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.