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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Ark of the Story Arc. Ack! - Cat's Table

The Cat’s Table, like other stories by Michael Ondaatje, is episodic in structure.

The term episodic fiction refers to a set of episodes in a series (like a television show or serial) that have the same characters, setting, and plot conceit, but the story arc in each episode is self-contained, or mostly self-contained.

'Kay. This definition probably has more to do with film series like Star Wars and its various offshoots. Cat’s Table is different in that, first, it is a book, and second, it is not a serialized story that occurs in discrete installments, such as week-to-week. Although it could be said that all of Mr. Ondaatje’s books are linked, by style and often by recurring characters. (Intertextuality, my friends). Witness the way Hana appears in The Skin of a Lion and then again in The English Patient. I just discovered that the Oronsay, the ocean liner that is central in Cat’s Table, also appears in Anil’s Ghost as a rusting hulk in a Sri Lankan harbor.


So, Cat’s Table is episodic in the sense that it is constructed of discrete episodes that have connections in terms of characters and story and are all contained in the same book.

Maestro, an example, please!

The book is a fiction about an older man looking back on events that were similar to his own childhood—there’s an illusion of memory, and this begs for being presented in episodes. After all, our memories are episodic, no?

The story begins with the young protagonist, Michael, being taken to the point of embarkation for his voyage on the Oronsay. It’s not clear who’s taking him, probably some family members, but it does emerge that he has not seen his mother for four years and is traveling to England to be re-united with her. At this point, Michael is somewhat vaguely defined. The older narrator writes: “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there…” And this represents a jump in time from the early 1950s to the book’s present (2011?) when the narrator is writing.

This lack of definition at the beginning is interesting as it conveys a tentative feel to the story. Later, as we read, Michael will be much more “filled-in,” as the distance between he and the narrator is adjusted.

Then after a chapter break, a section entitled “Departure” begins: “What had there been before such a ship in my life?” Here the story-time continues in the 1950s, and the narrative dives solidly within the young Michael as the story shows his inner experience of preparing for the voyage.

The next section, a chapter break, begins: “I heard a note being slipped under my door.”

Here, we continue to go with Michael’s experience. But a period of time has passed, and the reader is asked to accept this gap. As young Michael travels in time, we too go from reading his experience of preparation to apparently, the next day. The ship has sailed; he is in his cabin and receives a communication informing him he will be seated at the “Cat’s Table” for meals. There is no showing of continuous time, of Michael boarding the Oronsay, the casting-off, maneuvering out of the harbor. Nothing about (as yet) Michael being escorted to his cabin and settling in. There is now a description of the others he encounters at the dining table, all of whom are significant characters in the story. However, this section is, I believe, presented not by Michael but by the narrator.

You disagree, best B.?

Am I supposed to disagree? It’s a trap! as Admiral Akbar said.

Perhaps it’s not a terribly important distinction, but yes, I believe those expository passages are shown by the older narrator. “It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, and the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another…Most exciting of all, we had a pianist who cheerfully claimed to have “hit the skids.”

What’s important here is that we have a separate older narrator (a character narrator) who is showing we the readers the long-ago scene. He does not use the language and worldview of an eleven-year-old but of a mature writer adept with the English language. There is the illusion of the narrator remembering the past—not in an objective but in a subjective way. This “looking-back” becomes more significant later on as the narrator develops the idea that we humans may look at our pasts with a fond but changed perspective. A sense of wonder and, at times, dismay. We’ll get into this, I promise you.

At this delightful point, I want to highlight the discontinuous, episodic nature of the narrative, as well as the omniscient but subjective presence of the narrator’s voice.

Till next time.


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