“It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.” Michael Ondaatje
I find myself looking back more and more now as Michael Ondaatje does in his recent novel The Cat’s Table. The tale is narrated by an older version of the fictional Michael’s future self, as he recounts a critical youthful experience in his life and sees its importance in a way that was impossible at the time it occurred.
Michael, nicknamed Mynah as a youth, looks back on the twenty-one day journey from the then Ceylon to England that he took by ocean liner, the Oronsay, at the age of eleven. In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Ondaatje says The Cat’s Table is fictional and the ship, the characters in the tale and its locations is an “imagined rendering.” Why he says this is a mystery to me, when in fact, it is well-known that as a young man Ondaatje did travel by ship from Ceylon to England, did, as the novel depicts at the end, become a writer, and surely did encounter passengers on the ship that bear some resemblance to those depicted in the novel.
Knowing all this, however, in no way detracts from pleasure in reading the magical tale he unfolds during his three-week voyage through three oceans, two seas (Red and Arabian) and the Suez Canal. The “cat’s table” refers to the table where he and a group of “insignificant” adults and his two great companions, Cassius and Ramadhin, were seated at mealtimes. It is the table most distant from the one occupied by the Captain and his group of notables. Cassius is the wild one, the troublemaker, while Ramadhin is quite, serious and ill with asthma.
Ondaatje writes: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power…So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large and interesting with strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.” Once they realize they are virtually invisible in the midst of all the other passengers, the three boys proceed each day and night of the voyage to engage in a series of wild adventures that largely pass unnoticed. “Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.”
They discover a mural of a giant nude women deep in the ship’s hull that was painted by soldiers when the ship was used to carry troops during World War II; they visit an artificially lit garden hidden away below the lower deck; one night they tie themselves to the deck at the front of the ship during a cyclone, as the waves sweep over the bow; and each evening they hid themselves in one of lifeboats to steal a glance at the prisoner-in-chains who was being transported to England to be tried for committing a murder and only allowed out of his shipboard cell for a brief walk in the middle of the night.
As Michael grows older he moves to Canada and tries to stay in touch with the friends he made on that youthful voyage. He learns that Cassius has become a highly regarded artist and during a visit to London goes to the gallery where his paintings were showing. He sees that one depicts the dock they looked down upon when the ship paused at the Suez Canal. He learns that Ramidhin has died of his illness and takes the overnight flight to England to be with his family at the funeral.
Do certain childhood experiences echo in your life the way the journey on the Oronsay does for Michael? In all the experiences Ondaatje recounts, we realize that Michael is the observer, the outsider who even though he was just a young boy, was able to understand what the gestures and the words of those around him meant. Recalling them anew now, he arrives at an even deeper understanding of their meaning and the role they continue to play in his life.
The Cat’s Table ends with a visit Michael made to his cousin, Emily, who was also a passenger on the Oronsay’s journey to England. He wonders if the adult she became was influenced by any of the events on that journey and concludes he can never know how much it had altered her. “As far as I could tell it seemed to have been for Emily just a three-week journey...[and] how little all of it appeared to mean to her.”