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

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