Booker Prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje feints at memoir in The Cat’s Table, an impressionistic, ocean-faring novel that’s wide-ranging in spite of the close quarters. When 11-year-old Michael strikes out from Colombo, Sri Lanka for Tilbury, England in the early 1950s, it’s apparent that he’s following roughly the same path as his creator—even before he settles into the life of a successful writer residing in Canada. The 21 days Michael spends aboard the Oronsay will shape him profoundly, providing him with grist for his writing career, obsessions he’ll carry into adulthood, and a colorful cast of mentors. What begins as an unhurried book about their impact on Michael becomes something darker and more conventional by the story’s end, but Ondaatje’s potent imagination and the understated oomph of his poetry keep things lively, whether the book’s threads are lying loose or woven together.
The cat’s table is an inglorious spot at the opposite end of the main hall from the captain’s table, where the diners are busy “toasting one another’s significance.” But as a now-grown Michael points out, “what is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” Michael and his partners in crime, the hellion Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin, occupy a sort of cat’s table within the cat’s table: Because they’re too young to really matter or keep secrets from, they’re the passengers with the most complete knowledge of the Oronsay’s goings-on. From their perch at the bottom, they observe the mysterious prisoner’s nightly outings, they learn about sex from a salty down-on-his-luck jazzman, and they hear a tale of woe from Mr. Hastie, who was pursued from port to port by a knife-wielding woman, like Yossarian in Catch-22. Together, the boys steal meals, doom a nobleman, and visit a garden of Eden in the belly of the ship. And at one point, Michael acts as a toady to a gentleman thief named Baron C.
As the ship comes into complete focus, Michael’s relationship with his beautiful cousin and sometime guardian Emily deepens, and her possible role in one of the voyage’s many scandals colors their meeting years later, when an adult Michael is attempting to recover bits of his past to better explain his present. As with Ondaatje’s The English Patient, multiple timelines are sketched in simultaneously, although the stories are numerous, often reaching only vignette length. That brevity and the playful tone threaten to make the book feel trivial, and put its climactic resolution off-key. Still, well-realized characters, tart writing, and Ondaatje’s playful self-plundering—a former luxury liner in Ondaatje’s 2000 novel Anil’s Ghost also bears the name Oronsay, for example—demonstrate what earned nostalgia looks like in a time when there’s plenty of the cheap variety to go around.