Certain experiences are galvanizing and become indelible, shaping a life. Such is true of the sea voyage at the heart of Michael Ondaatje’s sixth novel, a story so enveloping and beautifully rendered, one is reluctant to disembark at the end of the journey.
The tale begins in the early 1950s when an 11-year-old Ceylonese boy boards the Oronsay, which will sail across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean, ultimately bound for England. The Oronsay is a floating castle, a world unto itself, with seven levels, nine cooks, a veterinarian, several swimming pools, a jail, and more than 600 passengers. In a voice both haunting and intimate, the boy asks, “What had there been before such a ship in my life?”
The boy is nicknamed Mynah by his shipmates; he has absent parents and thus “no secure map,” and is free to invent himself. For Mynah, the sea voyage marks a kind of second birth, a passage that influences everything significant in his later life. Interwoven with the drama of Mynah’s journey are his experiences and reflections as an adult, where many of the childhood mysteries experienced aboard are unravelled with the benefit of hindsight. Looking back on that time years later, he confides, “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was…. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet – nothing ahead of him existed.” The rhythm between past and present, between experience and understanding, creates emotional depth and multiple layers of suspense.
On board the ship, a note slipped under Mynah’s cabin door assigns him to table 76 for meals. Otherwise known as the Cat’s Table, the “least privileged place,” it sits at the opposite end of the dining room from the Captain’s Table. Though his position is lowly, Mynah meets a rogue’s gallery of adults who share their life stories. There is Mr. Mazappa, a half-Sicilian pianist who has “hit the skids.” When Mynah becomes terrified of the ocean and the darkness, “half wanting to pull myself back, half desiring to leap towards it,” Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, pulls out one of his blueprints and draws a picture of a great Greek warship, reassuring Mynah that “our ship is safer.” Botanist Larry Daniels keeps a garden hidden in the ship’s bowels, the brilliant greens and golds dazzling amid the shipboard palette of blue and grey. Miss Lasqueti sketches life on board and carries pigeons within the 10 cushioned pockets of her jacket; as Mynah later discovers, she is not the spinsterish wallflower she appears to be at first.
Mynah also makes two friends his own age: the bold, rambunctious Cassius, and the gentle, reflective Ramadhin. The three boys make a vow that seals their bond: each day they will do at least one forbidden thing. They explode “like freed mercury” all over the ship; their hijinks are delightful, at times dangerous, and often funny. Late at night, they sneak from their bunks to watch a mysterious prisoner on his nightly walk. He is brought out just before midnight, shackled and barefoot. Mynah and his friends speculate about his crime and fate, mysteries that begin to haunt them.
One night, the prisoner does not appear. Having nothing else to do, the boys snap off twigs from a cane chair to light and suck on like cigarettes. The scene is magical with its evocation of boyhood, its images glimmering like coloured gemstones under water: “There was darkness all around us but we knew how to walk through it. We slid silently into the swimming pool, relit our twigs, and floated on our backs. Silent as corpses we looked at the stars. We felt we were swimming in the sea, rather than a walled-in pool in the middle of the ocean.”
It is not until page 57 that the reader discovers the narrator’s real name is Michael. Both the author and the main character were born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), emigrated to England as children, and became writers who settled in Canada. Though Ondaatje plays with the line between autobiography and fiction, what ultimately matters to a reader is the resonance of the novelistic world he has created, which feels utterly real and compelling. The sea is the perfect metaphor for Ondaatje’s story: he plumbs the fluid boundaries between past and present, memory and imagination, fact and fiction, history and identity.
The tension between past and present, and the mercurial mindscape of memory and identity, are obsessive themes in Ondaatje’s work, but in no way does he repeat himself here. The story, characters, and voice are fresh and distinct. Whereas the prose in his Booker Prize–winning novel, The English Patient, was intentionally intricate, exquisite, and at times tortuous – reflecting the struggle of the four deeply wounded characters at its heart – the voice in the The Cat’s Table is limpid and colloquial, enriched by indelible images.
The best novels and poetry possess a kind of bottomlessness: each time a reader revisits a masterful work, she finds something new. Though the ocean journey in The Cat’s Table lasts a mere 21 days, it encapsulates the fullness of a lifetime. This reader will undoubtedly return to it and unearth new treasures from its depths.