The Cat’s Table is a safe novel. It is a novel that lacks the fire or the energy for which a younger Ondaatje was respected and upheld for; even by the most obnoxious of critics. The Cat’s Table is a novel by a writer who has earned unassailable greatness (in context); and who can afford to rest on his laurels for all what things are worth.
Michael Ondaatje’s previous works of fiction dealing with Sri Lanka showcase protagonists / a narrator who “returns home” to the “land of birth” from which s/he has long been estranged. In Running in the Family, the writer is deep in the quest to recollect and remap fragments of his own family history. Anil’s Ghost, which comes a decade of national (political) violence later, introduces us to a forensic archaeologist, Anil, who is “sent” to Sri Lanka; and who witnesses the anarchy of the late 1980s’ political dissemination/s. Twenty years on, a third novel – The Cat’s Table – yet again brings to the fore those familiar motifs of “transportation” and “Sri Lanka”. But, here, however, in contrast to the previous novels, Ondaatje charts a centrifugal movement – where the motion of the narrative is a departure from the island; and is not an arrival of investigation.
Of course, the likes of the “New York Times” are fashionable opinion-vendors for “fashionable” novels; and The Cat’s Table, owing to its author’s reputation, is already one such novel. But, what is best to be heard of such a work is heard at the Barefoot, Colombo 4. While flipping through the pages of an altogether different text, I overhear a remark from a posh elderly lady who is going through the books at the Barefoot Bookshop with a friend. “Ah, this is [Ondaatje’s] latest book” she picks up a copy of The Cat’s Table with due respect; “I have all his other books, so I should get this one as well.” For a reader who would rather spend in excess of Rs.1000 for Ondaatje’s “latest book”, on the sole merit of owning (not necessarily reading) the previous of his works, there are several interesting parallels that can be drawn across the three novels.
One, of course, is the observation already hinted at – the connected motifs of “transportation” and “homeland”. Ondaatje’s novels crucially work around “spaces” of sorts. These are not necessarily broadly definable “spaces” such as “nation” or the “domestic”. But, even within these broad categories Ondaatje makes his characters / protagonists skim a wide range of topography – a “mass” that resonates a varied mix of sentimental, historic, geographical values. Whether Ondaatje’s representations satiate the “cultural-political expectations” of the “resident Lankan reader” is an altogether different issue (my belief is that Ondaatje’s synthesis of what is historically and culturally “Sri Lanka” is often not what I, as a resident reader, experience around me – as a cultural-historic sensation), but his characters often take us places; while they, in their own merit, explore the “spaces” and the hiatuses for overarching meaning.
Let me be more specific – the narrator of Running in the Family is in the process of striving to fill the gaps and voids of a “historical fabric” in relation to his father, Mervyn. The journey in supplementing the gaps of missing knowledge – knowledge that, perhaps, cannot be supplemented as such – we, the reader, too, is ushered along an overarching sense of “history” and “culture” with which the narrator is grappling. In Ondaatje we see the enthusiast who is fascinated by a “fresh discovery” which he uses as a lead on. What we see as “lacking” and as “anomalous” in Ondaatje’s narrative is his own “cultural alienation” from what he strives to present us with authority.
However, The Cat’s Table, in spite of its definite historical framework, does not relate to a “culture” or a “sense of national history” which are spatially and temporally grounded. The narrative relates to a voyage – and the ship, the “ship culture” and its passengers embody a “space of its own”: cut off from the “national history” or its “cultural practices” as we see them in Running in the Family and Anil’s Ghost. Writing from this historically and politically isolated space, Ondaatje frees himself of being prone to “misrepresenting history” or for “misreading the nation”.
The novel deals with the adventured of three boys upon a ship named the Oronsay, sailing from Ceylon to England. The leading passengers of the vessel are given seating at the “captain’s table”, but the protagonist Michael and his friends Cassius and Ramadhin are assigned a “lesser” table with a mute tailor, a retired ship worker, a failed pianist, a biologist and a lady with “weird” tendencies who reads thriller novels in her deck chair. She, in a more bored disposition, would fling the books out of the ship; and would hide pigeons in her coat pockets.
The apparent “lack of significance” assigned to their table makes the boys feel a curious sense of “invisibility” and they probe adventure in every other turn the wind would take. The novel builds up as a neat weave from adventure to adventure, where the trio of Michael, Cassius and Ramadhin explore the “tubbed world” of the ship. Mischief that is akin to and are pardonable of young adolescence fill the pages of the narrative. From secretive dips into the first class pool, to stealing food, and hiding in lifeboats – Ondaatje digs deep into the possibilities of youthful energy within the closed walls of a ship. There’s also the hint of Michael’s “coming of age” – where a pseudo-romantic relationship with his cousin Emily is thrown light on.
In a sense, Ondaatje remains faithful to his primary clay of “exploration” of “spaces”. The difference is that the Oronsay is a secular space without a national or geographic chain holding it down. The ship provides the writer an alternative platform from which he can dictate terms, without having to fall into the pockets a “resident reader” will have in store for him. It is a “Captain’s table” that cannot be pinned down with a “resident reader’s” pride or prejudice. All the time, Michael and the rest are making an “outward” journey – leaving the reader with a semiotic smoke trail but to follow his lead.
Ondaatje’s narrative operates on multiple time frames. The “later Michael” is firmly set in London and a decade and a half later he is intrigued to find a paintings by Cassius in an art gallery. Cassius’ work, Michael observes, portrays a particular moment in their crossing aboard the Oronsay as kids – a moment where they were at the Suez, while an unloading was taking place. There is an element of doubt left in our minds regarding the legitimacy of this “cargo”. However, that moment is presented as having had a deep imprint in Cassius’ mind, for the painting pays close acknowledgement to the very angle in which the boys had been watching the unloading in question, the quality of the sunlight etc.
Cassius’ painting connects the two time frames together and evokes yet another thematic preoccupation on which Ondaatje often dwells: that of “memory”. Cassius’ retention of that relatively innocuous but significant moment and his re-production of it throws a sentimental light over the now mature narrator’s mind. However, this “connection”, for me, is aesthetically unappeasing – it comes across as too contrived and anti-climactic (in the chronological flow of events alone). It is almost as if Ondaatje is making a “moral point” to round things off – a slippage we expect from an artiste who is but on the wrong side of his prime.