The One about the Ceylan Cruise Liner

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (2011)

I know this will sound silly, but I was attracted to this book because I love browsing through the “O” shelf. The shelf is short and very diverse, and at the library I volunteer it’s right next to the lending desk. Therefore, Michael Ondaatje, of The English Patient’s fame.

The Cat’s Table is nothing like the English Patient, but the tone is equally kind and luminous (as far as I can remember, because I read it in pre-blog times). It’s a novel, but the narrator is an adult named Michael who travelled as a child, alone, from (then) Ceylan (now Sri Lanka) to Great Britain in the 1950s aboard one of those big liners who took three weeks to cross the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. And guess what? Michael Ondaatje also did this trip as a boy.

I guess it can be classified as a bildungsroman because Michael experiences the world and grows up during these three weeks. He gets to meet very diverse people and to make his own judgment of them (wrong or right) independently from what the adults would say. We also get a glimpse of the adult Michael has become, what his life has been so far and how his whole life has been influenced, in big and small ways, by this trip. We see the freedom of plays and pranks that Michael and his two friends Cassius and Ramadhin engage into every day, and we see the inscrutable world of the adults, full of allusions and mysteries that the boys do not comprehend yet.

The boat is a capsule world in between colorful Ceylan and grey Britain, a world between his father and his mother (who are divorced), and he doesn’t know what to expect. Time is suspended. He vaguely understands the meaning of exile and that he will encounter difficulties and racism later but at this point of his journey he has no clear comprehension, which makes his later allusions to growing up as an immigrant even more gut-wrenching.

There’s a fine line in the book between breathtaking (albeit mindlessly childish) adventures, dreamlike visions of exploring the boat, nostalgia of his lost childhood and sadness and tragedy. It’s a book to savor slowly (which is a difficult pace for me in this season) and not to rush through. I must say I didn’t understand everything what happened to every passenger, so if you need all the i’s to dot and t’s to cross in stories it might be a problem, but personally I enjoyed the atmosphere nonetheless.

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