Lives at Sea

3 minute read
Pico Iyer

It begins with the sharp unreality of a dream. in 1953 an 11-year-old boy is taken to a great ship that will transport him from his native Ceylon to England, 21 days away. On the Orient Line boat, he befriends two kids his age: the artful dodger Cassius and the gentle, slightly clumsy Ramadhin. Around them is a floating house of mysteries: a millionaire heading to England for medical treatment after being bitten by a rabid dog, a sleepwalker who drinks gunpowder tea and keeps pigeons in her pocket, a man with a secret garden (Madagascar periwinkles, black calabashes, Indonesian limes) in the hold. Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, The Cat’s Table, seems at first like a Dickensian adventure, albeit one flavored with a boy’s memories of eating egg hoppers at dawn near his home in Boralesgamuwa.

Yet the boy, Michael, shares a name with his author, and the details of his life are so close to those of Ondaatje’s that the story has the haunted intimacy of real life remembered as fairy tale. As the characters age, the lens slowly expands to take in the future that awaits Michael and his friends in England and a deeper recognition of all they’re leaving behind. A life at sea will become a lifelong inheritance.

A prizewinning poet as well as the author of such groundbreaking novels as The English Patient and Divisadero, Ondaatje couldn’t write a banal sentence if he tried. Every character here has a carnival richness, whether it’s the woman with a “laugh that hinted it had rolled around once or twice in mud” or the slippery operator known as the Baron, who gets Michael to help him filch a knife from another cabin before slipping off the ship at Port Said. The tender weight and candlelight hush of Ondaatje’s prose render scene after scene indelible–of the boys tethering themselves to the deck during a great storm, of a deaf girl who feels safe only when she joins a traveling circus in rural Ceylon. (Lovers of Ondaatje’s earlier books will recognize many of the novelist’s signature props: talk of Italian Madonnas, references to Kipling, women taking showers outside, cardsharps and condensed milk.)

As ever, Ondaatje holds the reader by subtly and gradually piecing together the secrets his characters try to suppress, but in this case, more than ever before, the mysteries feel especially close to home: little Michael looks at himself in a mirror and sees a wild boy who doesn’t belong anywhere. The cat’s table of the title–the place where, far from the captain’s table, the boys and the ship’s other misfits eat each night–is a compact model of Ondaatje’s favored community of nomads, mongrels and “insignificants.” On its surface, The Cat’s Table may be a magically real reworking of a classic boy’s adventure tale. Deep down, it has the poignancy of a life’s summation.

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