Michael Ondaatje: “The Cat’s Table”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Michael Ondaatje’s “Cat’s Table” was first published in The New Yorker‘s May 16, 2011, issue.

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First things first: months after releasing its iPad app, which was pay-by-issue for everyone, print subscribers can use the app for free.  Who knows why it took so long, but at least it’s now happened.  And that’s just how I read Ondaatje’s story this morning.

I’m not very familiar with Ondaatje.  I’ve seen and quite liked the film The English Patient, but when I tried to read the novel I gave up after about 100 pages.  I had the intent to start it over and give it another go, but that was years ago now, so who knows?  Even after reading this story, which I liked, I’m still not convinced I’m really missing much by avoiding Ondaatje (perhaps KevinfromCanada will convince me otherwise).

“The Cat’s Table” is a nicely written reminiscene of a pivotal sea journey that marks the passage from one land to another and from youth to adulthood.  When it begins, a young boy is being driven to the port in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he will take a ship to England.  The first small section is told in the third-person perspective and in the present tense:

He wasn’t talking.  He was looking out the window of the car all the way.  The two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath.  He could have listened if he wanted to but he didn’t.  For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water under the wheels.   They entered the fort and the car slipped silently past the post-office building and the clock tower.  At this hour of the night, there was barely any traffic in Colombo.  They drove out along Reclamation Road, past St. Anthony’s Church, and he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb.  Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbor, with a long string of lights in the distance along the pier.  He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.

It’s not the most exciting first paragraph, but I like how it introduces a young boy setting out on a journey by describing the initial car journey to the port.  There’s a sense that, though he recognizes some of the details of the journey, he doesn’t comprehend the journey at all, whether by choice because he doesn’t want to think about it or by the simple fact that he’s only eleven years old.  Soon, we are introduced to a first-person narrator:

I try to imagine who the boy in the narrow bunk was.  Perhaps there was no sense of self in his nervous stillness, as if he were being smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.

In the next section, we find out this first-person narrator is that boy, now grown older, looking back: “It had been arranged that I would travel alone from Ceylon to England, where my mother was living, a twenty-one-day journey.”  The bulk of the story takes place on the ship as the boy and two of his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, sneak around the first-class deck in the pre-dawn, soak in the gossip, and cause a bit of trouble.  But what I just wrote will not convey the correct tone of this piece: it is not one of a pre-adolescent free-for-all, something told before the narrator learns what it’s like to be an adult and have responsibility; rather, it is quite grave, reminding me at times of Nabokov’s “Colette,” as the narrator reflects on how, self-aware or not, he was already being deeply affected by the changes going on around him.

There are two individuals on the boat around whom the events of this story are centered.  One is a wealthy man travelling to Europe to find a doctor who can cure him.  He was cursed by a monk and then bitten by a rabid dog, or so the story goes.  The other individual is the narrator’s distant cousin, Emily de Saram.

Because I had no brothers or sisters, my closest relatives were adults, an assortment of unmarried uncles and slow-moving aunts who were bound together by gossip and status.  For many years, Emily, who was older than me and lived amost next door, was my link to their grownup world.  I’d tell her of my adventures and listen to what she thought.  She was honest about what she liked and did not like, and I modelled myself on her judgments.

Though the story developed slowly, I was always completely engaged and interested in the narrator’s experience on that ship with his two young friends, his cousin, and that doomed wealthy man. 

This is an excerpt from Ondaatje’s forthcoming novel, and it shows at times.  For example, the promise of the first few paragraphs — that disconnect between the narrator as an older man looking back on some boy who happens to be himself — is never fully realized.  But this one worked for me.  In fact, I was quite content with it in this form and might not read the novel itself unless it is on the Giller or Booker prize lists later this year.

18 thoughts on “Michael Ondaatje: “The Cat’s Table””

  1. Neal Adolph says:

    This post brings me so close to purchasing a copy of The New Yorker this week – perhaps I will have to get a subscription. Ondaatje is a really great author, who paints with words so well without painting too much. He leaves all the words that need to be there, and takes out the extra stuff – it is a near perfection.

    I’ve read one of his novels (Divisadero), and own three others (Anil’s Ghost, The English Patient, and In The Skin of a Lion). Divisadero is a convincing tale of broken relationship, and then of the haunting of such broken relationships. There is one moment of violence, crippling violence, that I can still recall more than two years after having read it. It is quite a powerful reading experience, and I would highly recommend it.

