A Tale of Two Journeys: Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table” and Chekhov’s “The Steppe” (Part One?)

When I read “The Cat’s Table” in The New Yorker two weeks ago, the fact that it was the story of a journey pleased me.  That’s two journeys in one month – something my fixed-income travel budget rarely allows these days.  I’ve spent a good part of the month rumbling across the Ukrainian steppe with Chekhov’s Yegorushka (at a pace that would make Kuzmichov’s old 1870-something britzka look like a Maserati hightailing it down the Autobahn); Ondaatje loaded me on a passenger liner making the trip from Ceylon to England almost 100 years later.  Both authors invited me to make the long journeys with young boys, nine (Yegorushka) and eleven (Ondaatje’s unnamed protagonist).  This is better than making long car trips with my own sons (12 and 10): instead of having to listen to the bickering, if either of these two fictional kids annoys me too much I’ll just close the book for a while.

After reading “The Cat’s Table” and puzzling over it, I turned to the Contributors page of the magazine, where I learned that “The Cat’s Table” is not a short story – it’s an excerpt from a novel of the same title, which will be released in October.  So not only were both tales about young boys on long journeys, perhaps both coming of age in some way; both narratives are also longer than the usual short-story format.  I began to wonder if the two stories were comparable in other ways.

I found it difficult to get oriented and settle into “The Cat’s Table,” partially because of the point of view.  I should have had more trouble with “The Steppe.” Chekhov adopts a sort of distant, omniscient third-person point of view – a big no-no in MFA workshops, because it’s an old-fashioned technique that is believed to confuse many readers – but Chekhov makes it work.  While the bulk of the narrative focuses on Yegorushka’s reactions to the journey, Chekhov dips into the heads of Father Khristofor and Kuzmichov at the same time (“And, thinking they had both said something convincing and weighty, Kuzmichov and Father Khristofor put on serious faces and coughed simultaneously”); an unnamed boy who comes to stare at Yegorushka (“With dull astonishment and not without fear, as if seeing otherworldly beings before him, unblinking and openmouthed, he studied Yegorushka’s red shirt and the britzka”); and even lower life forms, which are charmingly anthropomorphized, as in this passage where Yegorushka is listening to a peasant woman singing a Ukrainian folk song: 

“…it began to seem to him that it was the grass singing; in its song, half dead, already perished, wordless, but plaintive and sincere, it was trying to persuade someone that it was not to blame for anything, that the sun was scorching it for nothing; it insisted that it wanted passionately to live, that it was still young and would be beautiful if it were not for the heat and drought; it was not to blame, but even so, it asked forgiveness of someone, swearing that it was suffering unbearably, felt sad and sorry for itself…”

This is a passage that perfectly captures the mournful essence of the Ukrainian folk song (and if you think that’s depressing, you ought to hear one played on a crosscut saw with a violin bow after you’ve had half a bottle of vodka).  Chekhov is using the omniscient third person to move the reader beyond Yegorushka’s childish perceptions to a greater understanding of the vast, lonely steppe and its inhabitants.

By contrast, Ondaatje “follows the rules” and keeps tightly to a single point of view in each of two sections.  Unfortunately, my initial perception in both sections was that I was listening to a disembodied “talking head.”  I just didn’t feel grounded.  The first four longish paragraphs of “The Cat’s Table” seem to be written from a close third-person point of view – an unknown, adult narrator is explaining the circumstances under which the relatives of a young boy are putting him onto a ship by alone for a long voyage.  Then the point of view shifts to the first person; the rest of the story is narrated by the boy, whose name we do not learn.  I wondered if the first narrator was the boy, having grown older, looking back at his younger self as if the child were a different person.  The evidence in the text seemed to hint at this possibility.  The first narrator says, “I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude…I try to imagine who the boy in the narrow bunk was.”  That statement neither confirms nor denies the older narrator’s identity; the reader is left to puzzle it out.  I found confirmation only in the editorial review on Amazon:  “As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years….” 

Ah.  So that is what Ondaatje was up to.  I hope that in the book Ondaatje makes this clearer from the start, even for a reader who hasn’t dipped into the reviews or read the dust jacket.  Not feeling grounded in a story sometimes increases my determination to puzzle out the mystery, but more often just makes me reluctant to keep reading.  Get me there quick, Scotty, or don’t bother beaming me up!

Ondaatje also discusses his protagonist’s identity only obliquely.  “It had been arranged that I would travel alone from Ceylon to England, where my mother was living…” suggests that the boy is Ceylonese, and that his mother has gone to England, perhaps to find work, or with a lover.  (The New Yorker helpfully illustrated the second page of text with a photograph of a damp young boy with Southeast Asian coloring and features; the fact that the boy is wet seems to have no direct relation to the story.)  A distant cousin named Emily de Saram is traveling on the same boat; her name suggests that the boy is indeed Ceylonese rather than English.  And that the journey is on “the first and only ship of his life” and that “[h]e’d never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya,” suggests that he has lived his entire short life in the tropics.

Ondaatje’s narrator is leaving his childhood home to go to his mother.  By contrast, Yegorushka is leaving his mother – and the graves of his father and grandmother – to go to school.  Chekhov gives us his insecurity right up front: 

“With his uncle’s permission and Father Khristofor’s blessing, he was going somewhere to enroll in school….the boy, not knowing where or why he was going, was sitting on the box beside Deniska…He felt himself an unhappy person in the highest degree and wanted to cry.” 

The britzka passes the town jail, and Yegorushka remembers visiting the prisoners at Easter with the cook and the coachman.  “The boy peered at the familiar places, and the hateful britzka raced past and left it all behind.”  Then they pass “the cozy green cemetery” where Yegorushka’s father and grandmother are buried.  Cherry trees are planted there, and Yegorushka remembers how the ripe cherries stain the white tombstones with “blood-red spots.”  Finally they pass the brickworks on the outskirts of town.  “Yegorushka turned to look at the town for the last time, pressed his face against Deniska’s elbow, and wept bitterly…”

By contrast, Ondaatje’s protagonist does not seem to be disturbed at the prospect of the journey.  He seems almost unnaturally unemotional:

“Already it felt as if there a were a wall between him and what took place there [in the city of Colombo]….He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at the relatives who had brought him to the ship.  He could hear singing and he imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air….In films, people tear themselves away from one another weeping, watching their loved ones’ disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.” 

And a few lines later: 

“No mention had been made that this might be an unusual experience or even an exciting or dangerous one, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear…..It was not the scale of the journey that was of concern to me but the detail of how my mother could know when, exactly, I would arrive in that other country.

“And if she would be there.”

At least in this excerpt, Ondaatje introduces the boy’s insecurity with the readers only in those two brief sentences.  Yegorushka’s concern, leaving behind all that is familiar and safe and loved, opens up a whole world of possible dangers and troubles.  By contrast, Ondaatje’s boy has a single, very specific concern.  This made me wonder about the backstory – whether the boy had suffered in Ceylon, what his relationship with his mother had been, and where his father might be (questions that are not answered in the excerpt).  Yegorushka’s past is simple, but his future appears complex; Ondaatje’s young Ceylonese boy may have both a past and a future that are involved, complicated, disturbing.

Two young boys, two long journeys, two long narratives:  perhaps there are other similarities between the stories that will say more about the meaning of the journey from childhood to adulthood.  The difference in the two authors’ approaches to point of view and backstory may be the result of a change in conventions over time, but it could also have significance for the stories’ meanings.  And perhaps there are other, equally meaningful differences between the two stories.

I can’t wait to find out.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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