Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 287pp. £14.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Cat's Table, By Michael Ondaatje

The last time Michael Ondaatje visited Sri Lanka in a novel was in 2000 with Anil's Ghost where, through a series of fragmented narratives, he presented a story of waste in a time of war. Now he returns. Only on this occasion it is not modern Sri Lanka with which he deals, but the lost and mythical island called Ceylon, a country as foreign as the past, and as extinct as the dinosaur. Ondaatje is both poet and novelist and his use of English is elegant and beautiful. He writes, not in the worn-out clichés that are current in Sri Lanka, but with a feel for an international language that post-Ceylonese nationalism tried hard to strip from the education system of a whole generation.

The Cat's Table tells the story of an 11-year-old boy, Michael, on a voyage from the former Crown Colony of Ceylon to England in the 1950s. Like VS Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, Ondaatje combines fiction with autobiography. It is an engaging device and hardly needs the author's warning that it provides only "the colouring and location of memoir". We understand perfectly the play between fact and fiction.

As in Anil's Ghost, The Cat's Table employs a deceptively light touch, hiding a carefully constructed and tender hymn to the enigma of journey. Indeed, both the arrival and Michael's subsequent life are coloured forever by the experiences of those 21 days at sea.

The novel opens when Michael, along with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, are let loose on a ship, surrounded by a group of eccentric adults and with no proper parental care. They are destined for England. The description of Michael's pre-departure from Colombo expresses the child's tensions, bound as he is, for the unknown. "On my last day," he writes, "I found an empty school examination booklet... a traced map of the world, and put them in my small suitcase. I went outside and said goodbye to the generator". Here is the young boy's unaccountable ache, the dimly grasped sense of what is slipping forever into history.

Ondaatje knows, as all those children who left their home by boat at that time knew, the sweet sadness of such goodbyes. "What was I in those days?" the adult Michael, changed by that voyage, asks. "I recall no outside imprint, and therefore no perception of myself." Years later a distant cousin describes his behaviour at that time: "You were, I recall, a real yakka, a real demon... I remember you caused a lot of trouble."

During the voyage many things, some real, some imaginary, happen. The boys are like lightning conductors, attracting the kind of trouble that constantly tests their bravery, sometimes foolishly, to its limits. One night during a violent storm two of them, tethered by the third, battle out the night on deck. The ship plunges through a 50-knot gale and only the accidental skill of some reef-knots stops them being washed away. Finally, as the tempest dies down, they are found and rescued, half-drowned, before receiving a lecture from the captain.

The story is constructed in a series of vignettes, stitched together in episodes that move backwards and forwards like the action of a Rubik Cube. One moment we are on board ship and the next on land many years into the future. The narrative both puzzles and unexpectedly pulls us up short.

For Ondaatje the poet, economy has always been a watchword, and his imagery is compressed and sparse. Take, for instance, his description of the ship, the Oronsay, which we are told is "lit like a long brooch". Similarly, through a patchwork of seemingly unconnected fragments, we are introduced to the deaf Asuntha, a girl whom the boys first see, "exercising on a trampoline". Suddenly, "she was in mid-air, with all that silent space around her". Later, this image of mid-air suspension is echoed when a passenger describes cycling to work in Italy in the burning August heat.

The sense of movement is everywhere in this novel, charting the voyage and threading through the story like the pulse of the sea which, "in an unexpected abundant light spilled off the deck". It is present in the sharply focused image of the three boys diving into the swimming pool to retrieve silver teaspoons flung into the water by a steward. We find it in the secret garden that grows deep within the ship's bowels, swaying under artificial light. And it is there, too, in the slow, rumble through the Suez Canal with its onshore runners flinging papers and objects across to the ship.

Woven through all of this are the memories of a vanished past; a mental and physical innocence in a once carefree place that no longer exists in Sri Lanka's complicated and brutal metamorphosis. The Ondaatjes themselves come from an old Burgher family and have always been outsiders to the main struggle between Singhalese and Tamils. As a result, in The Cat's Table, we are shown a place of luminous magic and make-believe. Where else could a single sliver of gold be added to the lime and cardamom betel paste chewed at village weddings? Or a bottle of Kelani River water turn into a talisman?

No serious novel can ignore history, and as the journey to the cold north continues, we notice, here and there, touches of the long arm of the imperial rule, softened by humour, but present nonetheless. Ondaatje does not let us escape such moments but nor does he labour his point: "You are a polecat... a loathsome little Asian polecat. You know what I do when I find a polecat in my house? I set fire to its testicles."

And thus, when the fabulously wealthy Sir Hector de Silva, cursed by a monk, contracts rabies but refuses the local ayurvedic treatment, he is doomed. Why? Because he prefers to embark on a dangerous voyage in search of a Western cure. But "not one English specialist had been willing to come to Colombo to deal with Sir Hector's medical problem. Harley Street would remain in Harley Street, in spite of a recommendation from the British governor, who had dined with Sir Hector in his Colombo mansion." Then, when Sir Hector unexpectedly dies, we are told that his knighthood is instantly forgotten, washed chillingly away, together with his body, into the ocean.

Undeterred, the Oronsay continues onwards while Michael, lying in bed, in his cousin's Emily's cabin, makes a discovery: "Suddenly there was a wide gulf between Emily's existence and mine, and I would never be able to cross it... I felt in that moment that I had been alone for years." Unable fully to express his sadness, he understands the defences "which had marked the outline of me, were no longer there".

Such is the quality of the writing that not until we near the novel's end do we notice a false note in the character of Niemeyer. As the shackled prisoner, so necessary for the plot, he remains two-dimensional, with neither his presence, nor the working-out of his fate, really quite believable. That said, this is a quibble in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted whole.

Roma Tearne's fourth novel, 'The Swimmer', is published by HarperCollins

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz