Sitting at the Cat's Table is the least prestigious seat, but the one from which you can see the most. The Captain's table is on display, for others to look at - at the Cat's Table, you have all your time free to watch everything going on about you.
There seems to be an underlying metaphor here for the immigrant experience, although it is certainly not belaboured.
Written in an autobiographical voice, The Cat's Table
covers a young man, nicknamed "Mynah," and sharing a name with the
author, Michael Ondaatje, during his trip from Ceylon to England to join
his mother. Along with two other unaccompanied children, he has the run
of the ship during the trip, and they watch everything and everyone,
engage in petty crime, childish adventures, and picnics.
the way, they watch the prisoner on board take his nightly walks,
smuggle a dog on board, and discover, slowly, that there may be more to
the adults they meet than their first impressions - a woman named Miss
Lasqueti in particular proves full of surprises.
The first half
of the book is the children on the ship, and although it was
interesting, I was starting to feel that it was dragging a little and
not really saying much. Just around that moment, then, it switched
gears, and started to integrate this trip and what they experienced
with the narrator's later life as an author, and what he knew of the
other passengers, one of whose lives ends tragically and too young.
As a whole, it doesn't quite attain the heights of the other two Ondaatjes I've read. It doesn't have the heft of In the Skin of a Lion nor the third act kick in the gut of The English Patient.
But I enjoyed reading it, and the clarity of his prose was a relief
after the dense text of Proust. He has the ability to paint, with
relatively few words, vivid pictures. If you've liked Ondaatje's other
works, I suspect you'll like this as well.