In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the "cat's table"--as far from the Captain's Table as can be--with a ragtag group of "insignificant" adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury.
Michael quickly makes the acquaintance of two other preadolescent boys; Cassius, a troublesome betel-chewing older boy, who was expelled from school but has been selected to attend school in England; and Ramadhin, an introspective and mournful lad. The three unsupervised boys wreak mild to moderate havoc throughout the journey, occasionally accompanied by Michael's alluring and wild teenage cousin Emily, yet they remain just out of reach of harm's way.
The boys encounter and are befriended by a variety of intriguing adult passengers, including an alluring older woman who maintains a stock of birds and wears a coat with pockets for them to be displayed; a musician with two names and even more secrets; and a wealthy man who is dying from a curse placed upon him by a religious man and desperately seeks a cure in Europe. The most mysterious passenger is kept in shackles for a particularly heinous crime, and is only allowed on deck late at night, where the boys observe him with fascination, fear and respect.
The journey marks a transition from the innocence of childhood to the tragedies and disappointments of adulthood for the three boys, although they emerge physically unscathed. The second half of the book describes their intertwined lives, which continue to be influenced by the events of the voyage.
The Cat's Table is a compelling drama, filled with comedy, irreverence and intrigue, with well portrayed characters. Ondaatje does a masterful job in describing the voyage aboard the ocean liner, the mindset of Michael and his young companions, and the sense of ever present menace that held this reader's attention throughout the book. I can't understand why this wasn't selected for this year's Booker Prize longlist, as it compares well with the best of the lot, but it should be a strong contender for this year's Giller Prize.
Then among the wealthy passengers was one Sir Hector de Silva was traveling to England against the advice of doctors treating his hydrophobia. He was afflicted due to the curse of a monk to whom he had shown disrespect. He traveled with two Doctors and a Ayurvedic Healer, as well as his family. His fate was intertwined with that of the boys in an unexpected way.
I loved this book. It was like sitting beside a fire and hearing a story from the past, told by a good and gentle friend. You will meet artists and prisoners and beautiful girls along the way. You will be told of the antics of these boys and you will surely disapprove as I did at times, but you will cheer them on and sigh with relief. You will be brought into the their lives as men and learn their fates, and it will all be done in a most pleasant way.
Than forecourts of kings…
- Rudyard Kipling
An excellent, lyrical book, very affecting and interesting. Despite its main conceit of an ocean voyage as life-changing event having been done many times before (e.g. William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth), and done well, Ondaatje manages to keep the book surprising and varied through his excellent delineation of character. The novel is autobiographical in a sense (the main character is named Michael, and Ondaatje made a similar voyage as a child), but only in the same sense that Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life is autobiographical. As Ondaatje puts it, ‘Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional... down to the narrator.’
Michael makes the 13-day journey from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) to England, stopping at Aden and Port Said, and passing through the Suez Canal on the way. Although this is the first book by Ondaatje that I have read, I have heard of his beautiful writing before. This is amply demonstrated throughout the book. What impressed me especially was the sympathy with which Ondaatje draws his characters. From Michael’s two friends, brash Cassius and weak-hearted Ramadhin, to the other members of the ship’s ‘cat’s table’ (the dinner table for the poorer passengers), they are all plausible human beings. Ondaatje also provides some intrigue by keeping the reader in the dark about some of the characters, such as a shackled prisoner who is only allowed to walk the deck late at night. The main mystery of the book is worked out interestingly, and despite not being a ‘mystery book’, it kept me guessing for a while. One might criticise Ondaatje for being a tad too explicit in revealing this secret, but as I said, this mystery is only secondary to the book’s meaning.
My favourite aspect of the book was Ondaatje’s depiction of the narrator’s friendship with Cassius and Ramadhin. This is done beautifully with a verisimilitude that is rarely achieved in fiction, which usually depicts the friendships of boys either through rose-tinted spectacles, or as one damn adventure after the other. Although there is an element of escapade to Michael’s friendship, it is mainly posited in order to undermine the traditional depiction of ‘boys’ own adventure’. Ramadhin is shown to be an intelligent, thoughtful boy who, despite his ill-health, still supports his friends. Cassius, despite his belligerence, proves to be a caring if damaged boy. Ondaatje shows how their friendship develops during the days of the voyage, and he also depicts how this relationship continued (and ended) after the voyage. It is a poignant tale of young blood coming to its first boil, realising the hard truths of adolescence and adulthood.
