Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table
McClelland & Stewart, 2011

You can learn a lot from reading novels.

For instance, in reading this one, you could learn the following:

  1. How to spell Egypt (Ever Grasping Your Precious Tits);
  2. The way to a first-class breakfast on a cruise even if you’re not travelling first class (this involves the use of emergency lifeboats); and
  3. You can swallow strychnine as long as you don’t chew it.

Novels can also be entertaining.

For instance, the shenanigans of the three boys on the boat in The Cat’s Table (Michael, Ramadhin and Cassius) are great fun. (Or, at least you can see how they would be from the perspective of Michael, an 11-year-old boy.) You can hear their ruckus and feel the vibrations of their small feet pounding on the deck of the Oronsay: it’s completely believable.

And there is a mystery in The Cat’s Table even though you’re not aware of it until well into the novel: clandestine activities and plotting make for a good story, and the confined quarters of a boat at sea accentuate this brilliantly.

But if you’re looking to 2011’s Giller list to learn a few things, I’d recommend Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man or Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country.

And if you’re looking to the list to get swept away in a story, I’d suggest Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers or Alexi Zentner’s Touch.

Sometimes a novel is also about the wonder of being a novel.

And if you want to marvel at what an author can do with a novel?

The Cat’s Table is just the book for you.

Sure, you can simply take in the words on the page.

Ceylon in stamps: largely absent

Listen when characters are introduced and get to know the important players. Chart the events as they’re presented. Follow the story as Michael tells it, as he remembers it.

But if you look beneath those words, peer between them, there is another layer.

Keep in mind: “Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.”

Yes, there’s that matter of a lifetime. That alone is a layer to grope through. Michael himself says, thinking back:

“But as boys on that journey to England, looking out on the sea that seemed to contain nothing, we used to imagine complex plots and stories for ourselves.”

There is nothing accidental about this novel’s plots and stories.

The narrator is unravelling his story deliberately and cautiously, his fingers holding the thread relentlessly taut.

For instance, those characters being introduced? It happens in a very particular way.

At first, there might just be a group of people around the cat’s table, the table furthest from the Captain’s table. Then there might be a pianist and a ship dismantler thrown in. Then you might meet Mr Mazappa, who plays with the Oronsay‘s orchestra in the evenings, who gives piano lessons in the daytime.

So you can simply make a note in your reading mind (something like pianist=Mazappa), but The Cat’s Table has more to offer. Every detail matters, even when you don’t understand why.

You can take in a scene, appreciate Miss Lasqueti’s literary taste:

“She always had in her possession a copy of The Magic Mountain, but no one ever saw her reading it. Miss Lasqueti consumed mostly crime thrillers, which constantly seemed to disappoint her. I suspect that for her the world was more accidental than any book’s plot. Twice I saw her so irritated by a mystery that she half rose from the shadow of her chair and flung the paperback over the railing into the sea.”

But there is always another layer.

Think of all those decks.

Think of the great depths surrounding them.

“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.”

Consider the underneath.

A person can exist behind “the thin curtain of art”, they can lead a “disguised life”, they can conceal “the skeleton within”.

Something that is monstrous can be broken down into thousands of unrecognizable pieces.

While your attention is draw to the left, the action is playing out to the right. “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric.”

And then there is the underlying question, how much of this really is just an imagined complex plot and story.

The reader has to wonder if Michael’s tale is really any different from those  that Mr Mazappa used to tell, where “truth and fiction merged too closely for us to distinguish one from the other”.

There are leagues between then and now. Those fragments of overheard conversations, carefully recorded by an 11-year-old boy, have been perfectly preserved, but perfectly preserved in a moment that has been lost.

“We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie.”

Michael Ondaatje’s novel loosens the knot in a way that renews the reader’s faith in crafting.


Along with M.G. Vassanji and Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje’s Giller-bility is leather-bound out of the gate. If the award came with a statuette, this year’s would be issued a life-jacket. [Divisidero was short-listed in 2007  and Anil’s Ghost took home the prize in 2000 (that year’s jury consisted of Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, and Jane Urquhart).]

Inner workings

The story is rooted in Michael’s memories. The underpinnings of these are partly located in the notes he took in an Examination Booklet, filled with snippets of overheard conversations. But even these are filtered through the now-Michael’s understanding. “Some years ago, in my present life….”


Simultaneously simple and poetic. “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.”


Most prominently: the boat, the Oronsay, a mid-career vessel that had been used as a troop ship during WWII. At Table 76 in the dining room, the cat’s table. Also, Boralesgamuwa, “the chorus of insects, the howls of garden birds, gecko talk”. And a peek at Aden, “a dusty landscape, as if water had not been invented”, “through a keyhole into Arabia”.


This tale will please readers who are as interested in the act of reading, and in the act of assembling story, as they are in reading a story. As the quote above (in Language) suggests, the author here is always just ahead of you. Pay attention, for a phrase, a gesture, a fact unchecked, or a declaration unexplained: the details will take the shape of a carapace.

Readers wanted:

You appreciate the stillness that comes from inhabiting the times in which others are absent, the extreme end of either day, the space beneath the surface. And you also appreciate that the shattering of that stillness can hold a certain kind of beauty. With your best friends, you are as often silent as talking. You were once 11 years old.