- - Friday, October 21, 2011

By Michael Ondaatje
Alfred A. Knopf, $26, 269 pages

It’s 1954 and 11-year-old Michael is traveling unaccompanied from Colombo to London on the liner Oransay. It will be on the ocean for 21 days: three whole weeks in which Michael and two new friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, fly under the radar of adult supervision and infiltrate every part of the ship. They divebomb into the swimming pools. They delve into the holds and visit the kennels and garden down there. They pilfer food and eat it in the swinging lifeboats from where they can spy on fellow passengers. They wander around at night and discover a shackled prisoner who is exercised on deck when the rest of the ship is asleep.

“Wot larks,” as Joe Gargery would have said in “Great Expectations.”

Like Pip in Charles Dickens’ great novel, young Michael often is deceived by the adults around him. He is helped too, and he learns from them, especially from those who dine with him at the “cat’s table … the least privileged place” in the dining room because it’s the most distant from the captain’s table. Sidelined in this Siberia are a ship’s dismantler who takes the boys into the inferno of the engine room and a botanist who explains the toxic and medicinal qualities of the plants he keeps in the hold. Then there’s Miss Lasqueti, who walks the deck wearing a jacket fitted with many pockets, into each of which she tucks one of the pigeons she is escorting to England. Miss Lasqueti has a pistol in her handbag. The boys wonder what that’s all about.

They don’t obsess over it, however. One of the many pleasures of this scintillating novel is Michael Ondaatje’s depiction of the way children accept adults at face value, perhaps fantasizing about them, but liking or disliking them insofar as they are amenable or have something interesting to offer - like trips into engine rooms or the lowdown on poisonous plants or, in Michael’s case, instruction in how to break into the first-class cabins. As an adult looking back on the voyage, Michael remembers catching sight of himself in a mirror. He is covered in grease so he can slither through the cabin grating. He judges, “There was a wild boy in there, somebody from one of the Jungle Book stories whose eyes watched me. … It was an image of my youth that I would hold onto for years - someone startled, half-formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet.”

He is working on becoming something, though. He records bits from overheard conversations. “Don’t look at him, you hear me? Celia? Don’t ever look at the swine again!” is one entry. Another is “The man said he could cross a desert eating just a date and one onion a day.” Such notes trail wisps of all those English tales of empire that capture the characters on long sea journeys between East and West. Memories of stories by Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, snippets from Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene weave in and out of the tapestry of “The Cat’s Table.”

The chapters are short - some very short - each a fragment or vignette. Some evoke the nostalgia of ports and the sea; others bring people and events to life. When Michael and Cassius have Ramadhin tie them to the deck so they can experience a storm, Mr. Ondaatje recounts it terrifyingly. His description of the Suez Canal highlights the busy activity of its banks rather than its political role.

Like the Michael who narrates the novel, Mr. Ondaatje journeyed from his birthplace in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to London, and later, as a young man, he went on to Canada, where he became a writer. His author’s note warns that his own experiences provide this brilliant new novel with no more than “the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography.” But if the actual Michael Ondaatje were unimportant to the novel, it would have been easy enough for him to have given his narrator another first name and sent him on a voyage starting from a place other than Colombo.

Instead, Mr. Ondaatje tempts the readers to think about this novel as personal history, only to back them off with warnings about the danger of presuming to understand everything about a character. As Miss Lasqueti explains, when we gaze at a painting of the Madonna we invariably find a “look” that suggests she knows her child will die young. In fact, there is no such look: “Only we the spectators … can read that face as someone who knows the future. For what will become of her son is provided by history. The recognition of that woe comes from the viewer.”

As the voyage ends, some of the people Michael has watched on the Oransay play out unsuspected or hidden dramas, while others fade from view, perhaps to reappear later in his life. What he has learned and what this beautifully crafted novel passes on is that “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. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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