The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje


The Cat's Table is a story about Michael, an eleven-year-old boy who embarks on a journey from Colombo to London where he will join his mother. On the ship, Oronsay, he shares his meals with a group of strange and unusual grown-ups as well as two boys his age, Cassius and Rahmadin. They are placed at the cat's table, the one farthest away from the captain. Michael, Cassius and Rahmadin roam the ship and all sorts of interesting things happen to them.

A ship is a place of isolation in the middle of the ocean's infinity. Sometimes it seems that traveling doesn't belong to the same world as the outside. During the voyage through the Suez Canal Michael and Cassius observe fragments of the outside world as if they weren't a part of it. And they weren't. Their three-week journey is sort of a prallel universe. No matter how long the voyage is, it shrinks into a single moment, a point in time, a crack between Colombo and London, a moment full of possibilities. Michael travels from one cultural world into the other. By the time he leaves the ship he isn't the same person anymore. Oronsay is a place of initiation, the door leading from boyhood into the world of adults.

The cat's table is the farthest away from the glitter and power of the captain's table. People sharing the captain's table glide through the world of known rules and expectations. However, the most interesting things happen mostly in secret, in places where there is no power, at the cat's tables of this world. On Oronsay's cat's table sit three children and a group of adults, each eccentric in their own way. There's a jazz musician, a woman traveling with a cage full of pigeons, a silent passenger with a red scarf hiding a scar on his neck, a botanist taking care of his plants deep in the bowels of the ship. All of these people influenced Michael in their own way, making him a different person.

As I started reading The Cat's Table, it didn't particularly impress me, the exception being Ondaatje's writing which I've always liked. I don't really know what changed my mind, which event led to my loving this book. It might have been when after surviving the storm tied to the ship, Michael understands that not only what we see is uncertain but that there is the other side as well. After that things slowly fall into their place. Innocent spying after a mysterious prisoner becomes an important factor connecting other passengers stories. Reading The Cat's Table means traveling through layers of realty, looking at the world from a child's perspective, moving forwards and backwards in time. Later as a grown-up Michael tries to understand the events he witnessed on the Oronsay, but he can't do this entirely. After all, in life only uncertainty is certain.


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Michael ima enajst let, ko se v Colombu vkrca na ladjo Oronsay, da bi se pridružil materi v Londonu. Potovanje traja tri tedne, med tem časom pa se mu marsikaj dogaja. Skupaj še z nekaj nenavadnimi ljudmi ga posedejo za mačjo mizo, najbolj zakotno mizo v jedilnici, ki je najdlje od kapitanove. Spozna še dva fanta približno njegovih let, Cassiusa in Rahmadina, skupaj pohajkujejo po ladji in si postavijo nalogo, da morajo vsak dan nekaj ušpičiti.

Ladja je prostor izoliranosti sredi morja, sredi praznine, neskončnosti. Včasih se zdi, da prevozna sredstva ne spadajo v isti svet kot je tisti zunaj. Med potjo skozi Sueški prekop Michael in Cassius s počasi drseče ladje opazujeta fragmente zunanjega sveta, kot da ne bi bila del njega. In tudi nista. Tritedensko potovanje za Michaela pomeni neke vrste vzporedni svet, točko v času, potem ko je zapustil Colombo in preden se je izkrcal v Londonu. Ne glede na to kako dolgo je potovanje, se je skrčilo na en sam trenutek, na vrzel med Colombom in Londonom, na trenutek poln možnosti.  Potuje od  enega kulturnega območja v drugo, ko se izkrca v Londonu, to več ni isti Michael kot tisti, ki je zapustil Colombo. Oronsay je zanj pomenila kraj iniciacije, prehod iz deškosti v moškost.

Mačja miza je najdlje stran do kapitanove, najdlje stran od blišča in moči. Tisti, ki sedijo za kapitanovo mizo, ki na kakršni koli način držijo moč v svojih rokah, drsijo skozi znana pravila in pričakovan način ravnanja. Nasprotno pa se najbolj zanimive stvari zgodijo daleč od moči, skoraj na skrivaj, za mačjimi mizami tega sveta. Na Oronsay za mačjo mizo sedijo trije otroci in nekaj odraslih, ki so vsak po svoje nenavadni. Džezovski glasbenik, ženska, ki v Anglijo prevaža golobe in se po palubi sprehaja z njimi v žepih, potnik, ki ne spregovori niti besede in nosi rdeč šal, da se ne bi videla brazgotina na vratu, ki skriva njegove poškodovane glasilke, prijazni botanik, ki globoko v podpalubju skrbi za svoje rastline. Vsi ti ljudje so vsak po svoje vplivali nanj in iz Michaela naredili drugačnega človeka. 

Knjiga me od začetka ni posebej pritegnila, razen sloga pisanja, ki mi je pri Ondaatjeju vedno všeč, in čiste trme, ko sem vedela, da se mora nekaj skrivati v njej. Ne spomnim se kateri dogodek ali opis mi je pritegnil pozornost. Čisto verjetno, da tisti del, ko po tem, ko fanta preživita nevihto privezana na ladjo, Michael dojame, da niso nezanesljive samo tiste stvari, ki so vidne našim očem, ampak da obstaja tudi spodnja stan. Potem počasi vsaka stvar pade na svoje mesto, dogodek, ki je sprva opisan kot nedolžno otroško opazovanje skrivnostnega zapornika, preraste v pomembno dogajanje, ki združuje marsikatero zgodbo v knjigi in ji da smisel. Med branjem se gibamo skozi plasti resničnosti,  gledamo od spodaj navzgor, kot gleda otrok na svet odraslih, pomikamo se nazaj - naprej v času. Michael si kot odrasel skuša razložiti dogodke, ki jim je bil kot otrok priča na tistem potovanju, vendar pa ne more razložiti vsega. Navsezadnje je negotovost splošno človeško stanje.


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