My favorite piece of short fiction to appear in The New Yorker last year was hands-down Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – a poignant and evocative piece about an eleven year-old Sri Lankan boy’s coming of age on the high seas while sailing on a rowdy cruise ship (The Oronsay) to boarding school in England.
I was overjoyed to discover it was part of a larger novel released in October of last year. I was puzzled to find the story that appeared in The New Yorker was not a straight excerpt and had instead been parsed and elaborated on in long form during the first half of the novel of the same name. In this extended tale, the full twenty-one days of the early 1950’s voyage are realized and a parade of new characters traverses the decks.
The Cat’s Table refers to the not-so-enviable table in the back of the dining room where the young boy (Michael) sat along with two other boys (the wild Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin) and a rag-tag team of adults including a jazzy wisdom-spewing washed-up musician (Mr. Mazappa) and a mysteriously quiet English bird-lady (Miss Lasqueti). The unsupervised trio of rascals have the run of the ship, exploring every nook and cranny and soaking up every story and incident from the revolving door of worldly adults in the their midst. Mystery and adventure, but also misfortune and melancholy soak the ship as it heads half-way across the globe touching on Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
In the short story the focus was on the strange and exciting incident of Sir Hector involving curses, multiple dogs, an Ayurvedic and a burial at sea. This is stretched out over the first third of the novel which then moves towards a less compelling and more confusing incident involving a shackled prisoner, his mute daughter and an undercover agent. Interspliced are the boys’ adventures and Michael’s burgeoning affection for his older and free-spirited cousin Emily. All of these events are woven through recollections of the adult Michael, at different points in his life and now living in Canada, looking back on the strange voyage that marked his childhood.
The structure is classic Ondaatje whose previous works that I am familiar with (the film version of The English Patient and his novel Divisadero) were crafted in a similar fashion full of ping-ponging time frames with various characters and subplots coming and going – usually framed by someone “telling a story” or “remembering.” But he writes not in the stream-of-conscious style of say a similarly nostalgic time-warping writer like Toni Morrison, but instead in the clear vision of someone recording incidents that put you square in the thick of it as if you were witnessing it yourself.
Ondaatje is the master of this reporting of incidents. Take for instance his description of the passengers’ ill-fated attempt to watch a film aboard the ship just before a storm hits:
Unfortunately, the anticipated storm burst loose over the ship, and as the rain hit the projector the hot metal began hissing. A steward attempted to hold an umbrella over it. A gust ripped the screen loose and sent it skittering over the ocean like a ghost, and the images continued to be shot out, targetless, over the sea. – page 88
This scene, along with a pivotal nighttime passage through a lively Arabian port, is among the most vivid. Ondaatje writes in a gloriously cinematic style, and the novel, though at times wandering, moves at a shockingly quick clip from incident to incident in short provocative passages filled with memory and poetry. Some incidents, like the cavalcade of characters, are more interesting than others, and I won’t deny that sometimes I forgot who was who or why they were there. Still I found it near impossible to put the book down.
There are some incidents that while thrilling stretch credibility, like when Michael and Cassius tie themselves to the railings on the main deck during a violent storm surge. Yet there are others so random and humorous that they can only be based on actual incidents from the author’s storied life, like when Michael years later attends an art show of Cassius’ paintings and in the guest book someone (shall we say…Warren Zevon?) left a message announcing, “Little old lady got mutilated late last night.”
One can’t help but wonder how autobiographical this piece of fiction is as Ondaatje, just like the Michael narrating the novel, was born in Sri Lanka, went to school in England and now lives in Canada. And as confusing as all of this separating of fact and fiction and tracking of story lines and characters can be in the Ondaatje universe, maybe that’s the whole point of the novel. Just like Michael melds his dreams, myths, and memories of childhood with present-day wisdom and 20/20 hindsight, a voyage back through time into that childhood is nothing more than a confusing amalgamation of incidents splintered by moments of enlightenment and magical lucidity.
Ondaatje keenly reminds us that memories are sometimes like that torn movie screen “skittering over the ocean like a ghost” and sometimes like the images left behind “shot out targetless over the sea.”
Written by David H. Schleicher