Cloaked in the garb of a classic coming-of-age story, Michael Ondaatje’s new novel is an evocative tale of a strange and wondrous sea voyage from Sri Lanka to England in 1954, its 11-year-old narrator introduced in the course of a three-week journey to a cast of colorful, enigmatic characters and to a glimpse of the mysteries of the adult world.
"There’s a strong sense that this story --- one with echoes of Conrad and Kipling --- is a tale Michael Ondaatje someday was destined to tell."
Michael, nicknamed “Mynah,” is a passenger on the Oronsay, a converted World War II troop ship, on his way to reunite with his divorced mother and continue his education. While Ondaatje, who made that journey in the same year and at the same age as his protagonist, concedes in an author’s note that the novel “uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography,” he’s quick to assure us that the story is “fictional --- from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator.”
Michael befriends two of his contemporaries on the extended passage: Cassius, a bolder and more adventuresome boy, and Ramadhin, a large, quiet one with a suspect heart. The boys take their meals at what someone refers to as the “cat’s table,” farthest from the place where the captain and the more elegant passengers eat. But in the course of the trip, Michael gradually discovers an important truth about his seemingly unprivileged status:
“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”
The truth of that observation lies both in the stories the boys hear at the table and in the discoveries they make together as they roam every corner of the ship, the three of them “bursting all over the place like freed mercury” as they eavesdrop from lifeboats and lash themselves to the deck one night to experience the fury of a gale in the Arabian Sea. Michael is even enlisted as an accomplice in the petty thievery of a character known as “Baron C.” Late each evening, he and his companions are transfixed as a shackled prisoner, rumored to have murdered an English judge, is paraded across the deck in chains.
The ship functions as both a classroom and a laboratory for these adolescents. It holds everything from a dog kennel to an extensive botanical garden deep within it, even a massive mural depicting nude women astride gun barrels, painted by the sailors who once occupied the vessel. There’s a jazz musician, a man who has traveled the world dismantling ships, a Sri Lankan circus troupe of jugglers and a psychic, linked to the prisoner and his young daughter. Michael is nominally under the supervision of an older family friend, a woman imperiously lodged in first class. But the most important women in his life are his cousin, Emily, older by six years, and the enigmatic Miss Lasqueti, who “had often been seen in the corridors of Whitehall” and whose skills as marksman surface in the novel’s climax. Their tutelage provides an introduction of sorts as he makes his own passage into adulthood.
As in all his novels, Ondaatje’s talents as a poet come to the fore in his characteristically elegant, evocative prose. There are striking set pieces, as when the boys disembark for a dash through the market in Aden, “the smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut (a throat-catching odour), and mangosteens and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall,” or as theOronsay glides magisterially through the Suez Canal, a night in which the boy comes to “understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”
Through intermittent glimpses of the narrator’s adult life in England and Canada, what the novel illuminates most deftly is the way the events of the sea voyage resonate in Michael’s life down through the years. In this way, we learn the fates of Cassius and Rahmadin, and gain a richer, deeper understanding of Emily and Miss Lasqueti.
“This journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth, I once told someone. With just three or four children at its centre, on a voyage whose clear map and sure destination would suggest nothing to fear or unravel. For years I barely remembered it.” Whatever its autobiographical roots, there’s a strong sense that this story --- one with echoes of Conrad and Kipling --- is a tale Michael Ondaatje someday was destined to tell. It’s a pleasure for us, his readers, to share in that telling.