The Cat’s Table
“. . . curiosity, that powerful driver of discovery, is only as valuable as what it turns up. The inability of Michael Ondaatje’s 11-year-old narrator to do more, ultimately, than formulate questions that even his adult counterpart largely fails to resolve ensures that any potential satisfaction the reader—not to mention the narrator himself—might enjoy shall remain undiscovered country. . . . in The Cat’s Table, the truth, having been only flailed at, remains elusive, and great self-revelation is this strikeout’s absent casualty.”
Michael Ondaatje is one of the most successful English language authors in the world. His work—customarily marked by a rigorous compassion, exacting detail, sere lyricism, and intricate imaginings of multifarious worlds that tend to shimmer on the page—receives critical accolades and reaches a wide readership. As a result—or perhaps the other way around—he writes what and when he wishes.
The Cat’s Table, his new novel, is his first in four years after a previous gap of seven. It’s a pace of productivity that Philip Roth might find poky and William Styron would have envied as prolific. Mr. Ondaatje’s pace is no doubt partly a matter of a depth-seeking temperament and his particular artist’s method. It is also likely enabled by the fact that Anthony Minghella and Harvey Weinstein sprinkled their Miramax Oscar dust onto his famous 1992 novel of postwar drift and self-sufficiency, The English Patient. When The English Patient, which has sold more than a million copies worldwide, came out, the novel was Mr. Ondaatje’s 10th book in 15 years, including many esteemed poetry books. In the 20 years since, he has, with the appearance now of The Cat’s Table, published five.
This is all by way of saying a couple of things that may be important to keep in mind. The first is that method always seeps into the bones of a work of art—look at Kerouac or Brando or Montaigne. The second is that scarcity raises expectations, reasonably or not. Think of all the people out there who are even now jonesing to read some millennial Salinger.
The Cat’s Table is a coming-of-age tale, a sea adventure, and a kaleidoscopic portrait of a specific time and place—a three-week journey embarked upon by the narrator, then 11 years old, taking him from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England and, as we learn later, from proverbial innocence to experience.
Mr. Ondaatje’s tremendous gifts for description are on full display as we meet the cast of characters he’s assembled on this ship, the Oronsay. At the cat’s table alone, so-called for its unenviable position furthest from The Captain’s Table, we are introduced to an expert (and experimental—he chews a lot of plants) horticulturalist with a giant garden in the hold, a silent gentleman tailor with a Kesey-esque secret, a Sidney Bechet-worshipping raconteur and moralist perversely nicknamed Sunny, a mysterious woman with connections to Whitehall, and on and on. We travel with Myna—or Michael—even beyond the denigrated tableaux of the title to meet an aristocratic thief, a prisoner around whom much of the overt drama is centered, and a rich man traveling West to escape a curse (only to meet the same fate as the man in the famed appointment in Samarra.)
Reading early in the novel, as the narrator patrols the ship with two contemporaries, Ramadhin and Cassius, who will leave lasting impressions on him, is a little like visiting an aquarium, a museum of the rarest sort where all the art exhibited is conspicuously alive. As a surveyor and purveyor of artifact and anecdote, calmly delivered in miniature masterstrokes, Mr. Ondaatje can be as good as it gets. The heart hesitates over a line, and then you are again swimming swiftly among exotic things—which have equal chance of being encountered in a gutter or among the stars.
Here is Sunil, or the Hyderabad Mind, leader of the Jankla Troupe of entertainers, preparing for an on-board performance: “He was holding a small mirror in one hand, while the other quickly gashed on stripes of purple paint. The Hyderabad Mind had a slight body, so that the painted head seemed too big for his delicate frame. He peered into the mirror, unaware of me a few feet away as he improved himself in the half-shadow of the lifeboat that hung from the davits. Then he stood, and as he stepped into the sunlight the colours burst forward, the ghoulish eyes now full of sulphur and perception.”
And here is Max Mazappa, alias Sunny Meadows, listening with Myna to his hero Bechet: “pointing out the impossible descants and swaggers. ‘You see he shakes the sound out . . . like sunshine on the forest floor.’”
