Michael Ondaatje : Running in the Family
Coming from the larger scale of his later works, The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, it’s a pleasure to go back to this smaller, more intimate memoir from 1981, an account of journeys made to Ondaatje’s ancestral Ceylon in 1979.
“Running in the Family” is written in short chapters interspersed with poems, the prose exact and rich, though not the “lush” and “luscious” and “magical” you will invariably find on the dust jackets from people like Maxime Hong Kingston. On the contrary, it’s a lean, greyhound prose which has been devised to tackle a subject matter which can only be rendered in many dimensions simultaneously. There is the quest for the father; the indigenous landscapes; the history of Celyon itself; the sprawling, ancient family; the subtle of races; and then there is the social gossip of the 40’s in an incestuous island society over which his forebears had some sway. The Singalese world of rumor, exaggeration, fantastical teasing and lore needs to be shown to us with an acrobatic comic style, in many voices, and with a dry wit that never grows slack. The brilliance of the book is its a humor that I have not always associated with Ondaatje.
Perhaps one needs this style to pursue the Moby Dick that is one’s father – or Ondaatje’s father anyway. He was the scion of a wealthy Sri Lankan family with deep roots in the island's history, part European art Tamil; he was also a preposterous, charming, mad alcoholic who was notorious for highjacking trains during the war while an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry and running rampage through them with a pistol and hundreds of gin bottles ( gin was always the prefered mode of self-destruction for the British in the tropcis ) His mother – “lover of Tennyson and the early Yeats” – was always there to rescue him while he raved naked in railway tunnels, until she finally could bear it no longer and left.
Pursued by manias and hallucinations, the father in the book becomes a demonic figure. We see him holding five stray mastiffs by their throats on a lonely road, and later burying hundreds of the chicken eggs which he bred for a living in a pit behind the house, convinced they had been poisoned by conspirators out to destroy his family. We see him telling some guests that they are haloed by poisonous gas, and then charming his own children with a gentle sense of mischief. My favorite anecdote in this book is the story of his feud with a Singalese socialite conducted through the visitors’ comments books of government rest houses. Or the meanderings of his grandmother Lalla’s false tit, sometimes carried off by dogs and sometimes nudged around onto her back during waltzes.
The colonial wartime years seem as claustrophobicaly chummy and incestuous and intensified as they were in Kenya’s Happy Valley, and many other British outposts in the tropics that simultaneously corroded and brought to life the somewhat hapless and confused whites who over the centuries had ended up there as rulers, but who were soon to lose everything. The Ondaatje’s also lost everything, but the after-taste of their vanished world has found its literary preeminence in this supple and moving book.