As a grown man in London, Michael, narrator of The Cat's Table, attends an exhibition of paintings made by Cassius, whom he knew as a young boy when they were passengers from India to Britain on the Oronsay. The paintings, Michael reflects, remind him of photographs made by Jacques Henri Lartigue, noteworthy for being from "the natural angle of a small boy with a camera looking up at the adults he was photographing."
Cassius's paintings are also from the angle of a small boy - they are of things he saw while on board the Oronsay - but these views are supplemented by the years of memory and painterly skill grown up around them as Cassius has become an adult. The Cat's Table, a heavily autobiographical novel that Ondaatje insists is not a memoir, is a literary version of these paintings, one that will not only show us the views of a child recollected by an adult memory but will also dive into the space in between.
The book begins with young Michael stepping aboard the Oronsay in Colombo and ends with him stepping off in London, but in the intervening 300 pages Ondaatje will, in typical fashion, travel widely. His books are ordered less by the logics of time or narrative than by the preoccupations of the mind, and in The Cat's Table it is memory that takes charge. The present-day Michael exists in this book through the very act of memory: he is a palpable presence despite the fact that the book only looks backward (the closest we ever get to the present is when Michael relates a dream he had "last night"). And though the purpose of Michael's reminisces remains pleasingly amorphous, they seem to have to do with a middle-age desire for self-knowledge, a curiosity built from loneliness and the fact that "over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light."
Michael trusts his memory and will follow it wherever it leads him, letting Ondaatje's imagination wander to the vague nooks that make his books feel so large. Recalling a grand palace, whose visit he cannot situate in time and which he suspects he might have wholly invented, Michael writes, "there is something about the image that I have held on to for all these years." The memory, in other words, is important because it feels important.
In previous books Ondaatje has demonstrated his understanding of the validity of such tautological reasoning when it comes to sorting out one's own identity. His skill in The Cat's Table is to stretch this reasoning beyond solipsism into powerful, lasting images whose importance is accessible to anyone. Michael's memory of the palace, for instance, becomes a remarkably elaborate metaphor for how memories develop in our minds, in part consisting of, "a person [beginning] on the ground floor of that palace, looking at a few naive maps of local harbours, the neighbouring coasts; and then, as one climbs higher, from floor to floor, more and more recent maps chart the half-discovered islands, a possible continent."
This is a book as much about voyage as about youth, and Ondaatje derives both from the Oronsay's robust and fascinating world. With insight and economy he observes the social order on the ship, all the way from Sir Hector de Silva down to Michael and his two friends, who, sitting at the least desirable position in the dining hall (known as "the cat's table"), are at the bottom of the social scale. Ondaatje's skill is to approach everyone between de Silva and Michael from unexpected directions: for instance, a Baron sailing in first class invites Michael to his cabin for cakes and rich Colombo tea before having him strip down, slather himself with oil, and slip through the bars of a vent above his door. In this way, the Baron, who uses Michael as an accomplice to petty burglary, is conjured as a fallen member of the aristocracy. Yes, he does travel in first class and so partakes in all the privileges and prestige it offers, but in order to maintain his genteel life he must rely on a child and transgress his morals.