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The cover of Michael Ondaatje's new novel featuring an ocean liner - "a castle on the sea" - would not be amiss on a book chronicling the adventures of Tintin. The Cat's Table has the same picaresque qualities as Herge's accounts of his intrepid boy-reporter.
Briefly, it revolves around a 21-day-long sea voyage undertaken by an 11-year-old boy called Michael who leaves Ceylon of the1950s to go to London to be reunited with his mother. En route, he befriends two other boys, the brash fearless Cassius whose one goal before the voyage ends is to somehow sneak in and shit in the Captain's enamel commode, and the reticent Ramadhin who smuggles in a dog when their ship, the Oronsay, docks at Aden, leading to a most unexpected twist in the tale. The three boys on the cusp of boyhood and youth move from one adventure to another, gaining a sly entry into the world of adults and bursting all over the place 'like freed mercury. '
Ondaatje, the product of a divided world - he's half-Sri Lankan, half-Dutch, a poet and a novelist - has an enduring fascination for things and people who disappear in the crevices: among several of his characters are thieves, conjurers, suicidal men who clear landmines, and a tragic child who cannot hear. In this novel he looks at social status, relationships, colonialism from the vantage point of the Cat's Table which is the lowliest seating point in the dining room hierarchy of an ocean liner, in direct contrast to the elevated status of the Captain's Table which is at the head of the room.
From here, he creates a panoply of wonderful characters like the classy thief Baron C who enlists Michael's help in thievery and who ultimately abandons ship at Port Said;the pigeon-carrying Miss Lasqueti, a likely spinster, but who had a laugh that hinted that it had rolled around once or twice in mud;the frothing millionaire Sir Hector de Silva;and the mysterious prisoner Niemeyer who propels the plot but is also eventually the novel's weakest link.
There is a flirtation with the autobiographical - Ondaatje himself was at the age of the novel's Michael when he set sail from Ceylon to London to be reunited with his own mother. Though he concedes the novel sometimes uses the "colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography", The Cat's Table remains an imagined rendering.
Though the least elliptical of Ondaatje's works, there is the characteristic play of smoke and mirrors. And it has Ondaatje's prose. Words of such lush beauty that reading them is akin to a sensual pleasure. Sublime in the exactness of observation. In The English Patient, there's Count Almasy who says: "I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon, as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife. These are not the sins of omission but signs of pre-occupation. " In The Cat's Table, a censorious aunt who walks in on her errant ward pilfering sandwiches is described so: "She took in everything with the faltering of her eyes and walked past me without saying a word. "
As the ship journeys through the Suez Canal from the East to the West, so does the arc of the novel - from a robust account of silly childhood pleasures to a more meditative and earned understanding of adulthood.
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