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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

View Out The Back - The Cat's Table

Last time, we talked about the omniscience of the narrator in Cat’s Table. The narrator, the older Canadian writer originally from Sri Lanka, tells the story of the young Michael’s voyage from Sri Lanka in the 1950s with two friends.

As the story goes, it also shows more than just the voyage, it shows what happened afterward to the trio of characters, generally filtered through Michael’s perspective. We learn that Cassius becomes an important visual artist, that Ramadhin dies prematurely perhaps because of a broken heart. We learn that Michael falls in love with Ramadhin’s younger sister. Massi.

As the Cat’s Table develops, there are episodes where the narrator is telling a story about a different character than the young Michael. The story of Ramadhin’s end is told about him by the narrator, although Michael is still involved as Ramadhin’s erstwhile love Heather is telling the story to an older Michael, so the story remains indirectly filtered through the older Michael’s perspective.

“So Ramadhin went in search of the boy, to persuade him to come back to Heather. He entered the strip of the city—somewhere he would never have gone—walking there in his long black winter coat, scarf-less, against the English weather.”

However, after a line break, the narrative shifts form.

“He enters the Cox Bar on his knight’s mission…He pays the taxi driver. He presses the bell to her flat, waits, then turns and walks away. He passes the garden where they have had the tutorial once or twice when it was sunny. His heart still leaping, as if it cannot slow or pause. He unlatches the gate and goes into that green darkness.”

Please notice the use of the simple present tense. Notice the sentence fragments and the simple present tense sentences—"He presses the bell, He passes the garden.” These things are key elements of Ondaatje’s style across all his writing. They create an immediacy.

But these events are told from Ramadhin’s perspective. Whatever the complex subterfuge of Heather telling Michael what she knew (how could she know about Ramadhin’s interior perspective?), the effect is that the reader experiences a story told from inside Ramadhin, just before his death.

This is, I believe, the narrator flitting about, in and out of the character’s heads.

The overall narrational structure is that of the older narrator telling stories about the younger protagonist, some sixty years later. This creates a big distance between the narrator and the events. The distance consists of more than time. It’s a function of the narrator “looking back” and having his own emotional reaction to the past.

We see this in the telling of the story of Michael’s affair with Ramadhin’s younger sister, Massi.

“Massi existed in the public half of the world that Ramadhin rarely entered. There was never hesitation in her. She and I would come to share a deep slice of each other’s lives. And whatever became of our relationship, the ups and downs of its seas, we improved as well as damaged each other with the quickness I learned partially from her. Massi grabbed at decisions. She was probably more like Cassius than like her brother. Although I know now that the world is not divided that simply into two natures. But in our youth we think that.”

‘Kay. This is a fine example of the older narrator looking back on a significant love affair and expressing judgements of it. These are not opinions Michael would have been able to have during the time he was involved with Massi; they are products of hindsight. But that may be to trivialize them unfairly. They are profound judgments that are the result of much experience and reflection.

Could they still be mistaken?

Sure, but that assessment would be evidence of a pretty cynical reading of this beautiful story.

Another, perhaps more innocent, example:

“…most of the time, we had barely a fishhook’s evidence about Miss Lasqueti’s background or career. We considered ourselves good at vacuuming up clues as we coursed over the ship each day, but our certainty about what we discovered grew slowly…We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst…That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power…Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”

Here the narrator is showing how the young protagonists were unreliable and mistaken in their assessments of the other passengers. And then he includes a pronouncement about some wisdom he’s learned as an older adult.

Of course, as noted above, the older narrator himself could be unreliable—we don’t know. However, I want to say I don’t think it’s that kind of book. There is nothing going on to make you think the narrator is “blowin’ smoke” or exaggerating to make himself look good.

All right, maybe a little, but we want to read wise thoughts by people of experience, no?

Till next time.


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