Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Cat's Table

Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, comes the beautifully crafted semi-autobiographical tale The Cat’s Table.

In the story, a wealthy art collector explains that there is much more to a tapestry than what can be seen when it hangs on a wall. There is the seemingly random assortment of threads that lie on the work’s other side— “the underneath.”  The collector continues, "That is what gives truth, depth, to this sentimental tableau." The opaqueness of an artwork’s foundation, as well as what lies unseen below the surface of the sea, and—most of all—memory that has been long submerged are woven throughout this story that focuses on a 21-day sea voyage between Sri Lanka (now Ceylon) and England, taken by an 11-year-old boy traveling nearly 60 years ago.

Unescorted on the voyage to meet his mother who moved to England years earlier, the narrator Michael is assigned to sit at meals with a motley group of other solo travelers that include a pianist, a botanist, two other young people (sickly Ramadhin and troublemaker Cassius), and a lady traveling in the company of pigeons, some of whom she keeps on occasion in her pockets.  It is this woman who says that the group is sitting at “the cat’s table,” the table located the farthest from the captain’s and, in fact, “the least privileged place” to be on the ship.  But it is with and because of the people seated at the cat’s table that the narrator, looking back, said he experienced the adventure of a lifetime and one that shaped the rest of his life. He comes to understand that, “It would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me.”

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