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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

    Michael Ondaatje’s second book Running in the Family (1982) is set in Sri Lanka where he was born in 1943, and is ostensibly a family memoir. In truth, the book's free form narrative structure also embraces fiction, history, anecdotes, and travelogue, interspersed with a selection of Ondaatje’s poems.

    Ondaatje’s heritage is Dutch and Ceylonese: his father was Tamil and his mother, Doris Gratiaen, a Sinhalese. In the 1600s, when the island was a Dutch colony, his own ancestor married a Dutch lady. He says, ‘I am a mongrel of place. Of race. Of cultures. Of many genres.'

    In his adopted home, Canada, during winter Ondaatje has a dream of his father Mervyn in a tropical landscape. The dream prompts his return to Sri Lanka in 1978 and 1980 to research his family history, focusing on the father he didn’t really know.

    Ondaatje travels across the island from Colombo to Kandy to Trincomalee tracing his family history. His journey starts in Jaffna where he catches up with his Aunt Phyllis, his father's cousin. Ondaatje sets up an evocative scene: Aunt Phyllis unpicking her memory with the humming of the ceiling fan overhead and the screeching of crows and cranes perched in the trees outdoors.

    We hear about his parents. In the 1920s-30s, the Ondaatje and Gratiaen families belonged to the Westernised elite in Sri Lanka. Mervyn had a casual position in the Ceylon Light Infantry. When he was off-duty the family spent their summers up country in temperate Nuwara Eliya − at tennis tournaments or horseraces, and dancing the tango, sipping champagne with oysters. They lead rarefied lives rarely encountering people from the villages aside from a woman selling pineapples. Ondaatje’s grandmother (on his mother’s side), Lalla, said the 1920s were ‘so whimsical, so busy.’

    Ondaatje left Sri Lanka, aged 11 to go to boarding school in London and did not return for 25 years. In the chapters entitled ‘Monsoon notebook’ he writes through the lens of a visitor. He says ‘the most comfortable hours are from 4am until about nine in the morning; the rest of the day the heat walks the house...'

    At other times he remembers his own childhood in Sri Lanka in particular his school days at St Thomas’s Boys School and the annual Royal College versus St Thomas’s cricket match. There are a few stanzas from the poem ‘Don’t talk to me about Matisse’ by the postcolonial Sri Lankan poet Lakdasa Wikkramasinhe, who was couple of years ahead of him at St Thomas’s.

    Ondaatje is reunited with his 80 year old Aunt Dolly. Aunt Dolly and her brother Herbert were close to his father throughout his life. He notices how she is captivated by a group photograph from the past and ‘the way memory invades the present in those who are old, the way gardens invade the houses here.'

    The recap of his family history and the passages about his time in Sri Lanka are a charming prelude to his father’s story which intensifies in the book’s second half. Ondaatje’s father was an alcoholic. We read about Mervyn’s erratic behaviour during his bouts of dipsomania which lasted for months. These passages are heavy going but made poignant by the fact that Mervyn Ondaatje was hapless but good natured.

    ‘My father continued with his technique of trying to solve one problem by creating another.’

    Ondaatje’s parents separated because of his father’s condition and his mother moved to England when he was five. His elder brother Sir Christopher Ondaatje thought the memoir romanticized. Michael replied that, as the youngest in the family, he was spared most of the trauma.

    This is a personal story but Ondaatje doesn’t express much emotion on a situation which changed the course of his life and the lives of his family members. He says he has inherited his father’s sense of reserve. The book contains personal touches by means of the inclusion of family photographs which were selected by him.

    The reader does get a sense of sharing in his journey though, as he pieces together a picture of his father in the feverish heat. His nostalgic take on Sri Lanka is a highlight. He mentions many of the tourist sights, from the fifth century frescoes on the ancient rock of Sigiriya to the picturesque Mount Lavinia hotel. He combines tragedy and comedy seamlessly, alluding to Goethe, Conrad and Shakespeare’s King Lear. And it works. Running in the family lingers in the memory long after one has finished reading it.







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