Posts Tagged ‘bloomsbury’

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.’

Not exactly what I’d had in mind.

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.

It’s safe to say that we’re used to thinking of the living and the dead as pretty different creatures. Leave it to Neil Gaiman – winner of winner of 3 Hugos, 2 Nebulas, 1 World Fantasy Award, 4 Bram Stoker Awards, 6 Locus Awards, 2 British SF Awards, 1 British Fantasy Award, 3 Geffens, 1 International Horror Guild Award and 1 Mythopoeic – to bring members of the two camps together in his newie, The Graveyard Book, which has wonderful illustrations, just this side of spooky, by Chris Riddell.

Nobody Owens is just a baby when the man Jack enters his home and kills his family. Nobody – Bod – escapes the same fate, having wandered out of his cot, and his room, out into the night and into a graveyard. A plump and shimmering woman, Mrs Owens, is surprised to see him there. She is, after all, a ghost, and babies fleshy with life don’t often stumble into graveyards at night. Her bafflement doesn’t last long, however, and Mrs Owens persuades her husband, Mr Owens, that they should take care of the baby. They ensure that his childhood is safe and loving, and the Freedom of the Graveyard enables him to see in the dark and walk some ways that living usually cannot.

But it is Bod the man Jack was after, and even in the graveyard, he is not safe, for Jack is still searching him out. To make sure Bod is prepared for the Outside, his guardian, Silas, seeks out an education for him that covers everything from his letters to Fading and Sliding and Dreamwalking. These lessons prove useful, whether to escape the company of Ghûlheim’s ghouls, Victor Hugo and the Thirty-Third President of the United States (they take their names from the last meal they had), or the mysterious fright of the Sleer, which slumbers in a tomb beneath the graveyard. Of course, it’s not only the lessons he received that helps Bod to emerge from these otherworldly encounters unscathed; often, his survival depends on his thoughtful nature and his quick wits.

In The Graveyard Book, like many of Gaiman’s other works, we see what might happen if our ‘normal’ world was revealed to have fantastic elements operating throughout it. Gaiman is adept at adopting various mythical characters – witches, werewolves, ghouls, ghosts – and creating circumstances for them to collide with regular people. He also throws in a couple of his own creations, and other novelty in his storytelling comes from playful cross-history tension – when quizzed about his education to date, Bod says: ‘Letitia Borrows teaches me writing and words, and Mr Pennyworth teaches me his Compleat Educational System for Younger Gentlemen with Additional Material for those Post Mortem.’ It’s always a pleasure to see how Gaiman tumbles wondrous creatures free from their historical binds, and The Graveyard Book‘s recombinant mythmaking continues his track record of creating delightful otherworldly entertainment.

sunday nights have lately been a source of guilty pleasure. abc1 (or is it bbc1?) were running a jane austen made-for-tv bumper extravaganza. man, those were a good 3 weeks. the first one i saw was persuasion. i hadn’t read that, so i ordered a copy (but that’s a story for another day). i didn’t think i had read mansfield park, so i pulled it out to ‘prepare’ for the tv version. first, i found this copy. but i knew i had an older one somewhere, a mauve 99p type publication with a typeface so stout it makes courier new look like mary-kate olsen. that one had the 14-year old me’s signature inside, and various declarations as to the identity of my future husbands (i’m still waiting, darren hayes.) this made me pretty perplexed as to whether i had read it or not, and whether it would count for the year’s 50. a peruse of the first pages is usually a pretty good clue, but no moment of realization twinkled out at me. i’m going to count it, though, i make the rules. by the way, the editor should slap himself/herself on the wrist. there are whole lines left out of this version. i had to pick up the mauve disaster to fill in the gaps. shame shame!

i get high on jane austen. there was an article in the age about how the telemovies showed how trashy austen’s stories were, minus the dialogue of those 19th century broads and the men who dug them. well, duh. there wain’t no mills and boon around in the 1800s. mansfield park is ok in this respect, poor girl falls in love with her handsome and kind cousin, cousin falls in love with dainty rich little miss who moves down the road, many walks are had in groves, etc.

but this is probably my least favourite jane austen book. fanny price is so goddamn perky and perfect. it’s not a rare criticism, but her absolute capacity for forbearance, while clearly influenced by her contemporaries’ social mores, can get pretty painful. fanny’s love rival, mary crawford, is pretty and scintillating and fun. austen just has to do too much work to convince you that you shouldn’t be rooting for her. characters keep saying how pretty and necessary fanny is getting; still, it’s a bit hard to find her interesting. she kind of just sits there and goes ‘my cousin will never fall in love with me’.

even the eventually romantic ending shows how aware austen is of how dull and passive her main character is. she doesn’t deign to go into any detail about how the happy couple finally fall in love. it’s all put away quite neatly in a paragraph or two. which is probably quite sensible really, because as all us casanovas know, it’s all about the chase. but mansfield park is really more a case of the cat sitting in the middle of the circle, watching the mouse while it runs around showing its juicy tail. and then the mouse comes and sits on the cat’s lap and they watch doctor who.

the verdict: still bloody fun though.