him, she is in first class and only summons him occasionally during the voyage. Michael and his two friends are assigned to the “cat’s table” with the most insignificant passengers on board–a tailor who never speaks; Mr. Mazappa, a jazz musician who admits he is “on the skids”; Miss Lasqueti, a seemingly colorless spinster; Mr. Fonseka, a literature teacher from Colombo; and Mr. Daniels, a botanist who is transporting an entire garden in the hold of the ship. Other important characters are a deaf Singhalese girl named Asuntha whom Emily befriends and a mysterious prisoner who is brought above board late each night and provides fuel for the boys’ imaginations. Michael and his friends find that no one is paying attention to them, so they run wild all over the ship.
At first this narrative proceeds more or less sequentially in a series of vignettes telling of different passengers or events. Later, the narration branches out, moving forward in time to later periods and incidents in Michael’s life related to the people he knew on the ship, and then back again. Toward the middle of the novel I felt confused, as if the narrative would never resolve itself into a coherent story.
But it does. Events on board the ship affect the future lives of several of the passengers, particularly those of Michael and Emily. In getting to that place, we experience the sights and sounds of this exotic and evocative passage across the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, up the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean.
The novel is beautifully written, with the vignettes working together in the same way that Michael describes a series of paintings by Cassius, which he sees in a gallery years later. At first the paintings seem abstract, but if he looks at them from the right distance, he sees they perfectly depict the events of a particular night in their voyage together. The vignettes, like fragments seemingly disconnected and abstracted, slowly come together to show us a coherent whole, of Michael’s understanding of the events of the voyage, of his reinterpretation of those events later in life, of how they affect his life and those of others.