“The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje is a story about an 11-year-old boy who boards a ship to England and encounters many adventures along the way. In the beginning of the book the narrator, Michael, seems to be describing a disconnection between who we were as children and who we have become. In the opening paragraphs he says, “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was,” suggesting that he is perpetually traveling further away from his childhood.
By attempting to remember this younger person, Michael may be reflecting on choices he has made throughout his life. Looking back would he like the person he became? Would he recognize the person he was as a child and would they still have anything in common?
A passage later in the novel suggests that falling in love is dangerous and it is something you should be saved from. This comes from a letter from Perinetta to Emily years after their time on the Oronsay.
“Where are you, dear Emily? Will you send me your address, or
write to me? I wrote this to give-to you during our time on the
Oronsay. Because, as I said, I had become aware that like me
in my youth, you were under someone’s spell. And I thought I
could save you. I’d seen you with Sunil from the Jankla Troupe,
and it seemed you were caught up in something dangerous.
But I never gave it to you. I feared . . . I don’t know. All these
years I have wondered about you. If you got free. I know that I
became for a while dark and bitter to myself, till I escaped that
circular state. “Despair young and never, look back,” an Irishman
said. And this is what I did.
Write to me,
The letter from Perinetta signals a shift in the novel. The letter is written years after their journey on the Oronsay, instead of living the journey as children they are making sense of what they saw on the ship. Falling in love is a sign that you are moving away from childhood and beginning a new chapter in life. In her letter Perinetta says that she wonders it Emily ever “got free,” as if love is something that traps her. When Perinetta quotes an Irishman saying, “Despair young and never, look back,” it is indicating that when you lose youth never look back which would suggest that coming into adulthood is something to look forward to. However, the author has placed punctuation between the words “never” and “look” which create two different thoughts entirely. By separating the two thoughts the reader could come away thinking that the Irishman meant, never lose youth and look back often. If that were indeed what the author meant to do it would tie the reader back to the first paragraphs where the narrator reminisces about the boy who was on the ship.