Years ago I found a copy of Michael Ondaatje's Rat Jelly in a favourite bookshop in north-east Vermont. From that day I was an admirer, not only of his books, but because of his involvement in Brick, the best literary publication in North America, and his dedication to an independent small Canadian press, Coach House Books. Ondaatje, born in Colombo when it was Ceylon, came to Canada in the early 1960s. His deep roots in the east colour much of his writing with references and places at once familiar and exotic. He is justly recognised as a master of literary craft.
The Cat's Table seems at first as if it might be a picaresque novel set in a constricted space, a favourite choice of many writers since Sebastian Brant's 1494 Ship of Fools. Ondaatje gives us the cat's table, the opposite of the captain's table, and the most undesirable dining assignment aboard the cruise ship Oronsay. This allows Ondaatje to lay out an extraordinary assortment of characters like cards on a table, shuffle and redeal them. It gives the passengers a sense of invisibility and the freedom to behave as they wish. As we read into The Cat's Table the story becomes more complex, more deadly, with an increasing sense of lives twisted awry, of misplaced devotion.
The ship is sailing from Colombo to England, a three-week journey by way of the Suez Canal. At the rather large cat's table are three dissimilar boys headed for English schools: "Mynah" (Michael, the narrator), betel-leaf chewing tough guy Cassius and frail, philosophical Ramadhin. They are all wary of each other at first, but quickly lock together in a bad-boy gang to become the terror of the ship, appearing everywhere, slipping in and out of dangerous situations. The curiosity everyone feels about fellow passengers infects the trio of 11-year olds. They snoop and eavesdrop and imagine. "We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst." What they see and learn on that fateful ship, not without pain, shapes their adult lives. A distant older cousin, Emily, becomes Mynah's emotional Virgil in the time of mounting anxiety. A first-class traveller, Flavia Prins, whose husband knows Mynah's uncle, has promised to keep an eye on him. She proves to be a fount of ship-board gossip.
The diverse characters have callings or hobbies that dog them like familiars. The svelte Miss Lasqueti keeps a cage of pigeons and has a vest studded with pockets for the birds; half-deaf Asuntha in her green dress is reclusive and subservient and carries a fatal secret; Sir Hector de Silva lies in his emperor-class stateroom dying from a curse. The teacher Mr Fonseka is reclusive, armoured by his books and burning a bit of hemp rope for nostalgia's sake; Mr Daniels has a huge garden of medicinal and poisonous plants in the bottom of the ship; Max Mazappa, aka Sunny Meadows, is the jazz savant musician "on the skids" who attracts Miss Lasqueti but leaves the ship at Port Said. There is an athletic Australian girl rollerskater who half-attracts, half-frightens the boys. There is the Jankla Troupe (one cannot have a cruise ship without an entertainment troupe) and their headliner, the Hyderabad Mind. More or less by accident Mynah aids and abets the sneak thief, Baron C, while card-playing Mr Hastie, the Head Kennel Keeper, is, after his disgrace, replaced by his puffed-up assistant, Mr Invierno. But all these are subsidiary figures compared to the bound prisoner who, accompanied by guards, exercises late at night. The boys are wild to know who this mysterious man is and what his crime; his dreadful story eventually links to several of the passengers.
The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, something of a Dantean experience. The constriction of space intensifies a sense of allegory as a frame surrounds a painting. For the excited boys the cleavage between east and west floods their consciousness when the ship passes through the Suez Canal. They hang on the bow rail, "where we could witness the fragmentary tableaux below us – a merchant with his stall of food, engineers talking by a bonfire, the unloading of refuse, all of them, all of this, we knew we would never see again. So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement."
The ship docks in England and the passengers disembark. All that has occurred on board the Oronsay, all that was seen and experienced, is carried ashore by the passengers in memories, damaged psyches, degrees of loss, evanescent joy and reordered lives.
source: Annie Proulx The Guardian (UK)