The Cat’s Table and dates
My mother lives far away from me, but when she heard about my ripped hamstring, she sent me a care package of books and dates. Yes, dates. She buys them at a stand in Arizona and they are huge, as long as my thumb, and fat, deliciously fat. She knows I love them. I eat them like candy. The books were equally satisfying. Or at least the one I read today is: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table.
Unlike most people in the literate universe, I did not love The English Patient — I see this as my failing, not the book’s — but The Cat’s Table has an entirely different feel to it. It reads like a memoir, although it is a novel. The narrator looks back on his voyage to England from Colombo when he was eleven years old, and the ship becomes a little world, like the Ark, as one of the characters says. There is a prisoner, a beautiful girl, a rich aristocrat, a man who dies, a garden, a Weimaraner (I never knew how much Ondaatje loves dogs), a storm, a Captain, a rich aunt. The narrator sweeps back and forth in time, before the voyage, after the voyage, the voyage itself, even as the ship steams forward. It reminds me of Aharon Applefelds’s Badenheim 1939. Spare and weird and quiet and foreboding and beautiful, where the small events stack up into huge events. Cataclysmic ones, which the author never bothers to mention. There is no need; we know they are coming.
In my first month of college, when I was desperately homesick, but too proud to say so, my mother sent me another care package for my birthday. This time, it was a cake, my favorite kind. Even the wax paper she used seemed precious, the precise folds, the careful triangles — a relict from home. I did not know how to tell her how grateful I was back then. But that cake was a lifeline, as are these dates and this beautiful book.