The Cat's Table
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99
The author's note at the end of this book identifies it as "a work of fiction". Michael Ondaatje acknowledges that he sometimes uses "the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography," but says that the ship on which his story takes place, though bearing a real ship's name, Oronsay, "is an imagined rendering", and that "the captain and crew and all the passengers" are "fictional" - including the gentle Ramadhin, the feisty Cassius and even the character, who recalls, half a century on, the three-week journey during which the three of them were comrades in mischief. Given that this figure took a journey from Ceylon to England in the early 1950s, at the age of 11, went on to study at Dulwich College, moved to Canada, became a well-known writer, and is addressed as "Michael", this is a statement worth making.
The story, which follows Michael's sea voyage from Colombo to the Thames, proceeds in 62 chapters, unnumbered and usually unnamed, most of them offering no more (or less) than a vignette, a swiftly sketched scenario, or a few impressions. The thirty-third chapter runs, in its entirety:
"ATTENTION STRETCHER PARTY, STRETCHER PARTY - PROCEED TO BADMINTON COURT ON A DECK." We ran to the source of the urgency. This was one of the more interesting announcements we had heard so far from the loudspeakers. More often they announced afternoon lectures in the Clyde Room about "The Laying of the Undersea Cables Between Aden and Bombay", that a Mr Blacker would speak on "A Recent Reconstruction of Mozart's Piano". Before The Four Feathers had been screened, a chaplain had given a talk titled "The Crusades, Pro and Con: Did England Go Too Far?" Ramadhin and Mr Fonseka went to that lecture and returned to tell us that apparently the speaker felt the English did not go far enough.
Surely, the reader might think, this is an experimental autobiography, a memoir-with-the-names-changed, or a counter-historical
reflective essay - a work operating under the same lightly postmodernist, genre-bending impulse as Simon Schama's Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) or Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage?
However, the slackening of boundaries has given authors greater freedom but also greater power. So we must accept Ondaatje's implicit invitation to read Michael as a character based on the author, rather than an aspect of his authorial persona like the narrator of Ondaatje's "memoir" Running In the Family - and to read the book's passages on exile, for instance, as belonging to a potentially defective or dim-witted narrator. But The Cat's Table is surely a success, whatever its genre, because every page exhibits traces of Ondaatje's poetical cast of mind - his feeling for beauty, his sense of strangeness, and his ability to create a distinctive and pervasive emotional atmosphere. Ultimately, it matters little whether his reminiscences of travelling to England have been given the form of clef-ish fiction or straight-shooting memoir; and it is always a pleasure to note the arrival of a daring and honest novel, one certainly too rare to look in the mouth.
The older Michael's portrayal of the younger Michael's journey is devoted to a child's sense of priorities. Events are accorded roughly the same significance they seemed to possess at the time, and recalled, as far as possible, without hindsight's disillusionment or clarifications. The Cat's Table is less interested than recent novels by Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes in the role that memory plays in sifting, emphasising and forgetting. Such processes are not portrayed as the inevitable controlling force on a man's recollection of his boyhood. Michael does his best to catch the bemused rapture he felt at the time, and to do so with a minimum of self-chastisement and retrospective rue. His feelings about the relationship between then and now, about the effect of new contexts on old facts, is limited for the most part to passages of conscious rumination.
For all its richness, however, The Cat's Table cannot be considered a complete achievement, partly because it harbours a sentimental and self-congratulatory fondness for outsiders and underdogs, and partly because Ondaatje's success in what he is trying to achieve necessarily deprives the reader of such satisfactions as momentum and a plot. When, more than two-thirds through the book, a chapter begins, “The most reserved diner at our table was Mr Gunesekera," the reader may feel frustrated by the lack of progress. Michael had been describing the diners at the lowly Cat's Table (the furthest from the captain's table) 150 pages earlier. He could go on describing them for ever, though it would cease to be interesting some time before then.
Yet the book is rarely dull. By establishing a rhythm so easy that it borders on stasis, and only intermittently inserting dramatic incident or revealing dynamic pattern, Ondaatje has devised a formula that avoids tidiness and melodrama while remaining constantly capable of surprise. At one point, he seems to be offering a defence of the book's method, in the form of criticism of a putatively more seductive approach. Michael recalls that another diner at the Cat's Table, the unmarried pigeon-fancier Miss Lasqueti, "always had in her possession a copy of The Magic Mountain" but was only ever seen reading crime thrillers, though rarely with pleasure: "I suspect that for her the world was more accidental than any book's plot. Twice I saw her so irritated by a mystery that she half rose from the shadow of her chair and flung the paperback over the railing into the sea."
The passage, as well as appearing to be an oblique mini-manifesto, is a display of the book's incremental mode of characterisation: it forms a step on Miss Lasqueti's journey from bit part to rounded character. Earlier in the book, Michael remembers that she "was regarded by most of those at the Cat's Table as a likely spinster", and also that she could often be seen "in a deckchair reading crime novels within the rectangles of deep shadow, her bright blond hair a little sparkle in her chosen gloom".
The book-flinging is picked up again later, in one of Michael's lists of overheard conversation ("It is absolutely prohibited to throw anything over the ship's side, Madame") and in a sentence that comes between many others about day-to-day life on the ship. Still further on, as Miss Lasqueti blossoms into prominence, Michael, having been sure to give the reader an unexpurgated account of his initial impressions, makes a conscientious effort to revise and expand them. "Our spinster," he acknowledges, "seemed to have a knowledge not just of pigeon life."
The author's rejection of plotting does not amount to an embrace of chaos or a descent into mere chronology; the novel's details connect and recur, only without the purposiveness or determinism they might possess in a stricter narrative scheme. This is a busy, fragmentary book, and Ondaatje's handling of Michael's treatment of Miss Lasqueti is characteristic of the ways in which his skittish, fleeting pen evoke the world, and all its accidents.
Leo Robson is the NS's lead fiction reviewer