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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Lashed to the Mast

Michael Ondaatje turns a voyage into an unusual coming-of-age tale

Written by Aishwarya Subramanian |
October 15, 2011 12:07:12 am

At some point in the 1950s,Michael (or Mynah) travels from Colombo to England on the liner Oronsay. Aboard the ship,Michael dines each night of his three-week voyage at the Cat’s Table: the table furthest in importance from the captain’s table. With him are two boys of his own age,a tailor who never speaks,a musician,a botanist and the unassuming Miss Lansqueti who turns out to have the most exciting story of all.

Also on the ship are Michael’s beautiful cousin Emily,her mysterious,half-deaf friend Asuntha,a famous man dying of a curse and a “Baron” who lures Michael into a life of crime. Most exciting of all is the dangerous prisoner with the unlikely name of Niemeyer who is escorted onto the deck late at night,but spends the rest of his time in captivity down below. Michael and his companions lurk in the shadows every night to watch him go past. He is rumoured to have murdered an English judge,and is being taken to England to stand trial.

The Cat’s Table has very little in the way of a traditional plot,but what there is focuses on this prisoner and an attempt to help him escape. That there isn’t more attention paid to this plot (or to Michael’s criminal activities,or to Miss Lansqueti’s political connections) has everything to do with how this novel is narrated.

There are at least two Michaels telling this story — the 11-year-old boy who undertakes the journey and the grown man who he becomes. The larger story of Michael’s future life is revealed in glimpses of moments that relate to events on board the Oronsay. And so we know about the dissolution of his marriage before we are introduced to the woman who becomes his wife; we know that a character will die before we hear the story of his death; we know about the future career of one of Michael’s companions aboard the ship and that the two will never meet again. Gradually the details of the adult Michael’s life come together,though it is never a complete picture.

Yet,the fact that young Michael is a child is perhaps the most compelling thing about his account of his shipboard experiences. There’s a sense of time passing slowly — the three weeks stretch out into lifetimes worth of experiences. Any writer would make much of the notion of a group of people cut off from the rest of the world by the vastness of the ocean. Ondaatje doesn’t dwell on it. But for Mynah and his companions,Ramadhin and Cassius,the rules of normal life have been entirely suspended. “I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere,do anything. And Ramadhin,Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun,and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.”

And so they throw valuable objects overboard,commit occasional acts of hooliganism and inadvertently cause the death of another passenger aboard the ship. They completely ignore the divisions between first class and the rest of the ship. They become involved in other people’s crimes and other people’s romances. On one memorable occasion,they lash themselves,Odysseus-style,to the deck of the ship during a storm so that they can watch it from “the best seat in the house”.

What is impressive here is what Ondaatje chooses not to do. Young Michael is just about beginning to put together his experiences into a cohesive view of the world,but much of the time he experiences events in isolation. And so the text does not attempt to put together grand narratives of race and class,though markers of both show up multiple times. Readers of the book are presumably capable of putting these things together for themselves. It’s taken for granted,almost,that these stories will be incomplete; after all,we’re on a ship with characters who Michael may never hear from again. (“So we came to understand that small and important thing,that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”) Some stories are fleshed out — notably those of Miss Lansqueti and Asuntha. Others trail off or end abruptly. Mr Fonseka,a passenger whom the three boys befriend “welcomed me with unusual and interesting stories,stopping abruptly in mid-tale and saying that someday I should find out what happened after that”. In a way,Ondaatje is doing something similar.

There is a third Michael present — the narrator. Ondaatje also travelled to England from Sri Lanka at around the same age. The Michael of the book is revealed to be a writer who eventually moves from England to Canada. In the afterword,Ondaatje specifies that this is not an autobiography. The cover has “a novel” printed under the title to drive the point home. Given all this,the adult Michael speaks of how Emily “read my books,and that whenever she browsed through she spent her time putting two and two together — some fictional incident with the original drama that had happened in her presence”. Ondaatje’s voice is clearly present here. In a novel which manages to inhabit both of its narratorial voices so thoroughly,this is a useful reminder that there is an author behind the scenes and completely in control of it all.

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