The story can be sad; it can also be funny. My favourite character was Mr Fonseka, a Ceylonese man on his way to teach in England. He is wise and very humane. He is also very widely read; it is he who says the above quotation from Kipling during a burial at sea. His friendship with the boys is, in the end, life-affirming as he helps them deal with their losses and burgeoning self-awareness.
A very good book, worth one’s time and attention. I will be reading more of Ondaatje.
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While Ondaatje takes pains to tell us that the book is fictional,it reads like an impressionistic memoir.
Our eleven year old ( and sometimes adult) narrator Michael tells the tale of traveling by ship from Colombo Sri Lanka to the UK.The cat's table is where the least privileged sit to eat meals.
The book is not a demanding read,nor does it give much back.The story moves very slowly, there are some interesting characters and small events, but overall The Cat's Table is a somewhat boring read.The supposed climax is a rather large anti-climax. I certainly enjoy many slow paced reads,but I expect there to be something of interest to ponder on from such a novel. This was not the case with The Cat's Table.
Quoting from the book jacket"The Cat's Table is a thrilling, deeply moving novel" , I must admit that I found the book to be neither.
Why is the book on the Giller LongList? Because the author is Michael Ondjaatje. I struggled with whether to give this book 3 or 3.5 stars, but I gave it 3.5 stars because the book was of some interest.
This deeply affecting and multilayered story orbits around three boys cruising from Sri Lanka to England in the early 1950s. The primary character, Michael (although we only find out his name 50 or so pages in), is traveling on his own to meet his Mother. He and two other boys, Cassius and Ramidhan, have the run of the ship as the reader is taken on a tour of their mostly (but not exclusively) insignificant trouble making and mischief. In Michael's own words, "...the fact that I was on my own...was itself an adventure. I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden."
One cannot help but read the coming-of-age theme built around the 11-year old Michael. The theme might seem cliched, but Ondjaatje's deft mastery of language and his manipulation of plot is what distinguishes this as literature rather than mere fiction.
The Cat's Table refers to the assigned table in the dining room of the ship that’s furthest from the Captain. At this table, the boys are joined by a number of other characters, all adults and all outcasts to some extent. Michael's interactions with the adults on the ship, he realizes, are formulating his impression of adults and building his initial views into his own future adult world.
The trip was an opportunity to observe and orbit around an adult world while still playing the part of a child. He says, "We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst. We felt patterns emerging..." And if to underline the cruise's metaphorical transportation from Michaels' childhood into his adulthood, he finds himself in front of a mirror and narrates, "It was the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years--someone startled, half formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet."
We are introduced to a smattering of other characters throughout the story: Michael's cousin Emily, Ramadhin's sister Massi, and the very enigmatic man in chains - a prisoner who's allowed on deck for only a short while each night. It's the well-paced and dramatic unraveling of the prisoner's story that creates one of the signature "Ah-Ha!" moments in the novel. Much of the last third of the book occurs in Michael’s present where Ondaatje focuses on his growth, the transformation of his relationships with those from the ship, and his synthesis of his past and present. And like real life, not all conclusions are neatly packaged.
Throughout the novel, there are hints at where the story is leading. Some of the hints abruptly foreshadow plot lines. Some hints aren't quite recognizable until the initial plot thread becomes knotted with a related thread farther along in the book.
Through most of the interactions on the ship, Ondaatje writes very short chapters creating almost movie-like quick-cuts from scene to scene. I realized that this is how memories work. Usually, one doesn't remember an entire day, but rather moments that have burned into one's memory through the intensity of the experience. I believe that Ondaatje wrote these scenes very purposefully. First, to create very succinct and clear threads that, over time, flesh out Michael's experiences. Second, these flash memories become part of the story itself. They create a pace and expectation on behalf of the reader that propels his experience with the characters.
Michael reflects on the stories of his life, which are in essence, a unification of memories. He narrates, "There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life."
As they roam the vast ocean-liner, getting up to mischief as only young boys can, they begin to form relationships with other passengers, particularly those placed at their table, but also those they inadvertently stumble across. In particular for Michael, there is his cousin Emily, two years older and mysterious and distant with it.
The structure of the novel, whilst predominantly focused on the events transpiring on board, drifts at times with the wanderings of memory we all go through, and Michael visits the days of his childhood running wild and barefoot through dusty streets, and snapshots of his life after arriving in England.
