The Cat's Table
Alfred A. Knopf: 269 pp., $26
Michael Ondaatje is a quiet writer. He's certainly equal to grand, sweeping, historical subjects — civil war in Sri Lanka, the closing days of World War II — but the sound of advancing armies doesn't roar in his reader's ears. Instead, there's a stillness in which his characters examine their own private crises more than the chaos of battle scenes. (Which is why Anthony Minghella's 1996 movie of "The English Patient," with its epic, David O. Selznick-sized treatment, might have misled some people into assuming things about Ondaatje's storytelling that just aren't true.)
The principal characters of "The Cat's Table," which debuts Sunday at No. 1 on The Times bestsellers list, experience their own moments of quiet revelation against another important backdrop — this time a ship sailing from the island then called Ceylon to England in the 1950s, loaded with immigrants seeking opportunity. Ondaatje's characters are the humble, ordinary passengers whose lower status sentences them to eat their meals far from the captain's table at the one indicated by the book's title.
The metaphoric weight of a ship journey is impossible to avoid — all of these people are caught between worlds, between old lives and an uncertain future. Today's traveler sees a 12-hour plane flight as an annoying interruption, a dead space best handled with iPods, magazines, movies and a nap. But on a journey like this one, a three-week voyage through three oceans (Indian, Mediterranean, Atlantic) and two seas (Red and Arabian), life is still lived and lessons are still learned — especially by our narrator, named Michael (though not the author, Ondaatje tells us in a note), who made the trip to join his mother in London when he was 11.
"Our table's status … continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance," he recalls, narrating the story as an older man. "What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves."
If the most important, interesting things only happen in secret, then, there are no better seekers than Michael and his mates Cassius and Ramadhin, who explore every inch of the ship, establishing a secret headquarters in the noisy turbine room, roving where they shouldn't. Childhood is active, observant; while most of the adults stroll the decks and think only of their next meal, these three boys discover hidden wonders — a garden below decks, a mural of naked women painted by soldiers when the ship was used to carry troops in World War II — and savor the tastes of betel leaves and condensed milk as they explore.
The corners of the ship that can't be physically reached are available to them thanks to Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who carries the ship's blueprints. As Pico Iyer has said of Ondaatje, the author never randomly assigns occupations to his characters; each carries some deeper meaning, as Mr. Nevill demonstrates when he tells Michael and his friends about his former profession: "[I]n a [ship]breaker's yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage…" he explains, "You take that older life and you link it to a stranger."
Optimistic, hopeful words — but not for everyone. What hangs over the book's second half is what happens to Michael and his friends later in their lives. Though the novel stays on the ship, more of their adult experiences seep into the narrative and show us how they took Mr. Nevil's advice, trying to fit old lives to new ones in a place "not quite ours." And the adjustment that Michael makes — and that others don't — causes him to reflect on the stifling alienation that some immigrants never overcome.
"Every immigrant family, it seems, has someone who does not belong in the new country they have come to," Michael explains. "It feels like permanent exile to that one brother or wife who cannot stand a silent fate in Boston or London or Melbourne. I've met many who remain haunted by the persistent ghost of an earlier place."
This sense of dislocation might be the theme that connects the novel's episodes. I say "might" because, along with being a quiet writer, Ondaatje gently pushes his story along, never insisting on a particular conclusion. Instead, he lets us take what we want from the small moments of wonder on the ship (the boys' vision, for instance, of a beautiful girl roller skating the decks in the early morning) and more threatening ones (the freakish death of a rich passenger; a dangerous children's game in a storm; the drama of a manacled, enigmatic prisoner).
While the more privileged passengers use binoculars to sightsee from the rails, the boys — and readers — are more intent upon all those things going on in secret aboard the ship. Ondaatje teaches us that the most marvelous sights are those most often overlooked. It's a lesson that turns this supple story, like the meals at the cat's table, into a feast.