But just as we are priming for adventure, a Huck-style picaresque perhaps (there’s a boat, after all), filled with vivid strokes and poignant portraiture, something unexpected happens. The narrative begins to slow down, to change its nature—and then it begins to come apart.
We have been advised earlier to prize slowness. Of the much-admired teacher on board, Mr. Fonseka, Myna tells us, “When he spoke he was tentative and languid. Even then I knew his rareness by the pace of his gestures.” And a moving and instructive passage in The English Patient has the title character direct his nurse to read Kipling “slowly,” watching “carefully where the commas fall.” Surely the former, a serene way of being in the world, is laudable—and reading with the kind of sensitivity to phrasing that, say, Sinatra brings to a lyric will doubtless enhance pleasure. There is, however, a prerequisite to this: the song has got to be good.
In The Cat’s Table, concern arises early that this double narrator—child and man—won’t coexist easily on the page. Indeed they begin to stumble over one another, albeit still forgivably, no later than page two, when the elder, who has become a writer, describes his youthful choice not to wave goodbye from the deck as the Oronsay departs: “I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude.” Unfortunately there is, right through to the improbable end, too much he doesn’t “even now” know.
And that is too bad, for soon we find ourselves spending far more time with the adult Michael—dragged forward into his future life—and leave for long stretches the exciting environs of the glittering ship, the 1950s, and our 11-year-old friend. It is from this desultory adulthood that the older writer, tempered (beaten?) by regret and sorrow and even success, begins to cast backward to this long-dormant sea journey, taking stock of life and reassessing the past in light of it—while admittedly not knowing very much about it or what it might mean.
Over and over comes the doubt-plagued refrain, until the reader throws up his hands: “Looking back, I am no longer certain who gave us what pieces of advice, or befriended us, or deceived us.” Or, a sentence later: “Who was it, for example, who first described to us the Palace of Ship Owners in Genoa? Or is it possibly a memory of my own from later, when as an adult I entered that building and climbed those stone stairs . . .” Here’s another, from near the end, as he visits his cousin Emily on an emotional fact-finding mission: “Had she become the adult she was because of what happened on that journey? I didn’t know. I would never know . . .” Okay, then.
One good general rule here is that when we’re on the ship, it’s a far better story than when we’re not. The minor characters are vibrant and beautifully drawn, from Myna’s bridge-playing laissez-faire chaperon, Flavia Prins, to the teacher Fonseca, to another bridge-player and keeper of the ships dogs—Myna’s respectful and avuncular bunkmate, Hastle. These tiny imaginative masterpieces leap from the tale as powerfully as some of the wonderful, three-dimensional grotesques Mr. Ondaatje conjured in his extraordinary memoir, Running in the Family.
But even on board, it is hard to visualize the germ of Michael’s purportedly lifelong devotion his two young contemporaries, perhaps because they are sketched in equally by the boy narrator and the man, with his backward-looking penchant for suspecting meaning where none is apparent. The portrait of the frail-hearted Ramadhin hardly warrants the narrator’s deep, abiding affection for him. We are informed of this rare, presumably mutual love but it never comes into view. Besides shyness, awkwardness, largeness, and a customary parting smile, it is hard to envision Ramadhin at all, except as a receptacle for the tenderness and, perhaps, guilt, of a sensitive but far hardier comrade name Michael.
It could be that Ramadhin’s gentleness of spirit flavored the world around him in such subtle ways, not least its constancy, that his charm is real despite being recondite, and that this very gentleness by its nature resists dramatic exposure. Still it comes as a bit of a shock to hear him lionized two-thirds of the way through as “a saint.” Only his family seems sad when he dies. And no one expected Michael to come to the funeral.
The other boy is Cassius, who plays a curious role. He is described more as a force, as an idea, than as a person—a dimly painted but apparently obstreperous, self-contained, and anarchic hero who later becomes an art world star and friend to Warren Zevon (seriously). Michael states more than once, dejectedly, that to Cassius he had nothing to offer.
“For most of my life I knew there was nothing I could give Cassius that would be of use to him.” But in the last, confusing moments of the book, the narrator writes that this whole effort, the whole telling of the tale was for him, for Cassius, whom he has not seen or spoken with since their time on the Oronsay. “I don’t know if Cassius reads, or if he scorns reading. In any case this account is for him. For the other friend of my youth.”