There is never too much detail given, each character eking out aspects of their story as seen through innocent eyes, and the various mysteries, beauties and fears that form get heightened as they travel closer and closer to the end of their journey. The writing is beautiful at times, but sometimes the lyricism means sacrificing a connection with the people and their lives. Various scenes are captivating, such as the description of the huge ship creeping its way through the Suez canal, but the links between them can feel a little arduous at times.
In the end the events, both those caused by the boys and those simply witnessed by them, shape the trios lives in different ways. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the confines of a vast ship result in tangled webs linking them all indelibly together, even when they don't want to be. This is a skillful novel with well defined protagonists who have genuine back stories but never show their full hand.
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.
At the start of the novel we meet eleven-year-old Michael who is put on a ship in Colombo to travel to England where he is to be re-united with the mother he last saw four years earlier. During the three-week voyage on the cruise ship ‘Oransay’, he makes friends with two boys — Cassius and Ramadhin — who are similarly travelling to new boarding schools in England. Wary of each other at first, the boys find common ground in their insatiable curiosity about the activities of the Oransay and their fellow passengers.
And they do have some extraordinary assortment of travelling companions. Ondatjee populates his novel with amongst others, a Ceylonese circus troupe, a reclusive multi millionaire who lies in his stateroom dying from rabies (the boys believe his illness is the result of a curse); a mysterious woman who is prone to throwing novels overboard and a man who tends a secret garden of medicinal and deadly plants deep in the ship’s bowels. For added interest, they discover a prisoner who is taken onto the decks at night in shackles.
Most of the first half of the book is taken up with the boy’s escapades as they explore, snoop and eavesdrop. ”We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst, ” says Michael the narrator. But misunderstand much of what they see and fail to comprehend some of the signals and it’s left to the adult reader to fill in the gaps.
Around about page 180, this episodic, fragmentary narrative changes direction as the narrator (the adult Michael) leaps forwards many years to relate what happened to the boys once in England. Even then, this is not a linear story as Michael flips from an episode on the boat to a moment in his later life when he was able to understand the significance of that episode more clearly. He reflects also on some of the people he encountered on the ship and how later life revealed what was hidden from him during the voyage. Even then, the novel ends with many questions unanswered. Was the mysterious novel reader, really an undercover intelligence agent? Did the prisoner really escape? What is the nature of the relationship between Michael and his cousin Edith who was also travelling on the boat.? The answers are never revealed. Ondatjee simply suggests and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. I’m still puzzling about one of the very last pieces of dialogue in which, having met up with Edith after decades of silence, she tells him. ‘You cannot love me into safety.’
There is no big drama or turning point in this novel. Its impact comes from the lyrical quality of Ondatjee’s writing and the enigma which which he ends. It’s not as redolent with atmosphere or meaning as his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient but its more quiet style nevertheless makes a lasting impression.
Unbeknownst to him, the twenty-one days at sea would become twenty-one years of schooling, molding him into the adult he would one day be, when he joined the cat's table, the least important place to eat on the ship.
The lessons he picked up from the adult company filled up several pages of his old school exercise books. He still had time to make those notes, amid the adventures in which he and his friends, Ramadhin and Cassius, engaged in on the ship. They witnessed an adult world filled with thieves, adulterers, gamblers, teachers, authority, natural healers, dreamers and schemers. Oh yes, and a shackled, dangerous prisoner. Each one of them becomes important in their lives through either their words or conduct. The ship had lots to offer for three young boys to keep them occupied. So many people, so many stories, so many intrigue. And then there was the ports of call...
Miss Perinetta Lasqueti was one of the guests around the Cat's Table who would become one of the biggest influences in their lives. Their first impression of her manner was that of being like faded wallpaper, but the more they found out about her, the more convinced they became that 'she was more like a box of small foxes at a country fair'. She would become one of the biggest surprises on their life's journey.
Mr. Mazappa - the boisterous, loud pianist would change their newly acquired perspective on old paintings with his approach to the angelic Madonnas in them, saying: "‘The trouble with all those Madonnas is that there is a child that needs to be fed and the mothers are putting forth breasts that look like panino-shaped bladders. No wonder the babies look like disgruntled adults."(p.213 - kindle edition)
Mr. Larry Daniels, the botanist, would teach them much more about his plants than they would ever need to know in their lifetimes.
Mr. Fonseka, the teacher, had a "serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by."
