If you were on a 600-passenger ship, and got to choose who to associate with, would you choose the bigwigs at the Captain’s Table, or the ne’er do wells at the other end of the dining galley? Michael Ondaatje has a clear answer for this one. While the bigwigs spend their time sitting about and toasting each other, the folks at the Cat’s Table (the opposite of the Captain’s Table) are living interesting lives and doing intriguing things.
In The Cat’s Table, we hear the story of Mynah, an 11 year old boy travelling from Colombo, Ceylon (just off the coast of India, now Sri Lanka) to London by slow passenger boat in the 1950’s, all told in first person by his adult self in memoir style. The boy is alone, has always been a bit alone, and now falls in with a known rapscallion, Cassius, and quiet thinker, Ramadhin, as the three boys adventure, unchaperoned and largely unnoticed, from fore to aft. Though the novel is fiction, it is often praised for reading like memoirs of a man thinking back to his boyhood, and since Ondaatje was born in Colombo and moved to England when he was 11, his protests that the story is just fiction justifiably arouse suspicion in the reader.
The novel can be divided into two parts. The first part reads like a picaresque collection of adventures in the limited confines of the ship. We meet Mr. Marzappa, a dirty-minded pianist on the skids; Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler who gives the boys access to the ship’s underbelly; Ms. Lasqueti, with her coat for holding pigeons and possible secret past; Mr. Daniels, with his exotic garden of beautiful and poisonous flowers belowdecks; and the prisoner, shackled hand and foot as he walks the ship’s decks under guard in the wee hours of the night. Mynah’s beautiful cousin Emily and his gossipy aunt both factor into his adventures, though not in any responsible, adult-like way. We read about one adventure after another, with a cycling cast pulled from these characters. Much is implied beyond the boy’s understanding but within reach of the reader, and not all the fun is good-natured or innocent. Book club members greatly enjoyed this part of the book, delighting in the stories and in the writing, swept up in the slyly adventuresome spirit of the scenes.
Then comes the middle passage, the crossing of the Suez Canal, and the beginning of a transition for Mynah from being a boy making up adventures to a boy making up a self. From this point forward, the book jumps in time and tone, rocking back and forth between more ship-board adventures, which have an increasingly complex and intrigue-laden tone, and the adult Mynah, struggling through adulthood as an extension of the alienated boyhood he made for himself aboard that ship many years before. Here, Ondaatje begins working in deeper themes, and attempts to provide the heft and depth that will make the book more than a tale of boyhood mischief. Book club members were split as to how successful his efforts were. Though all of them would recommend the book, it is not without flaws, and those flaws are rooted in the disjointed and not-entirely-successful second half of the work. Overall, the book is an excellent read, for the forgiving reader.
Next month, we’ll be doing something unusual for us. We will discuss a non-fiction work, and we’ll do it over two months, in two sessions. As part of the ongoing 150th commemoration of the Civil War, we will discuss the first half of Vicksburg, 1863 by Winston Groom, and in September, we will continue those discussions. See our website, rhml.lib.mo.us, for details and future book picks. The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the second Thursday of each month, from 7 to 8 pm, at The Heights, 8001 Dale Ave. Please join us!