The most poignant moment in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is when he finally gets hold of the photograph of his parents taken when they were on their honeymoon. Instead of having regular, posed photographs taken the couple indulges in horseplay and prefers the unconventional.
Ondaatje writes, “They both begin to make hideous faces. My father’s pupils droop to the south-west corner of his sockets. His jaw falls and resettles into a groan that is half idiot, half shock…My mother…has twisted her lovely features and stuck out her jaw and upper lip so that her profile is in the posture of a monkey…On the back my father has written “What we think of married life.”
By itself this would be mildly interesting and unusual, considering that such a photograph was taken in 1932, when the tendency was to take posed pictures. What makes it a shatteringly vivid memory for the writer is that, “It is the only photograph I have found of the two of them together.” (See photograph).
Despite the fact that his parents fought bitterly and divorced after 14 years of marriage, Ondaatje, who was very young when that incident happened, is forced to remember them forever at a time when they were enjoying their lives together like never before and never after.
Running in the Family is an unusual book and difficult to slot into any genre.
- It’s a compelling and unstructured ensemble of fact, fiction, poetry, oral history, photographs and fading memories.
- It’s a reconstructed biography of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, half-sisters; and, of course, about himself.
- It’s a potent brew of stories, incidents, accidents, despicable drunkenness, honourable sacrifices, loneliness and togetherness, falling in love and falling out of love, cruelty, destiny, fate and faith.
- It’s the story of every family that is never told and that is because most families don’t have an Ondaatje to record it.
- It’s replete with sensuous poetry. Sample this:
I want no other life
and turn around
to the sky
and everywhere below
jungle, waves of heat
Holding the new flowers
a circle of
first finger and thumb
which is a window
to your breast
pleasure of the skin
of the belly
In her afterword to the book Nicole Brossard aptly remarks: “Most often writers lose patience with their families, but Ondaatje dances with his…”
Ondaatje left Sri Lanka when he was 11 and returned twice for brief visits in 1978 and 1980 to the , the mystifying land that Ceylon was before 1983 when its peace was shattered forever as the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils began a civil war that has spilled over to even reach downtown Toronto.
He returned to his homeland to reconstruct his own history and the only way in which he could do that was to reconfigure the stories of his family especially his mother and father. Actually, not so much the mother as the father; Ondaatje writes, “Words such as love, passion, duty, are so continually used they grow to have no meaning – except as coins or weapons. Hard language softens. I never knew what my father felt of these “things.” My loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult. Was he locked in the ceremony of being “a father”? He died before I even thought of such things.”
The book is lyrical, captivating and yet in a very specific way, enervating. It leaves one mysteriously sad for the writer.
This is the first Ondaatje book that I’ve read. People who’ve read more than one Ondaatje tell me that his best is English Patient.
Images: Michael Ondaatje's photograph: http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/michael-ondaatjes-neverending-story/2007/05/03/1177788276873.html
Mervyn & Doris Ondaatje's photograph scanned from Running in the Family