The Cat’s Table
By Michael Ondaatje
McClelland & Stewart Publishers
Michael Ondaatje has written the dream of every 11-year-old boy. His parents have put Michael on a steam ship The Oronsay, bound for England from Ceylon, and although there is an aunt on board who is nominally “keeping an eye on him,” he is really on his own on a great adventure.
Most young boys of my experience would love to escape the adults, especially those with rules and authority. Best of all there are two other boys on the voyage, whose combined inventiveness leads to narrow escapes and “discussions” with the captain.
The other boys are “Ramadhin” and “Cassius,” the first a bit more cautious because of a heart condition, but the latter resourceful and daring, a boon companion. Michael also has a cousin on board, Emily, she is 17; a confidant when needed; and more daring than you would think.
The boys are seated in the dining room at the table called, “The Cats Table.”
There is no table with less status, and their table mates all have stories to tell, some of which are even true.
Mr Gunesekara is one such person, although he does not speak, so he cannot tell his story, and there is an interesting raw looking scar around his neck, which he hides unsuccessfully under a scarf.
Mr Max Mazappa, plays piano on board, and teaches piano to anyone interested, in the afternoon on the ballroom piano. He regales the boys with stories about women, and lost loves.
He sings them songs the lyrics of which go over their tender young heads. On stage he is “Sunny Meadows,” at the table a pessimist.
Then there is Larry Daniels, the botanist, who is growing all manner of plants in the hold under “grow lights.” He is a sure touch at the Pool Bar, for a cordial treat.
Miss Lesquiti wears a jacket of many pockets to house her many pigeons, and that is not her only sideline.
The whole ship is full of interesting characters; there is the shackled Prisoner, who is brought on deck at dawn for exercise and the rich philanthropist who is dying of Hydrophobia.
These innocent boys, up to tomfoolery, are not aware of all the drama on board ship. They “vacuumed up clues,” but did not always know their meaning.
The Oronsay goes through the Suez Canal and as though that wasn’t exciting enough, a storm at Sea.
Growing up must happen sometime, and when the Circus people known as the Jankla Troupe entertain on deck, an unexpected incident changes each boy.
This reads like a true story of a time that is past, though Michael faces some old ghosts after he is grown up. The author says it is “only” a novel and not true at all. The main character is named Michael, like the author, perhaps it is one of his favourite dreams.
Shortlisted for the Giller Award, this is a very enjoyable yarn..