The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

27/08/11, The Times

It wouldn’t be entirely fanciful to see Michael Ondaatje’s new novel as a pendant, even continuing, volume to his semi-autobiographical novel, Running in the Family (1983). Where the earlier book was an account of his life – a ‘portrait’, he calls it, rather than a historical account – in Ceylon until the age of 11, when he left for England, The Cat’s Table recounts, in the first person, the three-week journey from Colombo to England of an eleven-year old boy called Michael on board the Oronsay, ‘a castle that was to cross the sea’, in 1953. It is important to pay attention to the author’s note at the end of the book: ‘Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, it is fictional’, he writes. Ondaatje has deliberately and artfully used the intersections with his own life – the dates (he was 11 in 1953 when he left Ceylon to travel to England); the fact that Michael grows up to be a writer based in Canada; the allusions to events and people in Running in the Family – to give the fiction the tantalising autobiographical feel of a work such as Old School by Tobias Wolff.

But compared with that miraculously beautiful earlier book, in which memory and imagination fused into such a luminous whole, The Cat’s Table arrives stillborn. The first half of the book is taken up exclusively with the events and characters on board; the child’s point of view is not so much a child’s as the adult’s retrospectively constructing it from memory. Michael quickly forms an alliance with two other boys of the same age, Cassius and Ramadhin; the trio is inseparable except that the gentle Ramadhin, because of his weak heart, does not participate in some of the wilder escapades of the other two. The passengers on boards are a pied lot: the wallflowery yet mysterious Miss Lasqueti, who sits drawing, and reading crime paperbacks, which she flings overboard if they don’t engage her interest; a dumb tailor called Gunesekera; Michael’s cousin, the beautiful Emily de Saram, who is headed for Cheltenham Ladies’ College; Mr Daniels, a botanist, who is taking a huge and entire tropical garden, laid out in the hold of the ship, to England; an immensely wealthy man, Hector de Silva, mysteriously bitten by his own dog as a result of a curse, journeying to Harley Street to seek a cure for his hydrophobia; a deaf girl, Asuntha, who is afraid of water; a bawdy, worldly-wise Sicilian musician, Mr Mazappa, acolyte of Sidney Bechet; even a travelling circus, the Jankla Troupe. Towering above everyone is Niemayer, a sinister prisoner, padlocked and chained at his neck, wrists and ankles, who is brought out by guards every evening, when the deck is clear, for his daily airing. The stories of each of these colourful people emerge somewhat inorganically, one after the other, a lot of it in wanly inert narration.

This being an Ondaatje novel, there are some stunning, and slightly incredible, set-pieces, the literary equivalent of special effects: that garden in the bowels of the ship; a film screening on the deck; a spectacular fifty-knot gale, with deluge-like rains, that Cassius and Michael witness tied up to the railings in the Promenade Deck. Even the Orientalism-lite that he usually does so beautifully appears in a pallid version in the ship’s crossing of Aden. Hanging over everything is an air of slackness and dispersion, as if a magnetic core that binds everything into coherence, into direction, is missing. The problem with fiction centred on set-pieces is that, once the novelty value has worn off, the truth left behind in the crucible seems ashier than ever.

About halfway through the book, the adult Michael steps in and the immediacy of the child’s experiences recedes to become more self-consciously memory. The change of focus jars, particularly because the transition, telling the story of the untimely death of Ramadhin at the age of thirty, and Michael’s short, doomed relationship with Ramadhin’s sister, Massi, is strained, weak, unconvincing. A faux-profound preciousness that comes close to camp, never very far in Ondaatje’s fiction, creeps in here and, later, when he is writing about the cautious hearts of self-contained creatures such as Cassius and Michael, both, interestingly, artists. These are old clichés microwaved and served pretty but you do ultimately reach the unheated core.

The gap between what is and what a child or a first-person narrator sees and understands can be explosive in fiction; think of What Maisie Knew or Ishiguro’s novels. Here it simply refuses to fly largely because it requires the adult Michael to keep intervening and piecing together for us the momentous events that are part of the shortfall in the two understandings. ‘Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place.’ But this clarification of all that has evaded a child’s knowledge has the odd effect of making not the adult-child dichotomies but the previous section, the one that is more undilutedly the eleven-year-old’s experiences on Oronsay, become drained of its lifeblood. The revelations have to do with a true illumination of Niemeyer’s story and how several passengers, notably Emily, Asuntha, Miss Lasqueti, and the Jankla Troupe, amongst others, were secret participants in his drama.

This aspect of the book, after it has settled into the change in gear despite the initial jolt, is gripping and succeeds in coaxing to wakefulness the sleeping narrative. The penultimate chapter, ‘Letter to Cassius’, all of one and a half pages, is again plumb in the centre of the kitschy territory Ondaatje falls into when he is peddling ‘truths of the heart’. And yet, as if to remind us what he can do when he is writing authentically, the final chapter, ‘Arrival’, is a compact piece of emotional truthfulness, grave and playful at the same time, beautifully written and moving. Would that all of it were cut from the same cloth.