I wanted to read this book for such a long time now. There was just something about it that told me it would roll me over and tie me down in its prose. It did. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered its popularity on Goodreads. Some books just put themselves where it can be read because it is really that good. It is multifaceted. It is thought-provoking. It is excellent. It is one of those books you cannot walk away from easily. It has all the elements to promise that it will become a classic in time. I want to reread it. I just have to. Period.
On board a ship, the Cat's Table, we are told, is at the opposite end of the social scale from the Captain's table, though such an exalted name would seem to suggest otherwise, at least in this humble feline's opinion. Michael, an eleven year old boy, is assigned a place at the cat's table when he journeys from his native Ceylon to begin school in England, some time in the early 1950's. As the above quote makes clear, he soon realizes that, despite it's lowly status, the Cat's table is where all the really fun people are dine every night with him. He becomes friends with two other boys, roughly his own age, and the three of them vow to do one forbidden thing every day for the entire six weeks it takes to reach England. Innocent pranks often lead to disastrous consequences and, by the end of the novel, we know that Michael's life has been permanently altered by the people he's come to know and by the events that have taken place on board the Oronsay.
I love Michael Ondaatje's writing. I always begin his books knowing I'm in good, trustworthy, experienced hands, though I often have no idea where he'll be taking me. But, to quote Leonard Woolf, it's the journey not the arrival that matters, and never more so than in this superb coming of age story that has the ring of truth filtered through fiction. This will surely lead my best of the year for 2012.
There is mystery and adventure aboard the ship: a hidden garden, a prisoner, a dying man, a scholar, and even some circus performers. Indeed, it was that prisoner, brought shackled to the decks at night for exercise, and the mystery surrounding him, that carried through into the last part of the book, where the children are now adults.
The glimpses of childhood in the 1950's, so different from my own experience in the same time, was fascinating. But I could identify with the freedom children had then, to explore and conquer our neighborhood, be it a ship or 7 blocks in suburbia. That the main character is named Michael, and grows up to be a writer, made me wonder if there was a glimmer of true experience in the book. Either way, the story was beautifully told, keeping the revelation of the prisoner's truth to the very end.
It's a fairly short, fast read. It's written as if it was a memoir of Michael, looking back to when he was eleven-years-old traveling alone from his birthplace of Ceylon to his new home in England. The time embraced is longer than that, as we get glimpses of the island home he's leaving, and times since, for the voyage reverberates strongly in his life afterwards. But the focus is on the small "city" or "castle" of the ship S.S. Oronsay during a three-week voyage in 1954 through the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Its spaces and decks are described with enough detail to bring it vividly to mind. In its way it's as impressive a work of world-building as a work of fantasy or science fiction. The cast of characters is vividly presented too--particularly the members of the "Cat's Table." The Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table. It's as far away as possible from that place of honor, in the most undesirable spot, and peopled with the least socially distinguished of the liner's passengers. But quite a few of those people become important both to the young Michael (not lost on me he shares a name with the author) and to the reader. They're more than they appear at first, several having secrets of their own. There's the other two young boys his own age, Ramadhin and Cassius, the "spinster" Miss Lasquetti, the botanist Larry Daniels with his garden of poisonous plants in the ship's hold, Mr Nevil, who dismantles ships for a living, and the mysterious pianist Mazappa. There are some elements of the plot that stretch credulity more than a bit, but mostly this is a sweet, though not too sweet, tale of childhood, when you believed anything could happen, and thought it had. It was a pleasure to read.
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.
Occasionally the author will refer to future events as they relate to this 21 day voyage.
Ondaajte is an amazing writer and I did not want this book to end. He captured the setting well and kept me interested without any fancy plot devices. This is the first of his work that I have read and I am interested in reading more.
my rating 5/5
- imaginary world of the Oronsay (p. 13) free of the reality of the earth (p. 24) e.g. p. 84 with the baron "a little escape into being somebody else), a fairy tale (p. 106) "our castle slipping away slowly ... As the voyage progresses, this imaginary world slowly starts to fade into reality (p 110 + 111.
- the Suez Canal is described a the "most vivid memory of the journey". Was is because of the close proximity to land?
- Michael's nickname is Mynah
- why doesn't Michael leave an address for Cassius at his art showing
- explain Miss Lasqueti
- poetic (p 257)
- explain the ending...
Writing: 1 star
Plot/Story: 1/2 star
Kept me reading: 0 star
Character development: 1 star
Visuals: 1 star