Michael is an 11-year-old boy who boards an ocean liner in Ceylon in 1954 for the journey to London, to reunite with his mother. On board he falls in with two other boys—the careful Ramadhin and the outrageous Cassius. The trio, parentless, deracinated, only partially conscious of how changed they’ll be by exile, terrorize the ship. They spy, pilfer and smoke bits of cane torn from the furniture. Stealing into the labyrinth of Aden, they spot female shipmates disguised as men, hide a forbidden dog aboard, then sidestep the consequences. In a tour de force of swashbuckling narrative, Ramadhin ties Michael and Cassius down so that, Odysseus-like, they can feel the full strength of an ocean storm. Each evening they eat at a lowly spot dubbed the “Cat’s Table.”
The effect, the collage of character and vignette, is a picaresque tale that’s as close as Ondaatje has ever come to a page turner—a detective yarn with boy sleuths, a mysterious prisoner kept in “hellish chains,” told with all the fantastical detail of magic realism.
This is a novel concerned with liminal spaces: three children mapping the hidden regions of a floating world – a world of displaced people, of travellers between lands.
And like so much of Ondaatje’s fiction, the most important space is the one that separates the present and the past, the fluid relationship between memory and history, biography and truth.
Both Michaels – the narrator and the author – are Sri Lankan-born writers who emigrated to England as children and are now settled in Canada. Yet Ondaatje plays with the lines between where fiction begins and fact ends – the shifting, mercurial seascape of memory and identity.
The Cat’s Table deserves to be recognised for the beauty and poetry of its writing: pages that lull you with their carefully constructed rhythm, sailing you effortlessly from chapter to chapter and leaving you bereft when forced to disembark at the novel’s end.