Yet sometimes the general rule doesn’t hold either. Even the England scenes from Michael’s adulthood that repeatedly proffer strained emotions from great remove in evanescent language—“There was so little to hold on to in our conversation. I was clutching wisps of air. The Ramadhin I fully needed to understand in order to bury was not catchable”— even these mostly hollow passages, far from the ship, contain small moments of revelation that hint at what this novel, more deftly conceived, could have been.
For Mr. Ondaatje’s Jamesian facility for identifying the veiled yet reverberating significance in a gesture, a glance—and extrapolating yards of meaning from an inch of movement—still occasionally surfaces. When his soon-to-be-ex-wife, dancing with a mutual friend at a party, moves the shoulder strap of her summer dress an inch, Michael sees from across the room that “without needing to see anything more, or to hear a word being said, I knew there was some grace between them that we ourselves did not have anymore.”
In a 2010 conversation with the English writer and art critic John Berger, Mr. Ondaatje described his method for achieving the intense privacy he needs in order to create his work as a “descent” into himself. He is always, he said, “trying to descend to a level that I haven’t gone before.” Berger quickly and characteristically introduced the metaphor of a diver, asking, “What is the oxygen for that descent—is it language? What is it?” Mr. Ondaatje replied: “Maybe it’s curiosity.”
But curiosity, that powerful driver of discovery, is only as valuable as what it turns up. The inability of Mr. Ondaatje’s 11-year-old narrator to do more, ultimately, than formulate questions that even his adult counterpart largely fails to resolve ensures that any potential satisfaction the reader—not to mention the narrator himself—might enjoy shall remain undiscovered country.
And while it is far too facile a writer who answers everything, vanquishing ambiguity, the most powerful art does strive to answer some of the questions it poses—all the while knowing that the questions will always outnumber the answers they beget. Perhaps no story is “the” truth, as attested to famously by Kurosawa’s Rashomon and by John Berger himself—whose “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is the epigraph to Mr. Ondaatje’s excellent 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion. But isn’t it still incumbent upon an author to report “a” truth, at least? Or multiple truths? Especially in a novel designed as a search for it?
Before The Cat’s Table winds down in its final pages, into its weird Cassius dedication and Michael’s fraught yet sweetly told arrival to meet his mother in England, there is a hastily hatched (after all that slowness!) set piece of fantastic drama involving the prisoner and many of our familiars. It must be meant to say something about freedom and authority, loyalty and consequence, sacrifice and risk. But there are so many unfilled narrative blanks and so much confusion that even some of the audaciously motive-less conspirators never know quite what happens.
Years later Michael visits one of those conspirators, Emily, his glamorous and diffident older cousin with whom he claims yet another inexplicable—or poorly explicated—bond. He tries again to sort it all out—the journey, the past, what it meant to his life. Emily tells him that she doesn’t know whether she killed a man on the ship back then. She doesn’t know what crimes she might have committed those many years ago, on a lawless boat on the high seas a world away. As a matter of fact she’d prefer not to stroll down that particular memory lane, if he doesn’t mind. “Let’s just stop now,” she asks him, “Please, Michael, I can’t do this. Okay?”
But mounting the persistence of his obsession and his strange self-importance, Michael carries on; he won’t relent. He reminds her anyway of that time, pressing a few vague details toward her and finally outing a murderous guilt she has lived with, only to swiftly assuage her with his kinder but fuzzy version of events, in which she is an innocent. If only he could convince himself so well, or us. Is it finally not supposed to matter, what really happened?
Writing in the introduction to Mavis Gallant’s 2002 collection, The Paris Stories, Mr. Ondaatje admires how “in a way what we have in her work is something of a child’s strange clarity towards this shadowy, complex world that she is witness to. She studies her characters’ behavior with gall, curiosity, with the toughness of a child looking at and studying adults. What results is a wonderful truth and, at the same time, great self-revelation.”
It would make sense to think a similar effect was hoped for here. But in The Cat’s Table, the truth, having been only flailed at, remains elusive, and great self-revelation is this strikeout’s absent casualty.