13 February 2012

Tournament of Books '12: The view from THE CAT'S TABLE

Inadvertently I passed from the childhood memories collected in THE LAST BROTHER to a distinct, but occasionally parallel set in Michael Ondaatje's THE CAT'S TABLE. The body count is lower, the relative income is higher and the turn of events is less tragic, but some of the "didn't know then what I know now" animus is the same.

The surviving grown-up in this case is Michael, who as a young teenager was sent from his father's in Sri Lanka to live with his mother in England. On a mammoth passenger ship for three weeks by himself, Michael bunks with a late-night bridge player and sneaks into places he shouldn't with two other boys (what we would, in this century, refer to as "unaccompanied minors") who he met at "the cat's table" -- the nickname for the table in the communal dining room with the least prestige.

The book is subtly structured like a shell, and it took me a while to catch onto this; after reading the first account of Michael's voyage, including a bracing description of the night he and his friends tied themselves to the deck during a storm, I wondered what more there would be to the book; the story peaks there. Then it turns and begins to flesh out things already revealed. For example, in the next layer, we find out a few details about the post-ship lives of Michael's friends; a further turn reveals (minor spoiler) that he has married the sister of one of them, then that they were divorced. At each point it seems as though there is no more to Michael's story, and then there is more. If this shell had a center it would be reduced to a cocktail-party line like "Oh, you're from Egypt? I once took a boat through the Suez Canal when I was younger. Fascinating country."

And so it was that THE CAT'S TABLE grabbed me more and more, despite what I saw was a sometimes colorless narrator in Michael. Observing everything, he peers through events rather than standing in front of them. His lack of opinions, for example, on the major change that was taking place in his life at first bothered me, but his subtle ambivalence (mixed with a sense of adventure) is woven through the outer layers. Its unfinished nature should go without speaking, particularly since Ondaatje hints in an acknowledgment that the book is autobiographical, and undoubtedly there are more layers to his tale than have been revealed.

ToB first-round opponent: Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA! -- this one narrated by actual children in real time, but sharing the adult and/or alien environments and the journey narratives. My pick is SWAMPLANDIA! though; THE CAT'S TABLE, while more solidly constructed, never quite captivated me the same way.

No comments: