“The Cat’s Table” takes its title from “the least privileged place,” far from the captain’s table, where young Michael and a collection of other lowly passengers are consigned to eat their meals. But of course, for a curious 11-year-old boy left mostly to himself on the open seas, such class distinctions mean nothing. His strange dinner companions are a source of endless fascination: a lovelorn botanist whose artificially lit garden deep in the hold produces every poison known to man; a narcoleptic woman traveling with 30 pigeons; a pianist who knows “confusing and often obscene lyrics from songs”; and a “ship dismantler” who can explain the awesome engineering of their boat. Beyond his assigned table, young Michael discovers a beautiful 17-year-old cousin he hasn’t seen for two years; a famous philanthropist dying from rabies; and — most exciting of all — a shackled prisoner being transported to London for trial.
Michael quickly befriends two other boys on the ship, and, realizing that “we were invisible,” they spend the next three weeks in a breathless series of adventures — “the chance to escape all order.” Sleep is a waste of time when there’s a new universe to explore. “I had no family responsibilities,” Michael recalls. “I could go anywhere, do anything.” It’s a Dickensian Disney at Sea Cruise, unsupervised except by a snobby aunt who winces whenever he calls her “Auntie.” He and his two buddies quickly establish one rule: “Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.” They smoke twigs broken off from a cane chair, aiming “to smoke the whole chair before the end of our journey.” In one comic, Homeric scene, they strap themselves to the deck during a cyclone to experience the fury of nature. Later, hiding in the lifeboats, they overhear passengers saying things like, “How can it be an aphrodisiac and a laxative?”
It’s a charming mixture of eccentricity, serendipity and impish fun. “Twenty-one days is a very brief period in a life,” the narrator admits, but Ondaatje folds all the boys’ escapades into the human comedy. “We considered ourselves good at vacuuming up clues as we coursed over the ship each day,” he writes. These crisp vignettes convey a delightful sense of the urgency and mystery of adolescence, their galloping imagination, thumping anticipation and assurance that every overhead whisper is a conspiracy, a forbidden tryst or a murder in the planning stages. “Who realizes,” the narrator asks, “how contented feral children are?”
I can’t imagine why the Man Booker judges included “Pigeon English” among the finalists for this year’s prize instead of this vastly more sophisticated story of a boy’s adventure. While Stephen Kelman’s novel collapses at the end, Ondaatje’s turns on little cat’s feet. The tone grows darker, the drama more treacherous. Wisps of rumor that Michael and his friends have breathlessly collected erupt in a climax that outstrips their childish fantasies. How frighteningly the pieces of this puzzle snap into place, and we’re left staring just as dumbstruck as young Michael at a melodramatic tableau. “Was it all part of a boy’s fervent imagination?” the narrator asks. Or did the violence and sacrifice he witnessed on that ship exceed his capacity to understand?
Flashing forward many years, the narrator lets us see where lines laid down in childhood eventually led. Those adolescent antics and enthusiasms have given way to a subtle sadness. The boy who became a novelist finds himself increasingly trapped in the role of careful observer, “a cold-blooded self-sufficiency” that may be a writer’s greatest gift and burden. “I must have been taught, or somehow learned early in my life,” he writes, “to break easily away from intimacy.” One senses in these poignant passages even more autobiographical energy than the mere historical details of crossing the ocean from Sri Lanka to England. And so, on the powerful waters of Ondaatje’s prose, “The Cat’s Table” finally arrives at a deeper destination than we could have anticipated when the voyage began.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.