My friend Jonathan, who accompanied me on my holiday in Sri Lanka, is a keen photographer, so I thought I’d ask him how to take a good shot of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. ‘You want an awesome shot?’ he asked. ‘Okay.’
What I did have in my mind after reading Running in the Family, though, was a wonderful, intimate portrait of 1920s Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. Though Ondaatje is well known for his fiction, including Booker Prize winner The English Patient, he is also a poet and non-fiction writer, and now lives in Canada. Running in the Family was a product of multiple visits Ondaatje took to the land of his childhood and is the product of his attempts to comprehend and reconstruct those years. Though it can be classed as a memoir, Ondaatje alludes to his process of storying the material: ‘I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or “gesture”‘. If it is to be termed as such, then this book is a gesture of grace and colour; a promise to bear, carry and perform history as if drunk on memory.
Oft-colonised Sri Lanka has a fascinating and tortuous history, and its parapets and creoles multiply with alarming alacrity for a reader unversed in that history. It’s pleasing, then, that while this book has a personal, familial focus, it can also illuminate certain aspects of the events that shaped the island nation. Ondaatje, as a scion of a well-known Burgher family, is well positioned to cast light on some of those events. At one point, he visits with John Kotalawela, Sri Lanka’s third Prime Minister, who served in the Ceylon Light Infantry with Ondaatje’s father, Mervyn. But this is not a political memoir; it is a personal one, and Ondaatje’s telling of the meeting is dominated by the fact that the animals in the household were fed before the people, while the meeting itself centres around the wildness Kotalawela remembers in Ondaatje’s father.
Of all the memorable personalities that appear in Running in the Family, and there are many, Mervyn Ondaatje is one of the most arrestingly portrayed. Sent down from Oxford University for a prank, Mervyn was a ‘veriest rogue’ kind of fellow: wilful, changeable and a terrible dipsomaniac for a good part of his younger years. Thoughtful and loving when sober, and unstoppably manic when inebriated, Mervyn once took off all his clothes on a train and threatened the driver with death unless he stopped the train. He proceeded to then go through all the passengers’ luggage, claiming that bombs were secreted there. When he lined up the ‘bombs’ outside, they were pots of buffalo curd, a common Sri Lankan foodstuff. Tales such as these are not told with bitterness or aggression, but rather keen curiosity and tenderness.
Just as Running in the Family is not a political memoir, neither is it a linear one. Short chapters with headings like ‘The Courtship’, ‘Monsoon Notebook (i)’ and ‘St. Thomas’ Church’ are interspliced with pictures of the Ondaatje family and their friends, including the only picture the author has of his parents together: an expensive black-and-white portrait in which they are both making mischievous monkey faces rather than the staid smiles dictated by the age. In some instances, Ondaatje chooses to interpret his recollections through the medium of poetry, and though his poems are strikingly heart-on-sleeve (or they were for me, obedient denizen of a satirical age), they are also strikingly, heavily evocative and often sensual, as in ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’:
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers
And of course, through the filter of Ondaatje’s anecdotes, the wondrous splendour of Sri Lanka itself is radiantly apparent. Despite its political troubles, it is a land of diverse beauty and the source of innumerable stories. Whether detailing the procedure with which he would, as a young boy, ride the giant kabaragoya and thalagoya lizards over a wall; or writing about ‘the most beautiful alphabet’ of the Sinhalese language, ‘created without straight lines because the locals wrote on brittle Ola leaves that would fall apart if a straight line was wrought through it’; or explicitly treating the many names and identities – Serendip, Ratnapida, Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seylan, Ceilon, Ceylon – of his home country, Ondaatje continually adverts to the multifaceted allure of Sri Lanka. Since it is Ondaatje, this is done, as are all other tasks in this book, with deceptively casual grace.
In Running in the Family, Ondaatje writes of ‘a house that is an island’, and this book could easily be subtitled ‘an island that was many lives’. With prose – and sometimes verse – that easily echoes the gravid air of Sri Lanka and the lyrical anarchy of his parents’ social set, Ondaatje uncovers a series of familial narratives with sweetness and a meandering intent that are lovely to behold.