As a young boy in 1954, Michael Ondaatje left Sri Lanka – which was then Ceylon – for England.
After schooling at Dulwich College, he continued on to Canada, where as a young man he would finally put down roots and take Canadian citizenship. In his latest novel, The Cat's Table, his pre-pubescent narrator, also named Michael, is placed alone on to a giant liner pulling out of Colombo and set for London in the early Fifties. Any autobiographical qualities can only partly be responsible for what proves to be an eloquent, elegiac tribute to the game of youth and how it shapes what follows.
"He was 11 years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life," states Michael, looking back from adulthood. "It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village." The boy is to be met on the London docks by his mother. Until then, The Oronsay, a floating palace of a ship, is a bobbing realm of unlimited possibilities for a boy on the cusp of adolescence.
At meal times, the boy is relegated to Table 76, the cat's table of the title. This is the dining equivalent of the boondocks, as far from the Captain's table as is physically possible and the dumping ground of the ship's most insignificant passengers. It is at this table that he makes friends with two boys of a similar age to him, Ramadhin and Cassius. The former is gentle and sickly, the latter rebellious and bold. Over the course of 21 days, the trio's friendship is forged in bad behaviour, exploration and learning. "Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task."
Ondaatje describes the three-week passage with wonderful vignettes involving an eccentric cast of passengers, while flashing both back to the exoticism of the boy's time in Ceylon and forward to the future he will make for himself in England. It is a clever and effective structure, allowing the journey a pivotal place in the trajectory of the narrator's years.
The stories played out onboard have a Somerset Maugham quality, peopled as they are with chancers on the make, romantics taking a leap, and the tragically doomed putting off the inevitable. The boat allows its human cargo the potential to attempt what they couldn't on land and to try to untether the moorings of the life they have left.
One of the strengths of the novel is the sheer brilliance of characterisation on show. The bit players on board The Oronsay are almost Dickensian in their eccentricity and lovability. There is Mr Mazappa, the piano player who plays out his cuckolded heart in three-quarter time, tanked up on cocktails from the Delilah Bar; Mr Fonseka the classics teacher heading to a post in a British school and already homesick; and the philanthropist Sir Hector de Silva, in search of a cure for his rabies-ridden body in the consulting rooms of Harley Street. The reader is transfixed by these gems as much as the narrator is; they glitter the turbine rooms, secret holds and the relentlessly feudal system of decks that ladder up from the belly of the boat to the upper climes of de Silva's "Emperor" class".
Amusing interludes of overheard conversations ("He's one of the sexual predators on the ship. We call him 'The Turnstile'") illustrate the fleeting and frustrating nature of meetings with people in the artificial arena of travel. And the boy's future judgements add a further shade to the picture, especially when detailing the bonds between the boys. "For most of my life," he later realises, "I have known there was nothing I could give Cassius that could be of any use to him. But I felt I could have given something to Ramadhin. He allowed me affection."
Ondaatje has always revelled in creating fish-out-of-water protagonists, from the immigrants building 1940s Toronto, whose voices filled In The Skin of the Lion, to Count Almasy, the Hungarian desert explorer in The English Patient. The stretched and pinched lives of emigrés and ex-pats, of the departed and deported, of troubled characters in transit and flux, are expertly crafted. In The Cat's Table, he has not only captured with acute precision of the precarious balance of his characters' existence on the move but also, because of the temporal see-saw he employs, the battle that adults wage for the retention of the awe and wonder they once took for granted in their childhood. Ultimately, Ondaatje has created a beautiful and poetic study here of what it means to have your very existence metaphorically, as well as literally, all at sea.
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