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A well-told lie

Michael Ondaatje takes a journey into childhood

13 August 2011

12:00 AM

13 August 2011

12:00 AM

The Cat’s Table Michael Ondaatje

Cape, pp.265, £16.99

Autobiography provides a sound foundation for a work mainly of fiction. A voyage in an ocean liner provides a sound framework of time and place. Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon in 1943 and migrated to Canada at the age of 19. The Cat’s Table is an entirely believable, warmly empathetic novel about an 11-year-old boy’s journey, alone among 600 passengers in an Orient Line ship, from Colombo to London in 1954 by way of Aden, Port Said and Gibraltar. The boy’s first name is the same as the author’s, and the circumstances are depicted so realistically one feels as though the two Michaels’ points of view are identical. The illusion is maintained even when realism is imaginatively embellished with dramatic incidents that make 21 days at sea a convincingly emotional rite of passage.

‘We seem to be at the cat’s table,’ comments a woman assigned to sit there at mealtimes. ‘We’re in the least privileged place.’ It is at the greatest distance from the Captain’s Table, where some of the conventionally most important passengers and some of the most boring ones are customarily honoured. Other novelists have chosen to anatomise disparate human specimens gathered by chance close together in a grand hotel, for instance, in an airport departure lounge, even a battlefield foxhole. Such an apparently haphazard concentration can be a productive fictional device. Thus Ondaatje focuses on a single group of interestingly varied dining-table companions: a botanist; a tailor; a man who travels from port to port dismantling obsolete ships; the exotically named, superficially spinsterish Miss Perinetta Lasqueti, a connoisseur of brass rubbings and tapestries who is on a mysterious mission with 20 or 30 carrier pigeons, possibly for contacts in Whitehall; a pianist who says he has ‘hit the skids’ (he plays with the ship’s orchestra and gives piano lessons to help pay his fare); Michael and two other boys his age. According to the pianist, if the boys keep their eyes and ears open, the voyage will be a great education. He’s right.

‘So by the end of our first day,’ Michael relates, ‘we discovered we could become curious together.’ They are inquisitive and energetic explorers, from the uppermost deck, which proves good for feeling the full impact of a storm so severe it washes out the assistant purser’s glass eye, down to the ‘Hades’ of the engine room. They climb into a lifeboat, eat the emergency chocolate, and look down on the evening exercise of a prisoner in chains who murdered an English judge in Ceylon and is being taken to England for trial.

Eventually, Ondaatje shows how differently the boys turn out afterwards. In the meantime, he confides that the most bizarre anecdote within the novel ‘has its basis in an incident in an earlier century when a Colombo citizen insulted a priest and had a charm put on him’. This author’s note explains the genesis of Sir Hector de Silva, a rich Sinhalese entrepreneur sailing in luxury with a large entourage to find a Harley Street cure for rabies. The story of ‘Sir Hector’ is enriched when one of Michael’s companions brings aboard a murderous terrier stolen in Aden. Ondaatje’s great achievement is demonstrating that fiction can be stranger than truth. As he wrote in his 1983 poetic memoir, Running in the Family, ‘In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.’

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