The Cat’s Table. Michael Ondaatje.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Cat’s Table. McClelland and Stewart Toronto 2011. F; 05/12.

I loved this. I was underwhelmed by a couple of his other novels, but here he pulls it together spectacularly.

It’s a retrospective narrative by a writer we presume is successful, probably in late middle age. The action is a three-week ocean voyage in the 1950s where he at age 11 sails from India to London to be reunited with his mother after five years. Three boys have the run of the ship, and about 10 characters are developed, most of them (PLOT ALERT) ultimately involved in the dramatic escape of a prisoner who was being transported in the hold. Our hero feels his first romantic attachment to an older teenage cousin who is seduced into the escape plot, and with whom he reconnects at the end of the book (end PLOT ALERT).

This story has the roundness I, the 60s English lit major, look for. I love complex self-reference about art, and he plays that tune deftly on the pedals with a point-of-view emphasis that pulls the artist and observer together. His friend, whom he never sees again, has become a painter, and looking at his work Michael connects his sadness at lost childhood and friendship with a morally ambiguous night scene the two of them as older boys watched years before as the ship passed through the Suez Canal:

I read somewhere that when people first celebrated the distinct point of view of Lartigue’s early photographs, it took a while before someone pointed out that it was the natural angle of a small boy with a camera looking up at adults he was photographing. What I was seeing now in the gallery was the exact angle of vision Cassius and I had that night, from the railing, looking down at the men working in those pools of light. An angle of forty-five degrees, something like that. I was back on the railing, watching, which was where Cassius was emotionally, when he was doing these paintings. Goodbye, we were saying to all of them. Goodbye.

But nothing is left behind (PLOT ALERT). Michael sees Emily the love interest again. On Bowen Island of all places. Perinetta, who shoots an official in the arm foiling his preventing the escape (tossing the pistol over the rail in a quick gesture nobody but Michael sees) is into serious political intrigue. The boy is unreservedly welcomed by his mum when he lands in England (end PLOT ALERT ).

Great realism, complicated plot with a thriller gesture, enigmatic but lovable real characters who have, however, just the right reserved edge of artistic formality in the rendering. Few complaints, if any. 9.4/9.6

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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