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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Cat's Table

This week, a new novel, Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 The Cat’s Table. It is the story of an adult narrator telling the story of a voyage taken from Sri Lanka to England by an eleven-year-old boy in the early 1950s.

“The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were 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.”

Since Michael Ondaatje himself was originally from Sri Lanka and journeyed to England as an eleven-year-old, it is no grand step to think The Cat’s Table is a memoir. However, Mr. Ondaatje does not agree. When one finishes the novel, one encounters an Author’s Note where he states:

“Although the novel sometimes uses the coloring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional—from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator. And while there was a ship named the Oronsay (there were in fact several Oronsays), the ship in the novel is an imagined rendering.”

We must take Mr. Ondaatje at his word here, but the coincidence is curious, no?

(Incidentally, the ship the boy is traveling on, the Oronsay, is apparently named after a Scottish island and seems to have no meaningful reference to the story beyond being a possible reminder of colonialism. The title of the book, The Cat’s Table refers to the dining table the protagonist is placed at onboard and where he meets the story’s central characters, one of whom calls it the cat’s table, meaning the least desirable).

The story begins: “He wasn’t talking. He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath.” (Here, the eleven-year-old, Michael, is en route to the Oronsay).

So, this is clearly third-person narration, simple past tense.

The narrative continues this way till midway into the fourth paragraph: “I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? …I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk…as if he had been smuggled away accidently, with no knowledge of this act, into the future.”

A careful reading reveals that the unnamed narrator in the future may or may not be referring to his child-self. It is possible that he is telling a story about a boy he imagines, rather than remembering his past. It is ambiguous. The implied author of the story, speaking through this adult narrator, would arguably know all about a character he created. Instead, the narrator is made to wonder. He is not omniscient.

The next chapter is entitled Departure. It begins: “What had there been before such a ship in my life? …But now it had been arranged I would be traveling to England by ship and that I would be making the journey alone.” And this definitively establishes the narrational style for the bulk of the story, first person and simple past tense.

I just want to remark on the way the story seems to be one thing but is another. And note that what we have here is a character narrator, and we know what that implies—unreliability. There is a narrator of the story—the guy in the future—who would seem to have an omniscient view of things in the past, but he calls all that into question by saying he doesn’t know key motivations. He claims that the voyage was no big deal to him till his children asked him to essentially tell a story about it.

So is it fiction or memoir?

Fiction, best B. I’m going to say fiction with an extra helping of mystery.

After several chapters narrated by the eleven-year-old, “Michael,” we have a paragraph break, and:

“The three weeks of the sea voyage, as I originally remembered it, were placid.” He shifts. “As night approached, I missed the chorus of insects, the howls of garden birds, gecko talk…Some mornings in Boralesgamuwa, I used to wake early, and make my way through the dark, spacious bungalow until I came to Narayan’s door…” This a description of this “I’s” life in Sri Lanka, apparently before the voyage on the Oronsay. “When I left the country at the age of eleven, I grieved most over losing them (the family’s servants). A thousand years later I came upon the novels of the Indian writer R.K. Narayan in a London bookstore. I bought everyone and imagined they were by my never forgotten friend Narayan.”

Then another paragraph break, and:

“And then, one day, I smelled burning hemp on the ship.”

Here, the narrator is back on the Oronsay. So, the narrator has signaled that he will not only tell the story of the young Michael’s sea voyage, but will also dart about in time, going back to a younger time—either for himself or for Michael—and going forward to when either Michael or the narrator were older and living in London.

More on this to come.

It’s interesting that the adult narrator writes, “The three weeks of the sea voyage, as I originally remembered it…” Now, an innocent reading would be that he’s telling a story about his younger self—from memory. But this is not explicitly said. The narrator doesn’t write, “The three weeks of the sea voyage, when I was on the ship…” No, it’s possible the narrator is writing that he is creating the story, using the artifice of writing about past events.

Is the story about Michael the eleven-year-old traveler or is it about the adult narrator tells us incidents from his childhood?


Till next time.


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