Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

For an eleven-year-old boy, 21 days travelling on his own on a steamer ship is enough time to have many adventures. In 1954, Michael and two other boys made a sea voyage from Ceylon to England. "I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden."

When not enjoying clandestine picnics in the lifeboats on deck, the three boys took their meals together with an interesting group of adults at the least-privileged table in the dining room. They sat with Mr. Mazappa, a pianist for the ship's orchestra, who "cheerfully claimed to have 'hit the skids'" and Miss Lasqueti, who "had a laugh that hinted it had rolled around once or twice in mud." There were also a mute tailor, a retired ship dismantler and a botanist growing poisonous plants in a garden in the hold. Table talk might amble from Italian Madonna paintings to breast-feeding to learning that Mr. Mazappa had children. (I've seen quite a few paintings of anatomically-odd breast-feeding Madonnas in Italy and have to agree with Mr. Mazappa's complaint 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.")

The boys paid close attention to the details of mysterious adult world affairs around them, but some of these things did not actually become clear to Michael until long after the voyage. To the adult Michael who is narrating the story, the long-ago trip is somewhat dreamlike: "A blurred dive into the swimming pool, a white-sheeted body dropping through the air into the sea, a boy searching for himself in a mirror, Miss Lasqueti asleep on a deck chair - these are images only from memory." Later in the narrative, these images are explored more fully. Was your curiosity piqued by the white-sheeted body? Mine too.

In vignette scenes, the events unfold like memories growing sharper upon close reflection. The Michael in the novel also happens to be a writer of mixed heritage born in Sri Lanka, adding a layer of surrealism that reminded me of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. Ondaatje's tale remains firmly realistic, however. It has the feel of a memoir. I was right there on the ship with young Michael, experiencing the wonders. How nice it was to be young again, if only vicariously.

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