The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

ImageIt’s taken me another month to update this blog, because it’s been one hell of a few weeks settling into uni. But I’m settled now and back for more reading! I stopped The Once and Future King for now and decided to pick up a less fantastical book for a while (not that I don’t love my fantasy books). This is one of the books I mentioned buying a while ago, together with 1984 which I hope to read soon, and I’m really glad I did.

When I could not see the ocean, the fear was not there, but now the sea rose in the half-dark, surrounding the ship, and coiled itself around me. No matter how scarred I was, I remained there, adjacent to the passing darkness, half wanting to pull myself back, half desiring to leap towards it.

The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy who travels from Colombo to London in a ship called Oronsay, in the early 1950s. He and his two friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, get in all sorts of trouble together, running through the ship with the barest of adult supervision to keep the in check. At meal times they sit as far from the Captain’s table as possible, at the lowly ‘cat’s table’ with a mismatched group of people who will in time change their lives. And at night they watch the prisoner Niemeyer in his controlled freedom around the ship.

I have to say that this was a bit of a confusing read for a while. I spent half of the book not knowing the main character’s name (which was revealed in a casual way later) and the other half thinking this was an autobiography. Turns out that even though the boy, Michael or Mynah (how his friends call him), shares a name and a ship journey with the author, the rest is fictional. This meant that I had to reorganize my thoughts on the book twice, but I ended up liking it anyway. So it’s all fictional.

There was a lot going on in the book, and not always in the right order. He would sometimes spend chapters on his memories of England with Ramadhin or his bumping in with other passengers. We could clearly see the way his time on the Oronsay reflected on his future choices. The way he’d wonder for years about his cousin’s involvement with Sunil (the leader of a circus troupe traveling with them) and Niemeyer, never really getting an answer. The way he’d look at Cassius paintings, see those weeks through his eyes, and feel connected to it.

There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.

This was for me a growing up story. About going from careless boy to a guarded adult – not that it was a smooth transition, no. They were thrown into the unknown and expected to fend for themselves. And they did, with the normal bumps along the way. These three children were introduced to the adult world, full of rules and lies, where people aren’t always what they seem at first. In the end it changed them, in ways they would only fully comprehend later when they could look back and wonder about it all with the eyes of the adults they had then become.

I liked the book, even though it’s not the kind I’m used to picking up and going “I’d love to read this!” and was not that enthusiastic about it at the beginning. I bought it mostly thinking it would be a mystery novel, that it would involve the prisoner Niemeyer and some devious scheme of his. And it does, in a way, but it’s not the most important event nor is it as devious as I imagined it would be. Simply human nature and human relationships.

But he had a serenity the came with the choice of life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.


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