Posts Tagged ‘canadian’

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.

Book swaps are one of the classic free kicks of travelling. Exchanged a chewed-up copy of Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (in its turn picked up at a nunnery in Bamako) for Oryx and Crake in the Senegalese beach town Toubab Dialao. I got quite excited since I have enjoyed my forays into Atwood-land (The Blind Assassin and Cat’s Eye). Chomped right through it, but felt a bit nasty afterwards, and not just because of the paedophilia references (ba-doom-ching?).

But to the plot: Snowman, the protagonist, is babysitting a hyper-actualised tribe of human beings engineered by his friend Crake. They only mate at specific times, feel no sexual jealousy, and can heal each other by purring. His supervisory role is permanent — there’s no-one else left to do it. What has happened to everyone else? Where is Crake, and why is Snowman so bitter towards him? Atwood opens with a mystery looming, a trick she used to great effect in 2001′s The Blind Assassin. There’s no doubt it’s a cluey way to drag you to the end, but I’m not sure I’m fond of its employment becoming habitual.

Unabashedly post-apocalyptic subject matter definitely isn’t an issue for me. But crappily imagined vocabulary for the imagined post-(or pre-)apocalyptic world is. Oryx and Crake is a novel I would like fine, even considering its tv-soap standard dramatics (guy falls in love with an underage Asian pornographic model as a teenager, ends up being able to feed her pizza from his fingers because they’re in love or something like that), because it certainly entertains.

Comparisons of this novel to Orwell’s 1984, though, just aren’t justified. While Orwell imagined a political state with language as a mechanism for control and oppression, and realised such a language, Atwood’s clownish neologisms (pleeblands = imagine Gotham City writ large; Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail Sausages; pigoons) characterise the downfall of humankind as ridden with words that are simply jocularly ugly, rather than cleverly manipulative. Her corporate sillinesses no doubt have their stems in McTerminology, which is an example of the human enterprise’s blindness to beauty in words for sure. As far as criticisms go, there could be far worse, but Logophile’s Country this is not. For that, look to the inestimable John Banville’s The Sea, which was fellow holiday reading, review forthcoming.

the blind assassin is clever, but not in the way those familiar with margaret atwood’s poetic timbre might at first think. with immaculate, painstaking precision, atwood amortizes the story of iris chase griffen. iris is an ex-society wife crumbling away in near-urban canada, whose story is revealed through the canny use of interstitial literature.

because of their thorough nature, the weight of their wend, the ostensibly amateur scribblings of iris griffen are well in need of the respite offered by the interspersed portions of newspaper chatter and a ‘novel’. this fictional novel, authored by iris’ heterodox sister laura chase, is the ‘real’ the blind assassin. the difference between the author’s dessicated present and the parenthetical past suspends in its solution an apposite bathos, the figuring of the space between and within the self. atwood marks well the severe consequences of such disaccord. the prettiness of atwood’s elderly narrator’s language, and her self-imposed task of remembering the histories of others is conveyed at length, and can sag. in contrast, the immediacy and creativity of the pages attributed to laura are robust; they rise as if still breathing when exhumed from a mausoleum wrought grey with time.

the waves, the characteristic constant cursive ‘w’ of the novel’s narrative force is effective, but wearying. an effect of this, likely intended, is the incomplete sketching of the various characters. from the numinous laura to the chases’ strangled father, norval, iris’ flawed gaze construes the players in bemused monochrome, much like the bizarre photograph tints favoured by the young laura. the passive subjects of these portraits are realised most intensely in their effects on iris, the repository of their collective folly, pride, betrayal and love.

(an aside: i’ve always admired how validating it is to win a booker prize. it gets plastered on everything you ever do. perhaps you’ll write a little paragraph for your old school paper. or you’ll write a bad book. forever you will be ‘booker prize winner’ X. even if you kill or rape someone, although perhaps not for certain after that.)

October 9, 2007

people are real assholes about naomi klein these days. i don’t mean media, because i haven’t noticed any, but normal people. when i was reading no logo, someone asked me why i was reading ‘that‘. but it is honestly the most influential book i have read this year. i know i am a little late. and it is outdated, though not due to any missteps on klein’s part. but i passed by her new book the shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism in borders last week, for fuck’s sake. and i thought ‘oh shit. i’ve got to get onto that’.

i’m fuzzy on the detail of no logo because i read it months ago now. but when i did, it galloped around lassoing many of my left leanings with logic, research and optimism. i think i would have killed myself if i was naomi klein by now. i should probably still consider some kind of self-punishment: i still own nike shoes. i still have friends who go to starbucks. but i am trying to be more political with my money. everyone should read this.