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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

From the Pen of ... Michael Ondaatje

You may already be familiar with Michael Ondaatje from The English Patient. But you may not be familiar with his lesser known The Cat's Table. Find reviews of overlooked works by well known authors in "From the Pen of..." a new series at About Books.


According to Ondaatje, in 1954 a young boy, Michael, set off from Colombo to England on a boat named the Oronsay to meet his mother after an absence of four or five years. The ship was filled with passengers, but the people of immediate interest to him were his fellow diners at the Cat’s Table – the lowliest table as far away as possible from the Captain's table. Included in its’ occupants were his two mates, Ramadhin and Cassius. In the three weeks that followed, the trio roamed the ship exploring dark cavities, skulking on the edges of rendezvous, listening in on conversations, swimming in the first class pool and snatching breakfast before the first class world awoke. They crouched at night near the manacled prisoner who was being transported, watching, absorbing, testing and experimenting in all the adult behaviors they witnessed around them.
Though formal supervision was non-existent, they were befriended by Mr. Daniel the gardener of exotic plants housed in the gloom of the hold; Mr. Fonseka, a lover of literature, and Mr. Mazappa who taught them jazz and bawdy lyrics. In addition, a garish array of characters extended the boys’ education by teaching them how to break and enter, chew and smoke exotic substances, cheat at cards and how to grease their way through sticky situations!
Though Michael entered the ship “trained into cautiousness” from his boarding school’s inequities of authority and punishment, nothing had prepared him for the sexual, psychological and emotional onslaught provided by the parade of passengers – each with his own personal, murky whirlpools. He learned that despite all levels of class and their incumbent barriers, “what is interesting and important happens mostly in secret.” Walled in by the sea, the boys stalked life. The nine occupants of the Cat’s Table, who all seemed non-descript at first glance, unfold petal by petal into glorious, but sometimes, deadly blooms.

And we watch silently as we sit at the Cat’s Table and partake of Ondaatje’s exquisite sustenance.
-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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