Friday, March 23, 2012

At The Cat's Table with Ondaatje

It's almost two months since I finished Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, but the images and impressions left by the novel are still clear. Especially clear is the voice of that young child, filtered through the remembering adult consciousness of one named Michael. How closely linked is this Michael with the writing fellow of the same name has been cause for much speculation, and certainly the book's whiff of the autobiographical links it closely, for me, to Running in the Family.

Imagine being shipped across such vast oceans as those between Sri Lanka to England alone as a young boy: what fearsome isolation yet what possibilities for adventure. Michael quickly forms alliances with two other boys, all of them teetering somewhere between innocence and experience, observing, exploring, trifling, testing. As in any Ondaatje novel, rich and mysterious characters fascinate the fictional boys and Ondaatje's readers alike, and we're offered the usual glimpses into arcane worlds: dangerously medicinal plants in the botanic gardens housed in the ship's bowels, skillful thievery, hints of spying and politics and the late-night guarded walks of mysterious prisoners.

As well, stops in ports add to the novel's salt-air tang the whiff of bustling and exotic places of a not-so-distant past. Baskets lifting and lowering supplies on ropes, the yells from stevedores, the anticipation of new passengers embarking, the mystery of others disembarking all add to the nautical flavour that is much of the novel's sensory pleasure.

But I also very much enjoyed the novel's more contemplative final third, when Michael, now grown and moved from London to Canada, tries to trace the threads that led from the short but intense time the three boys spent together during their sea voyage to the events that overtook them later in life. In this, I would find it interesting to compare The Cat's Table with Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, although that protagonist is looking back at his early years from a much older perspective. Still, both novels dwell on the intensity of boyhood friendships as well as on the way these change or dissipate with adulthood and the various vicissitudes of life.

Please remember that I'm rarely claiming to review a novel properly here, so be easy in your judgement of my response. You know I'm always playing catch-up, just trying to flick a few words on the page so that I have a hope of remembering what I've read. Finally, I would happily recommend this, as I would any of Ondaatje's works. Have you read it yet?

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