    I hope to move onto his other works in the near future. I’ve read excerpts of them all – just as I start perusing a new book to read. Somehow though my interest is always peaked by something else. Oftentimes (and I think this of few writers, I think) I imagine that I would enjoy the stories of Ondjaate far more than the story that I chose to read. One of these days I will be sure to make the proper choice and slip into Anil’s Ghost, or something else of the sort.

  2. Since you pretty much demanded that I comment on Ondaatje’s fiction, here’s my list (all read before I started blogging so no reviews to link to, alas):

    1. In the Skin of a Lion — an excellent book that would be on my all-time top-10 list.
    2. The English Patient — a better film than a book and I don’t say that very often.
    3. Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero — neither very good, which would seem to indicate that Ondaatje is headed in the wrong direction.

    I’m not holding my breath about this fall’s book, but would love to see a return to form — he can write.

  3. Trevor says:

    Hmmm, one of Kevin’s top ten books is a must-read, so I looked into it. I had no idea that it was a predecessor to The English Patient. Just how much of a predecessor is it, Kevin? I notice some of the same characters. That seems like the place for me to go.

  4. Trevor says:

    Neal, I am a big proponent to subscribing to The New Yorker — even more so today, now that they’ve granted print subscribers a full and free subscription to the iPad app.

  5. I would say that Lion does not share much at all with The English Patient (I wasn’t aware that the books have some of the same characters). I liked it because it is an “urban” novel in the same sense that much of Roth or Bellow’s best books are. I suspect it would be an interesting contrast to the Francine Prose novel you have just reviewed — we tend to forget that it was immigrants that built our cities.

    I am probably grumpier about Ondaatje than I should be — he is one of those authors who has turned himself into a “personality” at some cost, in my opinion at least, to the quality of his writing.

  6. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I agree with you about this story: it worked for me as is, although I think I want to read the whole novel as well. I’ve enjoyed both “The English Patient” and “Anil’s Ghost”, maybe because both conveyed the lasting sense of mystery that attends the memory of profound sorrow. The gravity of what mattered to Ondaatje in both books seemed to me to justify the difficulty of the structure of both novels. I will also admit that Anil’s journey captured my imagination precisely because she was a young woman, and perhaps I stuck with that novel doggedly because she was a woman, but a woman seeking, amid great violence, buried and taboo truth, much as Faulkner (whom I admire) had his characters seek forbidden and dangerous truth.

    “The Cat’s Table” is, in contrast to those novels, straightforward and set in moderate safety. To me, the story speaks of the complex leave-takings that immigration necessitates. Ondaatje refers to the way the ship “slipped silently” away from the dock, and how shortly after, the boy “slipped” into his bunk, never bidding his relatives good-by. There is a kind of stealth in the situation. Looking out onto the city from aboard ship, the boy feels “Already… as if there were a wall between him and what took place there.” Ondatje uses the word “smuggled” several times, as if to intensify that feeling of stealth, but to also suggest the double-edged idea that this journey might be a lark, and yet it might also be quite dangerous, and it might be, in fact, profitable -this smuggling. The word suggests opportunity alongside the danger, and yet we know full well the boy is scared.

    When the boy sees a traveling troup of acrobats perform, he is terrified by one of the troup, the “Hyderabad Mind”, a nightmarish performer who appears to see truths about people in “the depths of the crowd.’ The boy comes upon him applying his make-up, however, and remarks “I felt that I could almost see, or, at least, was now aware of, the skeleton within.”

    An echo of the make-up on the performer is the idea that people on a journey can “reinvent” themselves, the suggestion that life itself may be an art we practice. It seems like the boy embodies and “acts” the moment when any of us leaves home, and in fact, he acts out the child-like emotions we feel so intensely whenever we are faced with a leave-taking from life as we know it. Threads in the story reminded me of the lives and emotions of my father and my father-in-law, both immigrants, the one from Europe, the other from Appalachia, both of whom reinvented themselves in profound ways. So because the art of this leisurely tale allowed for and even seemed to encourage those reverberations, it seemed rich.

    The art that Ondaatje employs includes a cool and unexcited tone, a restraint from providing us too much information, a setting which includes 7 levels, the provision of a surprising “Beatrice” for the boy, a little derring do by the boys that ends in a death, and not one, but two “plays within a play”, not to mention the drama of a burial at sea. But within the art of this story, that hurried burial at sea suggests the truths that get swiftly covered by the dust of time and exigency.

