In the ancient Sanskrit classic Kalidasa’s Shakunthala, when the young girl of the title is leaving home for her life’s journey she bids goodbye, amongst others, to her favourite childhood tree. Little Michael, in the mid 20th century does likewise, but to the electricity generator of his home in Boralesgamuwa, Ceylon. With that early delight we set off on a journey with Ondaatje’s 2011 novel, The Cat’s Table. At nightfall, he will board the Oronsay to leave his childhood island and grow into the world after rejoining his mother, now somewhat a stranger, in London.
Though the Oronsay was scrapped in 1975 in Taiwan it seems to have remained whole, deep within Michael Ondaatje. He resurrected parts of it in his imagination in his 2000 novel Anil’s Ghost, with the guarded forensics inside an abandoned cabin of the Oronsay, in Colombo harbour. Earlier in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family, we find, “I arrived in a plane but love the harbour”. With The Cat’s Table it seems he has eventually exorcised this famous vessel out of himself. In the process he’s allowed his readers just enough entry, for users of their own imaginations, into those deep recesses, maybe his own or of those near to him. This must be the sustaining underlay of this many- decked fiction, and why it so engages the reader.
The 11-year-old loner Michael is allotted to table 76, the cat’s table, as far away, socially as it is physically, from the captain’s. It happens to be a continuation of his chosen state on land. A few years earlier the little fellow produced a not unfamiliar resource that helps in coping with parental separation, a child’s complete absorption in each day’s discoveries and adventures, day-to-day, and usually with people outside the family circle and in his case with less privileged people.
The young Michael
After his father and mother “abandoned their marriage” he lives in the Boralesgamuwa home of his kindly guardian uncle, a Ceylonese legal luminary. He sneaks out early each day to thrill to Narayan pulling the generator into life as it brought on, one by one, the first lights of his home- a prelude to continuing with this servant to the shanty eating houses nearby, that Michael enjoyed. He admits he had to put up later with a “more official breakfast” with his uncle and aunt in their spacious home with the much loved generator. Like loved servants, Narayan and Gunepala, Michael’s companions and friends at this unprivileged table are drifting adult loners happy in children’s company, filling Michael and his child friends at the same table, Ramadhin and Cassius (who nickname Michael, “Mynah”) with extracts from their own quirky life stories most unsuitable for children, while providing the boys with openings for ship adventures in the depths of the hold and engine rooms. As adult company they seem to complement Michael, probably never having had children or having lost contact with theirs.
Most of these adult characters, some of the cat’s table others not, last but the length of the voyage. Some leave ship even earlier, like Mr. Mazappa the musician who regaled the three boys with obscene lyrics, the Baron who used Michael as a little greased devil for ship theft, Sir Hector de Silva on his way for treatment to London for an original Sri Lankan rabid dog attack dying of a supplementary foreign dog bite on ship, Mr.Hastie, presumably a Catholic who escaped being knifed to death by a discarded lover, exclaiming that his heart was missed “by the width of a communion wafer”.
Conversations overheard by the children, such as “How can it be an aphrodisiac and a laxative?” – “Well, it’s all in the timing,” give them early, exciting, yet still misty entry into the big world as they “vacuum the ship” for clues of possibilities on board.
It is within such entertaining propulsions of the Oronsay that the other characters, those who stay deeply with the writer and his readers for over half a century after the voyage, emerge. They can take the reader, as it did me, back to the book more than once. You get from it what you give to it, and what a lot is there to be got!
Passenger Emily de Saram is a fiction while Michael’s absent mother who will be at Tilbury docks is real. Yet they seem elusively related in Michael’s emotional make up as he comes very close to Emily on ship and remains so, long after. Much has been written about Ondaatje’s beautiful, mesmerizing prose poetry. In potentially a novella about Pernietta Lasquethi, a cat’s table diner, is a six-line classic bit, a delicate and beautiful touching by words of the unorthodox side of heterosexual love making, as if perfectly intended by nature.
There are other short stories, and potential novellas which take you out of the main story for short spells, and I mean spells that bind. One is an invitation to the reader to consider the implications of the proposition that the servant Narayan of Boralesgamuwa saw the same detail of life, which he never wrote about, that the novelist R.K. Narayan did. Another is about Mr. Fonseka, a quiet scholarly man who thinks he is leaving Ceylon “forever” to teach in England but his story as told by Ondaatje sadly ( for Fonseka) reminds one of the first law of social motion between Britain and its colonies, for natives of Fonseka’s sensitivity, that he may have to gravitate back to Nugegoda for a meaningful life. There is the story of the abandoned marriage of the later Michael and Massie, the sister of the cat’s table’s gentle- hearted friend Ramadhin.
The story of the other boy of the same table, Cassius, whom Michael never met post voyage but kept in touch with, without any communication at all, through experiencing Cassius’s work in art. These and other nearly self- contained stories are like those intriguing Russian dolls one within the other all encased inside the holding design, but looking separate for the time of attraction during unfolding, and designed to scatter as well.
Ondaatje the novelist tells us though, that there is a limitation to our ability to really know these characters. A primary principle of art he believes in is the film maker Luc Dardenne’s advice, that “we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves”. There would be no other option for many readers but to subscribe to this regarding the mysterious story of Neimeyer. It is about a father, mother and child from around Baddegama in Sri Lanka, separated from each other because the father was a wanted criminal.
The mysterious father, Neimeyer (a name I sometimes felt was “Mineyar”, the Sinhalese for “man”) is on ship as a convict in chains. His daughter Asuntha is on board as a component of an acrobatic troupe. She and some of the troupe secretly plan to save him from his fate. In an action-packed episode father and daughter heave themselves overboard into the Aegean Sea. There is a moving final separation of father and child in dark heaving waters. Asuntha having given all she could, swims towards land, while the father is unable to use the key his daughter gave him. ‘…. not yet free of his lock, whose small subtle portal is hard to find in this dark water ‘, he sinks.
It was the wise Irish iconoclast Bernard Shaw who claimed, “ My schooling interrupted my education”. One but the last line of the novel , at Tilbury docks is, “ Time to go to school, I think” spoken by Michael’s mother. Long after, Michael may have remembered what Mr. Mazzapa who left ship at Port Said foretold, “ that this voyage would be a great education.”
The writer is an Australian playwright of Sri Lankan origin