Ahoy, Ondaatje wonderland: 'The Cat's Table' delivers potent imagery and plot

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Many of the great pleasures in life originate in the knowledge that they can't last forever. I always worry, therefore, when picking up a new Michael Ondaatje book: Have too much literary attention and praise finally spoiled his talent? Approaching his latest, I also doubted the possibility of anyone penning a compelling plot-line when their characters are trapped on an extended sea voyage.

But Mr. Ondaatje's new novel, "The Cat's Table," is successful not merely in overcoming a potentially suffocating setting. It also casts itself into that charmed circle of books: those with the unifying quality of rarity.

None of Mr. Ondaatje's previous narratives -- the sweeping scope of "The English Patient," the gritty realism of "Divisadero," the at-times disappointing suspense of "Anil's Ghost" -- are adequate preparation for the subject and scope of his newest book. The body of the narrative is set in that borderland between mythical venture and emotional profundity that can only be filtered into the world of reality through the perspective of youth.

A fictional autobiography recounting a young boy's 1954 voyage from his home in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to Britain, the novel opens with only the briefest of periods on dry land as young Michael is sleepily escorted in the early morning hours to the departing vessel, the Oronsay. The dream-like quality of this experience is echoed as the reader follows the misadventures of Michael and his two closest companions, and finds that even the most mundane of activities is amplified and perhaps exaggerated in the memory of a child.

"The Cat's Table"
Michael Ondaatje
Knopf ($26)

It is only later in the novel, when Mr. Ondaatje begins to splice the documentation of these three boys' explorations, that the narrative begins to expose the reader to the impact that the experience leaves not just on Michael, but on his travel companions as well.

These more limited descriptions of the narrator's adult life are most welcome: They provide a more analytical reflection on the dichotomy between the instantaneous connections of youth and their translations into the consolations of a more lonely maturity.

As the ship's bow cuts through the distance between Asia and Europe via Arabian, Mediterranean and Asiatic landscapes, its memory cuts equally through the regret and self-scrutiny of an older Michael years later.

Only a writer who initially cut his teeth in publishing astoundingly visual poetry would be able to evoke images of three young boys caged together for a long sea voyage with simultaneous apparent sincerity and subtextual notes of epiphany.

Mr. Ondaatje's greatest talents lie in simply constructed, minimalist descriptions. His images are so meticulously created that the most obvious statements present themselves as sublime realizations.

He doesn't disappoint. Images of a garden hidden in the darkest bowel of the ship, a woman who carries birds about the decks in the pockets of a specially designed coat, and two boys tethering their bodies to the hull during a storm balance the hauntingly beautiful with the vaguely fantastical. The nightly exercises of a shackled prisoner momentarily unite the unlikely characters cast together on the ship as dining companions at the least socially advantageous location -- the cat's table.

It is the fecund echo of these memories that provides the springboard for the events that bring these characters together mentally, emotionally or physically throughout their longer journey of life.

Holly Christie, a lawyer, lives in the North Side.


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