Running in the Family
By Michael Ondaatje
General reading value: 5 /5
Armchair travel value: 5/5
Fly-by summary: A delightful romp through the history of both the Ondaatje family and Sri Lanka, itself.
Why this book? Have seen multiple recommendations for this book on world literature lists and have enjoyed Ondaatje‘s other works. Also fell in love with the cover.
Take the full tour: Regular readers of my blog will have seen that I often like to reflect on the title of a book when I write my review. In the case of Running in the Family, I think you would only need to change the word “in” to “with” and you would get some idea of the exhilarating ride that is this reading experience. From the opening pages, Ondaatje seems to grab you by the hand and take you on what can only be described as an escapade, through the annals of his family’s history.
This is not some dusty, dreary traipse into the writer’s genealogy. Unlike many family histories, there are no woeful tales of downtrodden forebears from whose loins the successful author and/or his parents or grandparents have managed to emerge and battle their way to some sort of fame. Rather, as the cover photograph of his family – costume-clad and heavily made up – depicts, the Ondaatje ancestors were a delightful and wildly entertaining bunch, their calamities, antics and often wilful misbehaviours rivalled only in their colour and interest by the fascinating country in which these activities were played out.
Mirroring the sort of chaotic lifestyle Ondaatje grew up within, the book itself lacks any real structure; instead it is a mish-mash of poems, diary entries, conversations, photographs and straight narrative. It could perhaps be conceded that this all hangs off some sort of structural skeleton which is Ondaatje’s account of his return to his homeland of Sri Lanka as an adult, having lived in Canada for many years. This trip was inspired by Ondaatje’s realisation that he had “slipped past a childhood that (he) ignored and had not understood”. And Ondaatje is someone who obviously does not like things to escape his notice. His literary acuity is demonstrated whether he is describing the most intimate of interior scenes or the most expansive of exterior landscapes. As an example, he describes eating crab curry followed by fresh pineapple and accompanied by a palmyrah toddy (“juice drained from the flower of a coconut”) in a 250-year-old house in Jaffna of which,
“the doors are twenty feet high, as if awaiting the day when a family of acrobats will walk from room to room, sideways, without dismantling themselves from each others shoulders”.
In this same house, the mosquito nets above the beds are described as: “the dresses of hanged brides”. The minutiae of this scene is as detailed and eloquently conveyed as when he recounts the experience of staying in a cabin in Wilpattu National Park and having a wild pig steal his bar of Pears soap – Ondaatje’s imaginings of what this beast might then do with that soap brought tears of laughter to my eyes.
Much of the book is preoccupied with recounting the adventures of Ondaatje’s parents and grandparents during the ’20s and ’30s, a time his grandmother describes as “so whimsical, so busy that we were always tired”. Escaping the oppressive heat in Colombo where they lived for most of the year, his parents and friends would head to Nuwara Eliyah, a place where tennis and dancing were diversions but horse racing was a religion.
Cutting a memorable figure at the races was Ondaatje’s grandmother, Lalla, who emerges in this book as easily the most interesting character and one whose string of madcap adventures will raise no little amount of mirth in the reader. One fact I learned about Sri Lanka – or Ceylon, as Ondaatje prefers to call it by its former name – is that it has exquisite flowers and gardens and among the many questionable pursuits Lalla liked to indulge in was her stealing so many flowers from others’ properties that she would fill her car with the blooms and not be able to fit in it herself.
In another writer’s hands, Lalla could loom as an irresponsible, reckless and somewhat insensitive kook but written about by her grandson she emerges as intriguing, enigmatic and utterly captivating – as do all of his ancestors whose flaws, foibles and also charms are equally well presented.
Ceylon itself is also a character in Running in the Family, as if it can’t be separated from the family and therefore deserves as much descriptive attention as the other members. I knew very little about this ‘teardrop” shaped country in South-East Asia before reading this book but now I know it is a place where there were at least fifty-five natural poisons that could have been, yet were never, used against its invaders and which were catalogued and described by Oondaje’s ancestor.
It is also a place where the oppressive heat can send even the most mild-mannered person troppo (even a respectable author such as D.H. Lawrence – the evidence of this again depicted delightfully in this book); a place so abundant with spices it was as much smelled as seen by tourists but also where the noises of wildlife are so rich that Ondaatje was able to capture them on a cassette and replay them back in Canada. It is a place where 5th century “graffiti poems” written in a Sanskrit unique to the country can be found on rock faces and where there are animals with exotic names like “val oora” and “sambhur deer”.
Reading this book is an experience I believe I will want to return to with re-reading in the future and I am now greedily reacquainting myself with some other Ondaatje books including In the Skin of the Lion; Anil’s Ghost and, of course, the famous, The English Patient.
My next stop is France with The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on Sri Lanka…
Area: 20,238,000 km2
Language: Sinhala, Tamil
Delay your stay: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje; The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva; The Burgher Trilogy by Carl Muller; Monkfish Moon by Romesh Gunesekera; Mosquito by Roma Tearne; The Village in the Jungle by Leonard Woolf; Reef by Romesh Gunesekera.