The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje


The narrator tells the story of his voyage as an 11 year old from Ceylon to London in 1954, sent on his own to his mother who had been in London for some years.  The character is named Michael, and the author tells us at the end that he did make this trip on his own at that time, and that otherwise the book is fiction. 

The cat's table is the least desirable one in the dining room, the one farthest from the captain's table.  He met two other boys about his own age also taking this trip on their own and the three ricochet around the ship at all hours, getting into amazing scrapes and putting themselves at great risk.  Others at the table turn out to be the most interesting folks on board the ship, including Mr. Mazzappa, a musician who let the boys in on many adult secrets, including loving descriptions of Sidney Bechet, a clarinet and soprano saxophone jazzman.  Mazzappa says, "Bechet made the melody reappear, 'like sunshine on a forest floor.'  There's Miss Lasqueti, who appears at first to be an uninteresting spinster.  Later they realize she wears a jacket with cushioned pockets for transporting her messenger pidgeons, appears to be having an affair with Mr. Mazzappa, and much later her connection to Whitehall is suspected.  One lesson he learned on the journey is that

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.  Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric.  Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.

The narrator writes much after the fact, prompted by his children who assume this must have been a great adventure.  The author says, in a poignant way,

But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away.  As night approached, I missed the chorus of insects, the howls of garden birds, gecko talk.  And at dawn, the rain in the trees, the wet tar on Bullers Road, rope burning on the street that was always one of the first palpable smells of the day.

Remembering the sights, smells and sounds of one's childhood perhaps always gives a feeling that we have been robbed of something wonderous, whether our childhood was in Sri Lanka or on a farm in Virginia.

He and his fearless friend Cassius prevailed on their more cautious friend Ramahdin to tie them to the deck as they were approaching a dangerous storm.  They barely escaped with their lives, thanks in part to Rahmadin's skill at knots and in part due to the crew members who freed them during the storm.

After the journey, he remains friends with Ramadhin, but never sees Cassius again.  When he was in his late 20s, he learns that Cassius has become an artist and he attends a show of Cassius' work.  Though Cassius is not there, he says he saw Cassius himself in the paintings.  The paintings were about the night they spent on deck as the ship went through the Suez Canal so many years before.  Some years after that time, the author wonders if he could reach Cassius. 

I have no idea if Cassius reads, or if he scorns reading.  In any case, this account is for him.  For the other friend from my youth.

I wonder how often writers are thinking of reaching out to someone in their past with their books.

I found this book a bit of a chore occasionally.  Because I read it on the kindle, I highlighted a number of passages.  After I finished the book and looked back at those passages, I realized what a wonderful book it is. 




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