For years when I was young I would crouch beneath the dinner table to watch my parents drink after-dinner coffee and wine with an ever-changing group of scientists—a tall man from Colombia whose mustache is even more impressive than my father’s, a shy Chinese man who twice brought me folded paper fans, a thin young woman from India with acetic hair who rarely speaks, but whose murmured jokes can pitch the group into laughter.
I remember a woman, a researcher from Brazil, who took my hand and said our shared name was for strong women who thought what they wanted and were good at school, remember when the tall man brought me a little tamed mouse, somehow carried from Colombia through customs in his handkerchiefed pocket. As I read The Cat’s Table, the latest novel from Michael Ondaatje, it these strangers I think of, who first built my ideals of beauty and independence and passion.
In his sixth novel, Ondaatje writes of the people we meet as children, the people who direct our gaze even late in our lives. The main character, a Sri Lankan boy also named Michael (who the author admits shares many experiences and similarities with himself, but calls fictional) narrates from adulthood the three weeks where he and his two friends learned “our lives could be large with interesting strangers.”
In 1954, he boards an ocean liner bound for England. For those three weeks, he eats at the cat’s table, the 76th, placed farthest from the captain’s, among a vibrant group of characters—a flamboyant pianist who has “hit the skids,” a silent tailor whose ever-present red scarf hides a serious wound, a retired ship dismantler, and the two boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, who would become his companions for this journey, whose friendship would follow him far into his life.
This novel, part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part elegy for lost friends, takes place on the Oronsay, a ship resurrected from history and from Ondaatje’s previous novel, Anil’s Ghost, which becomes a sort of microcosmic circus for the three boys navigating its maze. Michael meets a wild array of passengers—a cultured thief (the Ondaatje staple), a high-security prisoner, a gracious, tentative scholar who becomes a teacher to him and his friends—and through the eyes of his eleven year old self, weaves each of their stories into a larger, sometimes diffuse but never disjointed, narrative about how we become what it is we become.
The structure of the narrative keeps even restless readers from feeling constrained to the ship, as Michael floats from 1954 to present and to many years in between, finding those he’s lost touch with, detouring to break our hearts with the short life of Rahmadhin and giving us both the tragedy of his failing heart and the redemption and loss in Michael’s marriage to Rahmadhin’s sister.
Here, as in his 1992 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The English Patient, Ondaatje’s prose is, sentence by sentence, some of the most luminous, remarkable writing I’ve read. He writes with a musicality that is never over-studied, that can brighten the dim corners of a place like a flare, or can break across the page with such force that I have to read that page, that paragraph, that sentence again and again, before I set the book down to breathe.
With equally steady hand, Ondaatje paints the “lush chaos of Colombo’s Pettah market, that smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut (a throat-catching odor), and mangosteens, and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall” and a storm the boys are caught in that “pulled the air out of our mouths. We had to turn our heads away from its rush in order to breathe, the wind buckling like metal around us … Lightening lit the rain in the air above us, and then it was dark once more. A loose rope was slapping at my throat. There was only noise.”
While arguably Ondaatje’s most accessible novel, as the only one narrated in first person, The Cat’s Table retains that essential mystery Ondaatje is known for, like Miss Lasqueti, the spinster who carries pigeons in her coat and tosses her thrillers overboard when they fail to be more interesting than her secretive life. It is in this woman, in the thieving count, in the silent daughter of a convict, in the mysteries that drift like smoke through our grasps at closure, that we find the familiar Ondaatje, the author who delights in lovely hands, a twist of the mouth, the hints of inner, unexplained lives.
The narrative can be dizzying at times, but it works because Michael’s young self is naturally skeptical and self-aware. Having been “trained into cautiousness” at boarding school, he keeps a log of strange and interesting occurrences aboard the Oronsay. And yes, the never-ending new acquaintances can be tricky to remember by name, though Michael’s careful observance of their habits makes them easy to recall. Some of the characters are briefly sketched, and serve as background details to an already colorful group of people, but we see the author’s careful hand reflected in that of the botanist, Mr. Daniels, who is transporting an Asian garden across the two seas, whose collection of exotic plants amazes even the skeptical Cassius.
This “field of colors,” loudly crowded betel leaf, snapdragon, star fruit, pencil trees, black calabash, even strychnine blossoms, eventually becomes not only a gathering place where the members of the cat’s table eat together before the journey’s overcast end, but also a vibrant image of the parti-coloured variety of the strangers—some lovely, some fragile, some dangerous—who the boys watch with unblinking stares.
In the decades after this voyage, Michael admits “It would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me,” and it’s this realization, this recognition of my own strangers that keep this story blooming in my head.