Second-guessing awards is as old as competition. Shortly after the first Greek athlete had a crown of laurel placed on his brow at the first Olympics, there no doubt were murmurings in the stands that “Agathon was robbed.” While Julian Barnes finally took home the Man Booker Prize this month after four nominations, the lineup of finalists thoroughly puzzled – if not infuriated – many. No Hollinghurst? No Ondaatje? Well, after reading five of the six nominees, I can safely say, “No Hollinghurst? No Ondaatje?”
Both Booker winners have new novels out this October, both are without question among the finest work they’ve done, and both easily trump finalists Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English” and A.D. Miller’s “Snowdrops” (sorry, guys). And I’m not just grading on a snob’s curve. Both “The Cat’s Table” and “The Stranger’s Child” win in terms of that dirty word the judges cited that so enraged pretentious folks: “readability.”
An 11-year-old sets out on a three-week journey from Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka) to England in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. “The English Patient” writer loans his narrator certain autobiographical features – like his first name, his career, and his method of travel. But even before the cursed millionaire gets bitten by a second dog, readers will know that “The Cat’s Table” isn’t a memoir. What it is is a gorgeous piece of writing, meditating on the ways that an adolescent can be “smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.”
The book's title comes from Michael’s assigned seat at dinner on board the Oronsay, as far away from the captain’s table as you can get. There are two other unaccompanied boys, adventurous Cassius and frail Ramadhin, who, with Michael, form a triumvirate. There’s also a lovelorn botanist with an entire garden of poisonous plants in the hold, an expert markswoman traveling with two dozen pigeons she lovingly carries in padded pockets, a jazz pianist, a mute tailor, and a man who dismantles ships.
Also on board are Michael’s beautiful teenage cousin, Emily, who strikes up a friendship with a deaf girl; an “aunt” who is supposed to keep an eye on Michael; the cursed millionaire; a gentle scholar; a thief pretending to be an aristocrat; a roller-skating Australian; an acrobatic troupe of performers; and, most exciting for the boys, a chained prisoner who is only allowed on deck after everyone (besides the boys) is asleep.
Discovering that they are invisible to the “important” people on the ship, the boys turn the Oronsay into their personal playground. Between sneaking into the gold-painted pool and raiding the first class’s breakfast buffet at dawn, noshing on their pilfered goodies in a lifeboat (they’d already eaten the emergency chocolate rations), and spying on the prisoner at midnight, the boys’ days are satisfyingly full. “Who realizes how contented feral children are?” the adult Michael muses.
Their one rule: “Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.” And that’s before Michael almost unknowingly becomes the thief’s assistant and Ramadhin ties Cassius and Michael to the deck, a la Odysseus, so they can experience a cyclone’s rage first-hand.
Ondaatje has always been capable of conjuring up mesmerizing images to draw in a reader, but with “The Cat’s Table” he holds back just enough so the lyricism doesn’t overwhelm the story. As the ship journeys from Port Said through the Mediterranean, the characters’ lives link up in unexpected ways, and the adventures take a decidedly less playful turn.
Michael engages in a bit of disinformation in the beginning, claiming that the “sea journey, as I originally remembered it, was placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage.”
Given the violence that lurks aboard ship, “placid” is a highly improbable adjective to describe the voyage of the Oronsay. It is, however, a voyage highly worth taking.
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