'Oh, this older need for a lullaby not a storm.'
That is the quote I used as I ended my shared thoughts on here about the last Michael Ondaatje book I read, Divisadero. It seemed to say for me what I had come to understand as the essence of a book by a writer whose work I had slowly come to enjoy...and that enjoyment had been long-sought and hard won because Michael Ondaatje requires effort from his readers, and I had struggled until I 'got it'.
That place in my reading life for the quiet thoughtful low-octane-plot-with-great-big-heart novel that would make me pay attention is assured, but some writers have to work a little harder to persuade me of their methods and Michael Ondaatje was one.
Gorgeous cover eh, and the title says quite clearly The Cat's Table - A Novel, so any sense that this might be faction or memoir has had to be seriously driven from my mind, though with some difficulty given that this is a book about a young boy called Michael who becomes a writer. And especially given that our Michael in later life meets up again with another character from the book who...
'told me she'd read my books, and that whenever she browsed through she spent her time putting two and two together - some fictional incident with the original drama that has happened in her presence..'
He's a rascal isn't he, but I didn't fall for it because I know this is all destined to blur the boundaries and this is Michael Ondaatje, it's what he's good at. And look up the SS Oronsay and you will discover that there was one, an Orient liner being used as a troop ship which was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of West Africa in 1942... more blurring.
I wrote this about Michael Ondaatje's writing and Divisadero in particular..
Aha, I said as I reached that point on page 142, now I see what you're up to Mr Ondaatje. Intentionally I haven't read the reviews but I'll bet they are divided and polarised from brilliant to ghastly. I'm in the brilliant camp me because Michael can't put a foot wrong now. No word out of place, if Michael meant it to be there then that's where it belongs. If Michael wants to twizzle me round his little finger and tie me in knots with his divided story then I'll cope with that too.
And it all comes back to me, the reason why I love books like this, a writer who makes me think, makes me work a little, keeps me on the back foot, slightly off-balance if not mildly confused at times, often as confused as his characters, but it does all come right and The Cat's Table does all of those things yet again.
It is the early 1950s and eleven-year old Michael is travelling alone and unescorted from Africa to England by sea on the good ship Oronsay. He pals up with Cassius and Ramadhin as they explore the ship and take their seats each night at the very lowly Cat's Table. This is very far below the salt and the Captain's table, but the company of eccentric fellow-travellers is of far greater interest to three unsupervised young lads with vivid imaginations and an unruly sense of adventure. Free and feral in their floating paradise, the boys explore the ship and all the characters are seen through their eyes, the passengers, the crew, the entertainers and the stories are woven around them....and then there is the mysterious prisoner being transported to England who is escorted around the decks in chains at dead of night. Perfect fodder for young imaginations.
I'm not sure of the origins of the word 'carnival' and I'm sure it's not completely relevant here, but its meaning of the suspension of the normal rules came to mind as the ship set sail, a world afloat and apart from the jurisdictions of day to day life. I've only ever been on one proper cruise and had a fabulous time, but it is an odd place to be too, middle of the ocean, miles from land and to be told you are sailing over the world's deepest sea trench, so there it is, the distance from home to town beneath you... well I thought it felt odd to me anyway.
The Tinker remembers diving off his ship and swimming in the Indian ocean during the war, and thinking exactly the same.
And it felt odd to young Michael too, left pondering the depths after the boys had lashed themselves to the deck during a storm to see whether it would be an 'exciting adventure' or not
'It was only then, in that peacefulness, that I imagined the full nature of the storm. Of being roofless and floorless. What we had witnessed was only what had been above the sea. Now something shook itself free and came into my mind. It was not only the things we could see that had no safety. There was the underneath.'
And to mediate his novel through the eyes of a child on the cusp of adolescence and in the first person offers Michael Ondaatje the perfect foil for that narrative voice that only knows so much and no more...so the reader only knows so much and no more too. Or else we get completely the wrong end of the stick as they do too.
But what marvellous spies children make. No observation too small for recounting, no detail too minor to be of significance perhaps... 'might come in useful' we used to say as a children when we saw a car we thought looked suspicious, and we'd memorise the number plate just in case (and of course it was easy then, three letters, three numbers). So information filtered through the sieve of a child's mind, everything soaked up like a sponge and then squeezed out, except often misinterpreted by these delicious little unreliable narrators...
'as children we were imagining and accepting all kinds of things...'
I immediately thought of another novel I had read about a child unsupervised on board ship and that was The Far Cry by Emma Smith, there is definitely something about this floating world that allows for freedom and discovery for children, and both writers exploit that completely differently but with very readable results.
I haven't gone big on plot description here, and nor does it need the likes of me dissecting or interrogating the writing or the style, leave that to the critics, I read for pleasure and this is just the wonderful Michael Ondaatje 'innit'. You need to dive in and swim with it and you'll soon find out if this is your bag or not.
Me I loved it.