"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje Originally published in the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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.