"Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje with commentary by Faye Lawrence


Michael Ondaatje is well known for his Booker winner, the novel "The English Patient". . As well as being a very successful novelist he is a noted poet, literary editor, academic and film maker. Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka , in 1943 , moved to England with his mother and attended senior school there before migrating to Canada. He became a Canadian citizen in the 1960s where his literary talents have been recognised with many awards. He lives in Toronto.

"Running in the Family" , published in 1982 , is a memoir about his family in Sri Lanka which reaches back and forwards over several generations to tell a highly personal , yet historically and culturally fasinating story . It has all the hallmarks of a poet and imaginatve novelist - wonderful imagery, incredible story-telling , atmosphere you can feel, emotion and humour. Ondaatje tells how he was drawn to travel to Sri Lanka to re-connect with his family and his roots by a "the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto". The memories , smells and sounds of Sri Lanka called him . He writes of "wanting to touch them (his relations) into words".

A special feature of this lyrical , explorative memoir is the story of Sri Lanka itself . The physical, cultural and historical background is beautifully , often humourously and graphically portrayed. One is constantly reminded of the physical surroundings - heat, rain, floods, cool shade, wonderful animal life , colonial architecture , spices, tea plantations , winding roads, jungle , plants, flowers etc.

In this sensual setting we hear equally wonderful stories about recent generation family members no longer alive .The recollections by friends and relatives of the authors father and maternal grandmother and both amazing and touching. The Grandmother is depicted by relatives as an Aunty Mame character with a penchant for picking flowers from friends or public gardens and presenting them as gifts. The stories are gleaned from family members and friends recollections as the author travelled around and visited many places in this small and vibrant island which he knew as a child - and in the hands and mind of the poet novelist they take on a fictional/family legend quality of sometimes alarming and always entertaining qualities .

Interwoven with the more fanciful, entertaining family stories is the authors visceral , dreamlike recollections , reconstructions and analyses of the family history going back some centuries but mostly looking back at two previous generations. At times the reader can be puzzled by the multiple story tellers Ondaaatje is employing in the narrative - however it tends to fall into place as you go along . I was confused at times but delighted overall and found the style and technique added to the character of the relatively small memoir - aptly so about a small but altogether fascinating country.

I was intrigued by the historical vignettes about Sri Lanka which come through the memoir via the family background. You get a tantalising view of the colonial past and the multicultural legacy of centuries and centuries of migration , conquest and assimilation - often via poets or writers of the past. I dont mean to give the impression that there is an attempt to chrionicle this long, fascinating history but the author in talking of his family connections going back centuries does offer some intriguing insights into its nature , its difference, its fascination for locals and foreigners.

There is one particular chapter "Don't talk to me about Matisse" which delighted me with the literary refrences and feel for the place. In this chapter the author writes of an ancestor Dr William Charles Ondaatje, a Tamil, who was a Director of the Botanical Gardens in the mid 19th Century "who knew at least fifty-five specimens of poisons easily available to his countrymen" and wrote them up in journals. D.H. Lawrence found Ceylon very difficult and in typical style strongly wrote of his feelings and distaste. Michael Ondaatje comments in this context "Heat disgraces foreigners" The lyrical , often sad Ceylonese poetry quoted contrasts with these observations. The line"Dont talk to me about Matisse" comes from such a poet.

"Running in the Family" then is not the usual run- of- the- mill family memoir .The reader goes on the explorative journey with the author and picks up a lot of information on the way about this multicultural , unique part of Asia with which Australia has many close connections - not only from this difficult current time but of the past 50 or so decades .For instance I was motivated to follow up on the Sri Lankan Cultural groups and found from my google search that Melbourne has a large community of citizens of Burgher origin from Sri Lanka - folk with some Dutch background . Yasmine Gooneratne , a Professor at Macquarie University ,and a fine novelist in her own right is mentioned in the book as supplying information and background. Sri Lanka is then more than just a sum of its parts - it is a significant and influential part of our world. Michael Ondaatje in his exploration of his heritage has opened this up to me. I hope it met his needs in finding his roots.

2 comments:

John Kennedy said...

I read this about two months ago while travelling in Europe (and left my copy with a cousin), and I find that my memory of the details of the book are not very vivid. This probably says something about the book, as well as about me. It is poetic, as you say, Faye, and impressionistic: we are not presented with a systematic chronological memoir. We do not encounter a strong narrative line which it is easy to keep in mind.

I do recall the book as evoking vividly the sights and smells of Ceylon, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, and of giving an interestingly different perspective. Ceylon is not presented from the viewpoint of its British rulers nor of that of the peasant farmers. We gain an insight into the world of prosperous and cultured indigenous people, who flourish side by side with the colonial ruling class and interact with it, though less than might be expected.

I did find my interest and enjoyment fell off well before the end of the short book. The wildly eccentric father became a somewhat tedious figure for me.

But I am glad to have been encouraged to read this.

Maggi said...

A colleague recommended I use this book as part of the IB English program I was new to teach in eighteen months ago. Because I had traveled in Sri Lanka late in 1979, I was pleased. It is true that the narrative is not straightforward, which can make it challenging to high school students who rarely give the same time to reading literature as they do to their math and chemistry texts; it was challenging to their beleaguered teacher as well. However, those students who did invest the effort were impressed and pleased with the book. I'm enjoying again preparing to teach it, but as a 57-year-old woman myself, also contemplating several women in the book and wondering if they had truly experienced their lives as bravely as Ondaatje's reconstructed history. I plan to draw courage whether it's true or not.