    (An aside: just when did the editor decide to place this excerpt in this issue – with its brilliant portrait on the cover? And when did she decide on this particular excerpt? Given that the nation has just so recently been through a burial at sea?) At any rate, I am assuming that the novel will be an exploration of buried truth – and I look forward to that possibility

    Ondaatje’s narrator remarks that “A boy goes out in the morning and is busy in the evolving map of his world.” I liked this. Just this morning I was reading Edna O’Brien’s life of James Joyce, wherein she makes a point that Joyce’s father said he was already constructing a map of Dublin from an early age. I would only add that girls do this too – though their maps may concentrate on the topography of interior life. I liked it that the boy had brought a map of the world with him that he had traced, but that it was incomplete – he had forgotten or not had time to label the cities and countries. More art: those spaces are now his to name, now his the opportunity to divine the skeleton beneath the mask.

    So yes, I liked this story a lot. Ondaatje seems to invite the reader’s speculation. And I liked the idea of a man looking back, much the way people do when they reach his age, Ondaatje being 68 or so, a year older than me. So, yes, I liked it. But how this story ended up in this particular issue is an editorial tale I’d love to know more about.

  7. Trevor says:

    Great thoughts, Betsy. I appreciate that each week you add so much to the discussion. I certainly get excited to see what you have to say!

    I’m still not sure whether I’ll read the book when it comes out, but it’s more and more probable.

  8. Jerry says:

    The story was telescoped a good bit I thought since it is from the forthcoming novel but I agree with earlier commentators that it works as a short story.

    I really enjoyed it..I read TEP years ago and I think I will want to read this book when it comes out. The best story i have read in The New Yorker in some time.

  9. Craig says:

    The Gentleman From San Francisco… and it is probably telescoped… go-betweens, sexual knowledge, death at sea

  10. Craig says:

    Oh, and The Monkey’s Paw… we’re also supposed to think Kipling and Orphans of the Raj (here in reverse). Cat’s could be very fun.

  11. Betsy says:

    Trevor, thanks so much for your kind words! I have not replied til now as I have been diaper-deep in grandchildren for the past week.

    Craig, I was unfamiliar with Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” til you pointed it out. Thanks for the fine read.

  12. Ken says:

    I really enjoyed this. The old-fashioned style (to some degree) and the fact that this is a good “yarn” were both rather refreshing alongside most of the more contemporary-feeling stories in The New Yorker. I thought this had the effortless style of a master writer. I’ve never read anything by him before but feel like I definitely want to now. I like how the boy is not romanticized and not overly precocious or imaginative but unformed and yet still intelligent and observant. The adventures in the tale are pleasurable in the way of 19th century fiction.

  13. Aaron says:

    I knew it was an excerpt! and that singular fact held this story back for me. (I’m picky, I know.) I loved how open-ended the story seemed, despite being on a boat, and I loved the transition from a closeted third-person, steeped in silence and isolation (though he must’ve at least known his cousin before then) to the friendly, talkative, and mischevious child (or adult-as-child) narrating the piece. But in editing this down to a short-story, Ondaatje may have left too many other themes in there; the class issues weren’t as relevant as the boy-to-man transition (travel!), and though Betsy makes some good observations (as always), I didn’t think the Hyderabad Mind nor the rich dead man really left enough of an impact. They were just things that happened on the boat, which is great for narrative, maybe, but not for a short story, which really needs some focus and specificity if it wants to get things done.

  14. I returned to this story (and the comments) because a) I just requested a review copy of the novel (due for release in Canada Aug. 30 — I presume it will be the same in the UK and US) and b) next week’s Booker longlist will give us one early indication on how good (or not) the novel is.

    I have to say the re-read served to reduce my expectations. Betsy’s extended (and thorough) comment is a good indication of some of the problems that I have with recent Ondaatje — he seems to both demand and invite readers to detailed consideration whereas I tend to be more interested in what I’ll call bigger picture fiction.

    What does spark my interest in the novel (as opposed to excerpt) is the promotional material from the publisher that indicates the longer work balances the ship journey with its “outcomes” some years down the road. Having said that, Divisadero had a similar framework and I found the latter half just didn’t measure up to the first part — for this reader, Ondaatje’s left-turn in mid-book didn’t work. I still like the concept and am hoping that his execution in the new book is more to my taste than it was in the last one.

  15. Trevor says:

    I’ve got my eye on this one for the Booker, too. Not sure if I will read it either way, but I did enjoy this story. Oh, who am I kidding. When the Booker list is announced I imagine I will get a burst of energy that may propel me through this and the Holinghurst, should they be on the list.

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