An amusing, poignant and stirring read

2011-11-09 00:00

THE Cat’s Table is another fine novel by the celebrated author of The English ­Patient (1992) and Anil’s Ghost (2000). It tells of a 21-day sea voyage, in 1954, from Sri Lanka to England, that significantly affects — both immediately and ­subsequently — the life of the ­11-year-old narrator-protagonist, Michael.

Placed at the least privileged table (the Cat’s Table) in the dining-room of the Oronsay, Michael, nicknamed Mynah, quickly establishes a close friendship with two other boys, the reckless iconoclast, Cassius, destined to become a painter, and the more reticent Ramadhin, whose activities are constrained owing to a delicate heart condition. The trio explore the vessel, often penetrating forbidden zones; engage in a number of pranks, some of which are life-threatening; and observe and interact with a host of adults, whose characters, conversations and ­activities they do not always fully comprehend.

In particular, they are intrigued by the presence on board of the prisoner, Niemeyer, a notorious criminal and serial escapee who, having reputedly killed an English judge, is being transported to ­England to stand trial. Nightly, he is brought out on deck in chains, a sight avidly anticipated and regularly witnessed by the boys. Owing to Niemeyer’s reputation, security has been provided on board in the form of the conspicuous English official, Giggs, and one Perera, a famed member of the Sri Lankan CID, who is travelling under an assumed identity, raising considerable speculation as to which one of the passengers he might be.

The intrigue is heightened when it is realised that passenger Asuntha, a deaf waif, is the criminal’s daughter; that Sunil, a performer in the Jankla Troupe, has former links with both Asuntha and her father; and that the protagonist’s attractive cousin, Emily, coincidentally also on the ship, is in thrall to the manipulative Sunil.

While at one level Ondaatje creates a shipboard drama, whose elements coalesce in an exhilarating climax, he is essentially writing of the voyage of discovery of a young boy, not yet adolescent, who moves in a playground of anarchy, on the periphery of an enigmatic, sometimes menacing adult world and disembarks, a stranger on foreign turf, a stranger to his former self.

Insightful, amusing, poignant, The Cat’s Table is a stirring read.

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