As a grown man in London, Michael, narrator of The Cat's Table, attends an exhibition of paintings made by Cassius, whom he knew as a young boy when they were passengers from India to Britain on the Oronsay. The paintings, Michael reflects, remind him of photographs made by Jacques Henri Lartigue, noteworthy for being from "the natural angle of a small boy with a camera looking up at the adults he was photographing."
Cassius's paintings are also from the angle of a small boy - they are of things he saw while on board the Oronsay - but these views are supplemented by the years of memory and painterly skill grown up around them as Cassius has become an adult. The Cat's Table, a heavily autobiographical novel that Ondaatje insists is not a memoir, is a literary version of these paintings, one that will not only show us the views of a child recollected by an adult memory but will also dive into the space in between.
The book begins with young Michael stepping aboard the Oronsay in Colombo and ends with him stepping off in London, but in the intervening 300 pages Ondaatje will, in typical fashion, travel widely. His books are ordered less by the logics of time or narrative than by the preoccupations of the mind, and in The Cat's Table it is memory that takes charge. The present-day Michael exists in this book through the very act of memory: he is a palpable presence despite the fact that the book only looks backward (the closest we ever get to the present is when Michael relates a dream he had "last night"). And though the purpose of Michael's reminisces remains pleasingly amorphous, they seem to have to do with a middle-age desire for self-knowledge, a curiosity built from loneliness and the fact that "over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light."
Michael trusts his memory and will follow it wherever it leads him, letting Ondaatje's imagination wander to the vague nooks that make his books feel so large. Recalling a grand palace, whose visit he cannot situate in time and which he suspects he might have wholly invented, Michael writes, "there is something about the image that I have held on to for all these years." The memory, in other words, is important because it feels important.
In previous books Ondaatje has demonstrated his understanding of the validity of such tautological reasoning when it comes to sorting out one's own identity. His skill in The Cat's Table is to stretch this reasoning beyond solipsism into powerful, lasting images whose importance is accessible to anyone. Michael's memory of the palace, for instance, becomes a remarkably elaborate metaphor for how memories develop in our minds, in part consisting of, "a person [beginning] on the ground floor of that palace, looking at a few naive maps of local harbours, the neighbouring coasts; and then, as one climbs higher, from floor to floor, more and more recent maps chart the half-discovered islands, a possible continent."
This is a book as much about voyage as about youth, and Ondaatje derives both from the Oronsay's robust and fascinating world. With insight and economy he observes the social order on the ship, all the way from Sir Hector de Silva down to Michael and his two friends, who, sitting at the least desirable position in the dining hall (known as "the cat's table"), are at the bottom of the social scale. Ondaatje's skill is to approach everyone between de Silva and Michael from unexpected directions: for instance, a Baron sailing in first class invites Michael to his cabin for cakes and rich Colombo tea before having him strip down, slather himself with oil, and slip through the bars of a vent above his door. In this way, the Baron, who uses Michael as an accomplice to petty burglary, is conjured as a fallen member of the aristocracy. Yes, he does travel in first class and so partakes in all the privileges and prestige it offers, but in order to maintain his genteel life he must rely on a child and transgress his morals.
Through the diverse characters who inhabit the Oronsay, Ondaatje elegantly fills out the portrait of the ship without ever taking us outside of Michael's viewpoint. It is an impressive feat, compounded by the double vision of having the world seen through a child's eyes recollected by an adult memory. When Ondaatje pauses to stare into this gulf, The Cat's Table becomes a powerful examination of one of his core obsessions: identity. He makes much of the ways that memories can lay dormant for years until he we are ready to receive their knowledge, as well as how cherished memories can subtly shift in aspect with the passage of the years.
Beyond memory, The Cat's Table vividly evokes youth. Many of the Oronsay episodes charmingly depict the sense of reckless abandon that can only ever be truly known while a child. Ondaatje contrasts this to the responsibilities of adulthood, where foolishness weighs so much more heavily. The two collide in one of the book's standout scenes, where Michael and Cassius have themselves tied to the ship at the approach of a storm so enormous that it repeatedly pulls one whole end out of the water, "the propellers out of their element screaming till they fell back down into the sea."
Ondaatje has long had a singular capacity to suddenly establish violent, dramatic scenes as if from nowhere. Here he drills into the core of the experience, conveying it in language that is at once abstracted yet more palpable than would be a more literal description:
As I lay on the Promenade Deck of the Oronsay, during those few hours when we believed we had given up any chance of our lives, everything coalesced. I was something orderless in a jar, unable to escape what was happening, unable to get out of what was occurring. All I held on to was that I was not alone. Cassius was with me. Now and then our heads turned simultaneously in the lightning and we each saw the blunt, washed-out face of the other. I felt I was caught in this place.
As an adult, Michael reflects, "When we are searching for what we no longer have, we see it everywhere." He's talking specifically about the love of a woman who no longer desires him, but the sentiment applies equally well to his motivation for collecting these memories into this book that he's writing. As difficult to pin down as all of Ondaatje's best work, The Cat's Table comes across as a search for youth, and for the understanding of one's adult self that comes with the mature comprehension of a formative experience.
Rooted as it is to the Oronsay and to Michael's youth, The Cat's Table does not quite feel as wide as Ondaatje's previous novels Divisadero and In theSkin of a Lion. Whereas those books travel so far away from their beginnings as to force us to start anew within them, The Cat's Table regularly checks in with Michael's time on board the ship. This centeredness lets the book gain in focus at the cost of the pleasures of wilderness, and the shock of return that wilderness engenders, that have been hallmarks of Ondaatje's previous novels.
As such, The Cat's Table feels more concentrated, perhaps smaller, than Ondaatje's previous best, but it is nonetheless a strong work. It possesses Ondaatje's trademark figurative language that imbues his work with a delirious romantic spirit and a ponderous philosophical backbone.
Toward the end of the book, a character recalls a father and son standing before an enormous, lifelike tapestry containing a dog among its multitudes. "The boy," she writes, "had got hold of a dog brush and he was brushing very tenderly the coat of the hound." She continues: "A child looks at a vista, or a painting, and he sees something entirely different from what a father sees. The boy saw a dog he did not have. That is all."
In The Cat's Table, Ondaatje is able to capture that very childlike sense of "seeing the dog" even as he overlays it with the mature knowledge that the dog does not exist. The book is his own tapestry of memory, one in which real dogs spring from fake threads of thought.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation.