MEMORIES ARE FICKLE BEASTS, living alongside our dreams. We often don’t realize when one devours the other, or when they meld into that hybrid of fantasy and reality that becomes our truth. In earlier novels such as The English Patient and Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje explored the agony of living while consumed by memory. His most recent book is imbued with acceptance: memory is unreliable and desire is a compulsive curator of the past.
The Cat’s Table recollects a singular event in the life of Michael, a writer who, at 11 years old, embarked upon a three-week sea passage from Sri Lanka to England in the fifties. The narrative flips from past to present and back again, showing us that the journey’s significance, for both Michael and his fellow passengers, is only absorbed in the years that follow. Their shared experience, compressed into fixed space and time, leaves its mark in myriad ways, affecting the most important choices of love, marriage, and the pursuit of dreams. Everyone is changed. The delight of Ondaatje’s story is in the application of childhood lessons, in the slow reveal of what truly matters once time has earned the answers.
As with Ondaatje’s previous novels, the lapping waves of thought and image present a nonlinear tale while the narrator guides us between past and present, connecting the dots of meaning. The passengers blend into one another in Michael’s memory — “I cannot remember who told us the first part of that story…” — and they exist as a function of adult Michael’s search for the origins of his expectations. The story is populated with many characters, rendered succinctly, most without full arcs. To pull any one of them forward is to take a magnifying glass to one thread of memory — first love, first death, first crime, first freedom — but in reality the vignettes are interconnected: a true rendering of seminal experience.
I thought I was being loved because I was being altered.
Michael, Cassius, and Ramadhin are Sri Lankan-born, of the same age, and fast friends once they find each other at the cat’s table — the one located farthest from the captain and therefore least prestigious. They are traveling unchaperoned to begin school in England, and this journey marks a turning point in their lives. The adults who usher them into new awareness are a varied bunch — a jazz aficionado, a ship dismantler, a horticulturalist, a budding femme fatale, a delicate circus gi...read more