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 girl, a thief — and possess the sorts of exotic names you might find on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express: Max Mazappa, Flavia Prins, Hector de Silva, Asuntha. While others yearn for a seat at the head table, Michael notes that greater distance from authority offers the most fertile ground for adventure:
What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.
Revelations are bountiful for three feral boys with free range of a ship. They make one rule: “Each day, we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.” They rise at dawn and roam the empty decks, hide in lifeboats, and spy on passengers. The exercise yields an informative notebook of “Overheard Conversations,” but the weightiest observations are of body language, the uncritical guess at blossoming relationships between newly acquainted adults; the foundation for recognizing love. Unlike Ondaatje’s previous novels that swallow whole the dilemma of reckless hearts encased in caring, rational beings, The Cat’s Table cuts apart the experience, finally. The passengers on the Oronsay, viewed alternately by Michael the boy and then the man, come into focus in hindsight, their self-deceptions recognized as the storms that pass through our lives. Once exposed to these inner tempests, our minds are powerless to remain unchanged, while our hearts deflect reason. This lesson recurs throughout the novel, a motif so pure and simple it’s almost embarrassing to realize how unlearned we can be when our hearts are involved. Mr. Mazzapa, resident authority on sex, instructs the boys that men have “[t]wo hearts. Two kidneys. Two ways of life. We are symmetrical creatures. We are balanced in our emotions …” As for women, Mazzapa provides a thrilling explanation that is lost on his listeners:
“There is a madness in women,” he tried to explain to the three of us. “You have to approach them carefully. They might be quaint and hesitant as wild stags, if you wish to lie with them, go drinking with them. But you leave them and it’s like plunging down a mine shaft you didn’t realize was in their nature … A stabbing is nothing. Nothing. I could have survived that.”
Each boy assimilates this lesson according to his nature: Ramadhin protects himself, Cassius burns with a desire to be rid of his neediness, while Michael, adult Michael, identifies his young heart as cold and unfeeling, able to be locked away at the first sign of pain. It is a prominent feature in Michael’s adult recollection of the voyage that he possesses a second heart, possibly one that isn’t so cold. That he can trace his adult choices back to those childhood moments suggests a profound truth: self-knowledge lies in the acceptance of our emotional core as unchangeable. Perhaps the heart can’t learn, only lead.
But are we alright?
Early in the voyage, Michael is gripped with fear over the ship’s seaworthiness. Suddenly realizing they are a floating “castle,” adrift and vulnerable, he seeks reassurance from Mr. Nevil, the ship dismantler. Nevil draws him an ancient Greek warship, a trireme:
“This was the greatest ship of the seas. And even it no longer exists. It fought the enemies of Athens and brought back unknown fruits and crops, new sciences, architecture, even democracy. All that because of this ship. It had no decoration. The trireme was what it was — a weapon. On it were just rowers and archers. But not even one fragment of it exists now … Our ship is safer.”
Traveling across the ocean alone creates understandable fear in a child, yet Michael is strangely calmed by Nevil’s assurances that “the greatest ship of the seas” is no longer in existence; he is told their vessel is safer. He listens for what he needs to hear. The rest is fodder for his imagination to bend and shape the Oronsay into a stronger ship, a trireme, with himself as warrior and Nevil as naval commander. Where adults task themselves with initiation and action, life is constantly revealing itself to a child, a quicksilver map of landscape and emotion. Children default to fantasy when confronted with overwhelming feelings, while caring adults gently pave the way toward meaning:
[It] was painful to realize that nothing was permanent, not even an ocean liner. “Not even the trireme!” [Mr. Nevil] said, and nudged me. He had been there to help dismantle the Normandie — “the most beautiful ship ever built” — as it lay charred and half drowned in the Hudson River in America. “But somehow even that was beautiful … because in a breaker’s yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or a railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger."
There is no control over the adults one will encounter in childhood; one can only hope the preponderance will be benevolent teachers. While Mr. Nevil is a kind, guiding presence, Ondaatje’s story lays out a full spectrum, from compassionate to evil. He shows how easily a child can be misled, how innocence is abused — a crook plies Michael with ice cream and entreats him to slither through windows into unguarded cabins. The boys are in a true learning state, one that will be lost to adulthood, and their education dangles by the shoestring of fate. When they are steered wrong, or fed too much freedom, their fates are in jeopardy. Michael’s stoic recollection of their scrapes with death and persecution belies a wellspring of gratitude, or possibly sorrow. The boys have no right to their lives, only luck and wiser heads to thank for them. Adulthood brings that knowing, in hand with grief for guileless curiosity.
The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage. But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away.
While Michael is aboard the Oronsay, he is distracted by the memory of his abandoned homeland: its smells, its sounds, and its people, his friends. He is mourning, as are many others aboard the ship, yet nothing can be processed until years later, once safely back on familiar ground. It is this particular sway that Ondaatje offers us, even in light of dramatic and frightening acts: how the new commingles with the old, the present dances with memory, and the trodden path reveals itself in a broadened landscape of meaning.
The most compelling thread of The Cat’s Table is this tracing of memory. Ondaatje’s grasp is firmer than in previous books; there isn’t the trademark struggle with truth that is bound to end in misery, and the unknowable is accepted with distinguished grace. To catalogue memory is a desperate act of photography, the sift of diminishing landscapes captured from a passing ship; we are forever coming away with time, leaving even our most recent discoveries to join the archives.