Monday 16 January 2017

Review: Fiction: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Jonathan Cape €13.99

Published 03/09/2011 | 05:00

'What had there been before such a ship in my life? A dugout canoe on a river journey? But I could never have imagined the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea."

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So remarks 11-year-old Mynah, or Michael as he would soon become known for his new life in England, having travelled alone on this floating castle from his homeland of Ceylon in the 1950s.

The title comes from the fact that he and the ship's other waifs and strays, both adult and child, are allocated to Table 76 for all their meals, the table furthest from the esteemed Captain's Table. But this position of no privilege also affords Mynah and the other two boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, a cloak of invisibility from all the officials that enables them to explore all the hidden crevices of this labyrinthine palace.

This is the latest work from Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan author who won the Booker Prize for The English Patient in 1992. Ondaatje has previously visited his home in his writings, most recently in Anil's Ghost.

But the land he traverses here is the more ancient and mysterious land of Ceylon. Cassius is 'an iconoclast', Ramadhin a quieter, asthmatic soul. This threesome's friendship is one that grows fast and true, together they are heroes and fools.

However, as Mynah reflects, something is always held back, 'what I held in my right hand never got revealed to the left'.

The sea journey may only last three weeks as they cross the Indian Ocean, through the dramatic Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, but this is a lifetime for these young minds, as they travel from the safety of warm familiarity to an utterly alien cold world, and the vessel for this epic journey becomes its own microcosm.

As with all communities, this one is riddled with curiosities for those with eyes as wide open as these young friends to observe.

Before first light, there is the mysterious and most beautiful rollerskater, and, bookending the day, there is the prisoner being taken for midnight walks.

In between, there is a host of colourful characters such as the botanist, Mr Daniels, who introduces the boys to a secret world of plants hidden on the boat.

Ondaatje uses the incidents on board as triggers to link to life before and after this transformative journey. There is a gentleness about the pace of the narrative, it swells and rolls mirroring the movement of this ship across the sea.

And Ondaatje's latest writing confirms him to have the eye of a poet, the frugality of an economist. When introducing Asuntha, a young deaf girl that the boys first see exercising on a trampoline, he describes her as being 'suddenly in mid-air with all that silent space around her'. The deceptive simplicity of Ondaatje's imagery makes it all the more potent.

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