This novel by Michael Ondaatje tells the story of the voyage of an 11 year old boy travelling from Colombo to England and from childhood to adolescence. The word ‘journey’ is overused these days by just about every celebrity or talking head on television who wants to appear profound but the ‘journey’ here really is an apt metaphor. The boy is on a voyage of self- discovery. It is the 1950s and, like many other boys of his time and class, he is travelling from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to school in England.
The cat’s table is the least desirable seating allocation for dining on board the ship ‘Oronsay’, the opposite of the captain’s table. Here, our hero shares the table and adventures with two other boys also heading to English schools. The three week journey, via the Suez Canal, gives them plenty of time to discover other on board characters and speculate on their activities and motives.
Travelling from East to West affects our hero is less obvious ways and we get a glimpse, through our narrator’s reminiscences of how lives in England and onwards have affected the three boys. Whatever class distinctions existed on a 1950s ocean liner were of little interest to a young Michael. Instead, the divide he notices is between the worlds of children and adults.
I read this book earlier in the year. I also downloaded an audio book narrated by Michael Ondaatje himself. Rather than read along while listening I would play a sort of game of tag; first listening to a section and then reading it for myself and vice versa. It was a hugely satisfying way to ‘read’ a book.
‘The Cat’s Table’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?