Michael Ondaatje’s new book, The Cat’s Table (Knopf Publishing Group, $26), is poetic, elegiac and thoughtful—all qualities I admire in an autobiography. Except The Cat’s Table is no mere memoir. It’s fiction, Ondaatje assures us, despite the many similarities to his own childhood. In fact, Ondaatje—the Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient—may well have perfected a new fiction subgenre: the not-a-biography.
The narrator of The Cat’s Table is 11-year-old Michael, who is bound for London from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in the early 1950s. It’s a three-week journey through the Suez Canal aboard the Oronsay, an enormous cruise ship with hundreds of passengers. Michael’s mother—and a brand-new life—wait for him across the sea.
Beautiful Emily, a distant cousin six years older than Michael (and the object of numerous, ship-wide crushes), is also onboard, headed for finishing school in London, along with a family acquaintance who vows to look after the child. Michael quickly bonds with two boys his own age: reckless Cassius, who was expelled from Michael’s school and grows up to be an artist, and quiet Ramidhin, who welcomes the adult Michael into his family. Despite their differences, they become fast friends, exploring the ship together, sneaking into areas reserved for first-class passengers, stealing food and pulling pranks. Most of all, they keep their eyes on the adult passengers and listen to their stories.
And what characters these passengers are! There’s Max Mazappa, the ship’s piano player, who introduces Michael to the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet; Mr. Daniels, the botanist, who tends an exotic garden in the ship’s lower decks; Sir Hector de Silva, a dying millionaire who contracted rabies after being cursed by a priest he’d insulted; Miss Lasqueti, who keeps pigeons in the pockets of her special vest; and a cat burglar who recruits the boys and coats them with motor oil so they can slip in and out of staterooms, pocketing valuables.
The children misbehave, but so do the adults, and no topics are taboo at the dinner table. If the Captain’s Table is designated for the most important people on a vessel, then surely the Cat’s Table must be reserved for the least desirable guests. And yet Ondaatje gives us the sense that these are the most interesting people onboard.
With The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje, who has received equal acclaim for his poetry as well as his prose, delivers every bit of emotion and self-examination contained in a real autobiography. The secrets of The Cat’s Table are revealed in slow, deliberate bursts, which give the narrative an organic quality. The chapters are mostly short, but filled with childlike observations and mature insights. There’s a breezy quality to The Captain’s Table, but the story stayed with me long after the voyage was over.