Highly enjoyable, The Cat’s Table is a sort of Comedy of Manners cum Boy’s Own Adventure cum mystery, told mostly from the point of view of an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Ceylon to England in 1954. He & a number of other apparently unimportant people, including two other boys about his own age, end up at ‘the Cat’s Table,’ the farthest from the Captain’s Table, & he & his 2 newfound friends soon start exploring the ship, getting into trouble, playing dangerous games, & spying on many of the other passengers.
This is Ondaatje’s first novel in the first person, & his narrator, looking back on his adventures as a boy just on the cusp of growing into a teenager, is interestingly uncertain because as a writer he knows just how much he does not know about what he remembers. Ondaatje still plays with fragmented narrative, little bits of story, sometimes whole separate stories in themselves, slowly accumulate into a larger story of both what happened on that voyage & how it & what followed changed him into the man & writer he is as he tells us all about it.
Michael (Mynah as he was known on the ship) encounters many different adults, two of whom he knew beforehand. One, an older lady in First Class who knows his uncle, is supposed to watch out for him but fails to keep him & angry Cassius & quiet Ramadhin (with his heart problem) from running all over the ship, discovering all kinds of odd places, & becoming obsessed with the prisoner who’s brought out only late at night. That man becomes the centre of a plot that eventually involves some others at the Cat’s Table, members of the Jankla Troupe, & Michael’s slightly older cousin, Emily. She & the other two boys remain important if also distanced from the older narrator, whose life, with both its successes as an author (implied) & failures in intimacy (partly told but more implied) was deeply influenced by what he experienced during this journey.
The writing is full of those lovely moments of perceptive imagery that we associate with Ondaatje, but because he is also trying to represent the feelings & comprehensions of a young & still unformed mind, it is often much more straightforward than readers are used to with his work. Still, because the older mind is trying to figure out what his memories are really telling him, & also why he has acted as he has in his adult years, there’s a depth to his recalling & some confessional arguments that, as they appear, cast new light upon those actions he & his 2 pals participated in on that voyage.
The view of many of the adults’ activities & conversations, from that innocent eye, does make for some highly sophisticated comedy, even as it’s shadowed by darker motives among those he observes, & moves to a startling & violent conclusion. There are some stunning set-pieces, such as the passage through the Suez Canal, but they settle into the careful rigging the slowly exfoliating main story provides. And so The Cat’s Table becomes a sly & subtle thriller of sorts, one of those books you want to keep reading right to the end to find out what actually happened &, as much as possible, given the narrator’s implication in it all, what it means. It’s a great entertainment, & that is meant as high praise.