‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Christina Penner

The Cat’s Table is the title of Michael Ondaatje’s newest novel, set aboard a luxury liner traveling over the Indian Ocean from Ceylon to London. It’s also the term for the table furthest from the captain’s table: “the least privileged place” in the ship’s dining hall. The table where outcasts, unpaid employees and small boys come to dine. Meet Miss Lasqueti who flings novels into the sea and packs pigeons in her pockets; Mr. Mazapa who earns his fare by conducting the ship’s orchestra; Mr. Nevil who dismantles ships for a living; Mr. Daniels who spends his day in the ship’s bowels, tending the garden he is transporting over the sea; and a trio of boys who wreck havoc aboard the ship.

One of the hellions is our eleven-year old narrator, Mynah. This young boy has a vocabulary that’s different from Ondaatje’s previous narrators. The Cat’s Table uses sentences that are shorter, tighter, and also funnier than Ondaatje’s other novels. Instead of commas there are periods. Adjectives are replaced with verbs.  And the even pace of a shell-shocked nurse in a crumbling villa is replaced with the wild racing of pre-teen boys throwing furniture into pools.

But Ondaatje’s pen still keeps many of its celebrated tricks. The Cat’s Table glows with characters that emanate humanity in all its strangeness.  Ondaatje is back, and perhaps better than ever at developing characters with rich inner lives, and endowing them with traits from the tiniest and most interesting corners of society. In addition to the already-listed diners at the cat’s table, the characters include an Australian roller skater; a shackled acrobat-turned-mysterious-prisoner; another young acrobat who has lost her hearing; a rich man trying to escape a strange curse; a pack of dogs, kenneled, except for when they escape; and Ondaatje’s requisite thief who oils up young boys and slips them through vents.

Ondaatje’s pen employs other familiar tricks. Again, with incredible beauty and finesse, Ondaatje shows us the scientific and mechanical details of unknown worlds. Previously he’s shown us the poetics of a construction site, the medicinal powers of the desert, the intricacies of military fuses, the politics of bones. In The Cat’s Table he turns his eye for details to the mechanics of a ship. The prose descends into the bowels of the ship to find the chicken run, the dog kennels, a garden growing until artificial lamps, and strangely, a mural of naked women. When the ship docks, Ondaatje’s prose hums with the activity and language of the deck hands at work. And, again typical of Ondaatje’s writing, he pays as much attention to understanding how a ship works as he does describing the dismantling of the same powerful ships.

That interest in dismantling power is a predominant aspect of The Cat’s Table. Encouraged by their misfit adult tablemates, the boys of the cat’s table learn to penetrate and disrupt the boat’s well-defined classes of power. The boys run amok aboard the ship, interpreting signs that restrict access as invitations to enter. Ms. Lasquetti beseeches the boys to “keep your eyes and ears open. It’s an education out there” and listen they do. My favourite overheard conversation is ‘So I asked him, ‘How can it be an aphrodisiac and a laxative.’ And he said ‘It’s all in the timing.’ On that note, the boys eventually arrive at a solemn vow: they will stop at nothing until they use the Captain’s own toilet. And they also inadvertently contribute to the death of the ship’s richest passenger—that’s less of a spoiler than it might appear since the cause of death is well beyond any reasonable guess.

And yes, it’s true that our narrator’s tales sometimes seem impossibly far-fetched.  And that makes sense since our narrator is a tall-tale talking eleven-year-old who confesses to a propensity for lying. As such, the power of the storyteller, and of Ondaatje himself, is put into question.

Mynah’s storytelling leaves room for doubt, and also space to reflect on the role memory plays as a narrator in our own lives. Many of the passengers are confronted with events, accidents, illnesses, and even curses that change their lives forever. And on these accounts Mynah’s storytelling is foggy, poorly articulated and vague. Perhaps we never fully understand the events that come to shape us the most.

I find it difficult to write anything critical about Ondaatje’s writing (he is the author I lined up to meet in McNally Robinson, asked to sign my dog-eared copy of The English Patient and then became so tongue-tied in front of when he asked for my name, that my copy reads ‘To Kathy’), but if I was to criticize this novel I might say the crisis of the novel somehow escaped me. The incident was both unbelievable and also somehow incomprehensible to me.  But maybe this is Ondaatje’s way of showing that our memories are unreliable narrators, never fully capable of describing or revealing those experiences that shape us the most.

Beautifully, Ondaatje’s pen returns to another well-used trick: he mines texts for obscure details and gives them to his characters. For example, did you know hearts can move? “I once had a friend whose heart “moved” after a traumatic incident he refused to acknowledge. It was only a few years later, while being checked out by his doctor…that this physical shift was discovered.” And the entire novel is beating with references to hearts, most of which are skipping, shifting, knotting, racing, chilling, giving out.

And traveling. The narrator and his closest companions are one-way passengers, traveling to a new and different life. Mynah is to begin a new life in a new country with a mother he does not recognize. The novel switches between the passenger’s lives aboard the ship, and their correspondences and reunions as adults living in new lands. Even when these characters disembark from the ship, they remain afloat between continents, never quite feeling at home anywhere. The narrator as an adult explains that they belong nowhere.

But for me the main question of Ondaatje’s novel is this: what table are you sitting at? Miss Lasquiti (the one prone to tossing novels into the sea and carrying pigeons in her pockets) tells the story of working for a curator who turned over the corner of a tapestry and explained, “’This is where the power is, you see… a hundred women worked on this for a year. They fought for the chance to work on it. This thing fed them…. That is what gives truth, depth, to this sentimental tableau.’” But Miss Lasqueti is suspicious of the curator’s analysis, “The kind of power that comes with money and knowledge…. allows them an easy wisdom. But such people close doors on you…. there are codes, rooms you must not enter. In their daily life there is always a cup of blood somewhere.”

At the end of the novel, Mynah has grown up into a famous writer named Michael. And neither the fictional character nor the author himself is sitting at the cat’s table any longer. Chances are if you’re reading this review you’re not usually at the cat’s table either. Ondaatje’s latest novel is an invitation to walk around on our knees for an afternoon, to put aside our codes, our rooms, our literary criticism, our references to post-colonial theorists, and reflect on the world from the perspective on an eleven-year-old boy. Ondaatje has always been a political writer, and this time it seems the certainties he’s aiming at are his, mine, and yours.

McClelland & Stewart | 288 pages |  $32 | cloth | ISBN #978-0771068645

One Comment

  1. RP
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Great review, can’t wait to read it.

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Christina Penner

Christina Penner is the author of the novel Widows of Hamilton House. She lives in Winnipeg, where she teaches in the computer science department at the University of Manitoba.