21 November 2011
Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table
There is a scene two thirds of the way through Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tale where the narrator, Michael, also called Minah, sits on the bed of his beautiful cousin Emily. Michael is eleven. He tells her about the dog the boys brought onboard who was responsible for the bite that killed Sir Hector. Emily tells Michael, “Don’t...I mean, don’t tell anyone else about this -- what you just told me” and the narrator remarks on the “tradition” that has started between them of secrecy. Michael orders her coffee. Emily kisses him but we are not told if it is on his head or lips. She sits up and reaches for her robe and Michael says, “But what I saw hit me at the base of my heart.” Ostensibly, not mentioned, the reader believes he has caught a glimpse of her breasts. Michael experiences sexual awakening at this moment but it is more than this: “Suddenly there was a wide gulf between Emily’s existence and mine, and I would never be able to cross it.” Michael notes that he has experienced this feeling at certain times throughout his life, “And was it pleasure or a sadness, this life inside me? It was as if with its existence I was lacking something essential, like water. I felt in that moment that I had been alone for years. I had existed too cautiously with my family, as though there had been shards of glass always around us.” Michael’s thoughts reveal a lifetime experience with melancholy as he questions from what source it has sprung. Michael’s first taste of it allows him to more carefully and slowly consider the people and events around him as Ondaatje’s novel fills and more deeply explores considerations of the complications of experience.