The cat’s table on board a ship is where all the ‘undesirables’ are seated – as far away from the captain as possible. This is the table where Ondaatje’s 11 year old narrator, Michael, is seated along with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys.
It is 1954 and he is on his way to England from Colombo (Sri Lanka) to meet his mother after 4 years of separation. What follows is a vivid picture of life on board a big ship told with a child’s sense of wonder; a rite of passage via the Suez Canal!
It is hard not to see this as a memoir. A quick search reveals that Ondaatje did indeed leave Sri Lanka for England as an 11 year old. His parents had divorced and his mother moved to England. It took her 4 years to raise the money to bring him over to join her. He went to Dulwich College and then immigrated to Canada at 19.
Whether memoir or fiction, Ondaatje has (re)captured the fearlessness and carelessness of childhood. He manages to see the extraordinary ship-board experience through the nonchalant eyes of a boy. Occasionally we meet the older Michael who provides a reflective, adult point of view.
The Cat’s Table is a feast of fine writing; something to savour.
Michael Ondaatje has written many books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His best known work is The English Patient for which he won the Booker Prize in 1992 and which was made into the film of the same name.