The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
By Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Format: Hardcover, 280 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Pub Date: August 30, 2011
The narrative, at first, is plodding and slow as if to mimic the intensive labour one requires in building a foundation. This foundation begins with the voice of a young boy, Michael, who is both inquisitive and yet, disciplined and controlled. And though he is described as a child who is curious, as most young boys are, he is an omnipotent character, one who is not authoritative in tone, but distant.
His maturity is revealed in his perception of those around him, the people who unravel in his mind, more as characters in the play of his short, but life-altering journey on the Oronsay. And characters who by his own confession alter him by his memories of them, seem to both propel him and sustain him much into his later life.
Michael Ondaatje’s craft specializes in making his characters subtle enough for believability and interesting enough to be entertaining. Ondaatje, however, never gives a full disclosure of his intended interpretation of his characters to his readers. We just haven’t the time to fully delve into who we think the characters are because Ondaatje intentionally does not allow us to.
As an author, he gives only what he feels is necessary and quite magically and artistically unveils truths to us we never realized were there to discover in the first place.
The book is written in the style of a memoir and goes as far as to share its main character’s name, Michael, with the author. This in itself can be deceiving since Ondaatje attests to the book’s fiction.
It doesn’t begin as a beautifully read story, but through Ondaatje’s lyrical prose, it slowly builds into a more full-bodied narrative with depth and meaning. What that is exactly, I cannot say—or am afraid to, since in the text, the reader seems to be somewhat forewarned by Ondaatje, the author, through his narrative in saying:
Recently I sat on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understand everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them. – p. 208
Ondaatje’s characters in this sense, are what and who they are. Simply put. (Though complicated.)
And even though the tone and voice of the narrative is seriously written in the style of the memoir and to be taken seriously as such, the characters and their stories feel fantastical, almost circus-like, as found in the depiction and pathetic fallacy of the circus troupe led by the character, Pacipia.
There is friendship in the book and childhood—how both are as fluid as the waters of the journey the Oronsay is on. And the recollection of memories seem to resurface as objects that are thrown overboard a ship only to resurface at sea: buoyant and changed.
The end of the books is what we would normally expect to be the beginning of a story, a scene where Michael is finally greeted by his mother on the shore of England.
But the changes and the growth of the characters have seemed to have already taken place on the ship. Perhaps it is Michael’s absorption of these stories that he is left with to recollect and work out to understand, which creates who he is later as a man and for the entirety of his life—or not. Perhaps it is merely a fictional memoir of a boy-turned-man who voyaged on a ship from India to England and was changed by it as any boy might be. His childhood, like Ramadhim and Cassius’ childhood had ended somewhere during their voyage at sea.
It is a lovely story of boyhood friendship, love unaware of itself, the duality each individual has the potential to possess, the uncertainty of life, and the inevitable changes it brings by the unexpected shores we find ourselves.
It is easy to see why The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize.
If you are patient enough to plod through the beginning of the story as one who helps in building a strong foundation, it’s much worth your read. As you turn each page, more is revealed to you—and to the characters it speaks about—which in itself, is a worthy journey for us all. One I highly suggest you take.
What’s the longest journey you have ever travelled by car, boat, or plane?