Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Empire's Children

Book review by Liesl Shillinger, The New York Times, October 16, 2011

“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” the boy Mynah had thought, relishing being “one of the insignificants” at the Oronsay’s cat’s table. But Ondaatje knows there is really no place without power, if only you can find the angle where it can be seen and felt and communicated.


By Michael Ondaatje

269 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.

Once, on holiday, a friend and I descended a narrow iron ladder into a floodlit cavern and followed a guide into a small boat. As he rowed us through eerily motionless waters under a low, stalactite-fanged ceiling, the overhead lights went out, and only his flashlight pierced the darkness. In its beam we could see the play of the variegated colors across the crystal-crusted walls, and the slow-moving flickers of eyeless fish, our vision completely dependent on his single beam. Reading Michael Ondaatje’s mesmerizing new novel, “The Cat’s Table,” is like being guided, just as surely and just as magically, through the author’s lustrous visions. As he did in his great 1992 novel, “The English Patient,”which won the Man Booker Prize and became an Academy Award-winning film, Ondaatje conjures images that pull strangers into the vivid rooms of his imagination, their detail illumined by his words.

In “The Cat’s Table,” Ondaatje seems to lead the reader on a journey through three deeply submerged weeks in his own memory — from the year 1954, when, at age 11, he traveled on the ocean liner Oronsay from Colombo, in what was then Ceylon, to England, a passage that would lead him from his past to his future self. As the novel opens, prominent passengers are granted seats at the captain’s table, but young Michael (nicknamed Mynah) and the two boys he befriends, Cassius (a troublemaker) and Ramadhin (a contemplative asthmatic), are relegated to a table of dubious characters: a mute tailor, a retired ship dismantler, a pianist who has “hit the skids,” a botanist and a lady who hides pigeons in the pockets of her jacket, and reads thrillers in her deck chair, flinging them overboard when they bore her. It’s the pigeon lady who remarks that theirs is “the cat’s table” since “we’re in the least privileged place.”

This turns out to be a matter of perspective. “It would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me,” Ondaatje writes. The boys quickly realize that their insignificance means they are “invisible to officials such as the purser and the head steward, and the captain.” Mynah has already been “trained into cautiousness” in the Ceylonese boarding school he attended with Cassius, where “a fear of punishment created a skill in lying, and I learned to withhold small pertinent truths.” The boys waste no time bringing these skills into play.

For them, the Oronsay is a thrilling capsule world, a microcosm in which they find themselves “for the first time by necessity in close quarters with adults.” Reckless, daring and mostly unobserved, they range across the ship, hiding in lifeboats to spy on the guests and penetrating the vessel’s forbidden precincts. They rise before dawn and sneak onto the first-class deck, where they dive “like needles into the gold-painted first-class pool with barely a splash,” swim in “the newly formed half-light” and raid the sun deck breakfast table, devouring their stolen feasts in the lifeboats. They befriend the ship dismantler, the pianist and the pigeon lady, and follow the botanist into the Oronsay’s cavernous hold, where he shows them the treasure trove of vegetation he’s transporting across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and Red Seas, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. There they are bathed in “a golden light,” Mynah recalls. “A field of colors” — strychnine blossoms, betel leaf and snapdragon, star fruit, pencil trees and black calabash — partially lit with grow lights and misted with indoor rain. “We had been at sea for days, and the range of colors had been limited to white and gray and blue, save for a few sunsets. But now, in this artificially lit garden, the plants exaggerated their greens and blues and extreme yellows, all of them dazzling us.” Later, the ragtag bunch from the cat’s table will dine there under swaying lamps as mist and strains of gramophone music float gently down upon them. The garden felt, the boy explains, “as if we dreamt it.”

Many of Mynah’s shipboard encounters cast the same spell: his confidences with his beautiful, secretive older cousin, Emily de Saram (who is his first machang, the Sinhalese word, he explains, for “closest friend”); his unexamined partnership with a sly criminal who slathers Mynah’s wiry body with motor oil so the boy can slither through the transoms of staterooms and open their doors to the genteel intruder; his stolen glimpses of the night walks of a heavily manacled prisoner who, while being transported to England to be tried for murder, is permitted this heavily guarded nocturnal exercise.

In Ceylon, Mynah had grown used to the “lush chaos of Colombo’s Pettah market, that smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut (a throat-catching odor), and mangosteens, and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall.” But on the Oronsay, he and his friends begin to pay attention to the human beings who color their circumscribed universe. “We came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”

So convincing is Ondaatje’s evocation of his narrator’s experience that the reader could easily mistake it for the author’s own. But in a note at the end of the book Ondaatje takes pains to establish that “The Cat’s Table” is “fictional,” though it “sometimes uses the coloring and locations of memoir and autobiography.” This disclaimer will not keep the reader from reflecting that any life so richly recounted belongs more to fiction than fact.


As he grows older in England, Mynah stays in touch with some of his shipboard friends, but loses track of Cassius. In his late 20s, though, he visits a London art gallery when he learns that work by Cassius is on display. At first he mistakes the canvases for abstracts, but on a second circuit, he realizes that the paintings record the point in the Oronsay journey when the ship paused at the Suez Canal en route to Port Said and the boys stood at a railing looking down into the sulfurous lights of that “brief and temporary world” as cargo left the ship, unable to tell “whether everything taking place was carefully legal or a frenzy of criminality.” In his friend’s paintings, Mynah finds again “the exact angle of vision Cassius and I had that night” as they looked down at the dockmen “working in those pods of light. An angle of 45 degrees, something like that.” Instantly he feels himself “back on the railing, watching, which was where Cassius was emotionally, when he was doing these paintings. Goodbye, we were saying to all of them. Goodbye.” Through the act of painting those “interesting strangers” and the act of writing about them, the artist and the writer say: Hello again.

Not all the mysteries Ondaatje explores in his account of Mynah’s sea passage — revisited in adulthood from the remove of decades and from another continent — have clear resolutions, nor do they need them. Uncertainty, Ondaatje shows, is the unavoidable human condition, the gel that changes the light on the lens, altering but not spoiling the image. When Mynah walks down the gangplank at Tilbury, new confusions will find him, and Ondaatje embraces them. “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” the boy Mynah had thought, relishing being “one of the insignificants” at the Oronsay’s cat’s table. But Ondaatje knows there is really no place without power, if only you can find the angle where it can be seen and felt and communicated.



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