But it is at the “cat’s table” that Mynah and his friends make their strongest connections, and their most profound discoveries. It is Miss Lasqueti, “lithe, and white as a pigeon,” who observes early on that “we seem to be at the cat’s table…. We’re in the least privileged place.” There, as far as it is possible to be from the captain’s table—in an instance where “it was clear to us the Captain was not fond of his Asian cargo”—the boys find a home among others accustomed to not belonging: Mr. Mazappa, the musician, aka Sunny Meadows, who reveres Sidney Bechet; Mr. Nevil, the “retired ship dismantler,” who reassures young Mynah that the boat will not simply fall apart; Larry Daniels, who tends his extensive and effective garden in the hold, and who is smitten by Mynah’s beautiful young cousin, Emily; the silent tailor Mr. Gunesekera, “drifting like a ghost among us,” with a scarf covering the scar on his throat.
And above all, throughout everything, there is Emily, honorary member of the cat’s table even though she is officially seated elsewhere. The story of the Oronsay‘s journey may be recounted for the estranged Cassius, in hopes that he might discover it; but the passion at the book’s heart is for Emily, Mynah’s slightly older cousin, his “machang” (Sri Lankan slang for “mate” or “dude”), his one genuine intimate, the only person who has traveled alongside him from the life before into this strange life of the ship; and the one who, on account of the events that take place there, will be, for many years afterward, lost to him.
Emily de Saram “lived almost next door for a period of years. Our childhoods were similar in that our parents were either scattered or unreliable”; but by the time they meet on the boat, they have been separated for two years by boarding school. At seventeen, she is changed: “School had, I thought, knocked some of the wildness out of her, though there was a slight drawl when she spoke that I liked.” Emily’s appeal is clear not only to Mynah and Mr. Daniels. She is romanced by various passengers, including, most effectively and most dangerously, the clairvoyant member of the Jankla Troupe, Sunil, also known as the Hyderabad Mind. This liaison is at the core of an elaborate, only barely discernible plot on board the Oronsay, involving the prisoner, Asuntha (who proves to be his deaf daughter), Miss Lasqueti, and two undercover policemen. (This complicated web-like linking of disparate and superficially unconnected narratives is, like the characters’ elusiveness, a recurring Ondaatje trait. In this instance, it seems a rather forced distraction from what propels the book, which is Mynah’s, and Michael’s, experience.) Sunil will involve Emily in deadly intrigues the consequences of which are still murky over fifty years later; just as it is with Emily, in her cabin, that Mynah will experience emotions for which he can find only indirect expression:
When I left Emily’s room (and there was to be no repeat of this intimacy), I knew I would always be linked to her, by some underground river or a seam of coal or silver—well, let us say silver, because she has always been important to me. In the Red Sea, I must have fallen in love with her.
Emily is at the center of it all.
As readers, however, we must be mindful of the adult Michael’s admonishment that we cannot fully know any character—just as, in life, we cannot fully know each other. About Emily, who has long occupied so particular and tender a place in his heart, Michael notes:
A good part of her world, as I would come to know later, long after our time on the Oronsay, she kept to herself, and I have come to realize the gentleness of manner I spoke of must have grown naturally out of a disguised life.
And as Emily, in later years, says to Michael, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.”
Ondaatje evokes, powerfully, the sorrow of growing older: the resignation, and recognition, of all that was not earlier understood. He articulates, too, the rueful amazement at what is past: when he finally finds Emily again, at the end of the novel, on a “quiet island on the west coast of Canada,” he feels, reviewing her life’s trajectory, that
i t seemed a not quite real life compared with what she and I probably imagined when we were young. I still have memories of us on bicycles being slammed by a monsoon rain, or Emily sitting cross-legged on a bed as she talked about that school in India, and her lean brown arms waving to me during one of our dances.
Here, between the two of them, lies a moment of fullness—a moment of being—reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway’s at her party, when at last she is surrounded by the dear friends of her youth and finds them so changed.
To capture truly any moment of life is an achievement of art. To find captured, in a single work, such disparate experiences—of youth and age, of action and reflection, of innocence and experience—is a rare pleasure. If each of Ondaatje’s novels is like a new flower, then this one smells particularly sweet.