Ondaatje's Keepsake



Running in the Family

Michael Ondaatje

Vintage, 1993


Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, conjures up fascinating images of his native country, Sri Lanka. The book reads half like a thoughtful memoir, half like a travel guide, describing in flawless detail the lush, rich, and equally dark nature of Sri Lanka’s wild forests and hidden avenues. Ondaatje masterfully enhances his prose with touches of magic realism. Every relative, especially Ondaatje’s maternal grandmother, Lalla, takes on an unforgettable, larger-than-life quality. The book, to his credit, feels tipsy, unbalanced, and heavily veiled behind the shroud of exquisite parties and exhausting travels that the author weaves in and out of the book. But what do all of these anecdotes—some depressing, some uplifting—really mean to Ondaatje or to the reader? What is Ondaatje attempting to recapture in a memoir that oftentimes gets lost in its own unrestrained and fantastical descriptions?


A recurrent theme in Running in the Family is the effects of dipsomania, a historical term Ondaatje uses in portraying the chronic drunkenness of his father, Mervyn Ondaatje. Mervyn’s frequent antics receive a great deal of attention in the memoir, ranging from the unforgettable (appearing nude at a train station) to the monstrous (ripping apart wooden boards to gain access to alcohol). Mervyn’s arguably most humorous adventure comes at the beginning of the story, before Michael Ondaatje is born and even before Mervyn meets Michael’s mother. Ondaatje recalls how his grandparents had paid for three years of Mervyn’s university education at Cambridge only to find out—two and a half years later—that he had failed to pass the initial entrance exam and was really living comfortably off their money in England. Mervyn’s parents arrive in England and are offered champagne at eleven o’clock in the morning by their defiant, though slightly embarrassed, son. That same day, Mervyn leaves his parents behind at dinnertime, returning hours later to announce his engagement with Kaye Roseleap of the prominent Roseleap family of Dorset. Mervyn, however, soon breaks off the engagement with Roseleap and marries a dancer named Doris Gratiaen, which causes even greater trouble within the family since, Gratiaen, Michael’s eventual mother, is of no particular renown or social standing. Through such unbelievable stories, Ondaatje creates a real, unforgiving, and eccentric portrait of his many strange and exotic relatives.  


The most disappointing aspect of Running in the Family is Ondaatje’s inability to relate personally with any of the accounts he painstakingly recollects. Ondaatje writes about his father’s nerve-wracking chronic drunkenness, an act which is terrifying and hideous, but he does not relate the personal sadness he must have felt, the reader suspects, as a young witness of a parent’s weakness. Instead, he reserves his pathos to exactly two areas within the entirety of the memoir, two disparate fragments describing a set of completely unrelated events: the death of his grandmother, Lalla, and the pain he experienced as a child being bathed at a girl’s school in Colombo, a school that accepted boys of five and six years old. These events not only shed light on Ondaatje’s vulnerability, they underscore the extent to which this memoir depends on the voices of his relatives. Here he describes his grandmother’s passing after a flood has washed her body away: 


Drifting slower she tried to hold onto things. A bicycle hit her across the knees. She saw the dead body of a human. She began to see the drowned dogs of the town. Cattle. She saw men on roofs fighting with each other, looting, almost surprised by the quick dawn in the mountains revealing them, not even watching her magic ride, the alcohol still in her–serene and relaxed. 


Below the main street of Nuwara Eliya the land drops suddenly and Lalla fell into deeper waters, past the houses of “Cranleigh” and “Ferncliff.” They were homes she knew well, where she had played and argued over cards. The water here was rougher and she went under for longer and longer moments coming up with a gasp and then pulled down like bait, pulled under by something not comfortable any more, and then there was the great blue ahead of her, like a sheaf of blue wheat, like a large eye that peered towards her, and she hit it and was dead.


Paying homage to his grandmother in this passage of Running in the Family is perhaps the only form of closure that the reader experiences in the entirety of Ondaatje’s memoir. Does this mean, the reader might conjecture, that Ondaatje has also had little closure in his storied life? This is most likely so, given the scene that concludes Running in the Family. It is an account told to him by others which he cannot wrap his mind around: His father appears naked at a train station, yelling and causing a scene. He makes his way, blind in the darkness, through a tunnel, and a family friend has to be called over to help him. What does Ondaatje really feel about this story? He does not tell us. Instead, he reverts to more quotes from his myriad of distant cousins and aunts who share their thoughts on Mervyn and the rest of the family.


The other event in Ondaatje’s life which he recalls with some pathos—being bathed at a girl’s school—reveals his sensitivity as a writer. So far, he has deluged the reader with descriptions, anecdotes, and even poems of his native Sri Lanka. But now, he drifts away from this destination to a setting most cold and austere. He describes being herded with other small boys into a corner and then having a bucket of water splashed against his cold, naked body. As insignificant as this memory might appear beside the death of his grandmother and the suicide attempts of relatives, it exposes—compared with the rest of the memoir—the need Ondaatje has for these other voices to support and give life to his work. Ondaatje rarely recounts anything from his childhood, and when he does, it comes across as strange, morbid, and lifeless.


Running in the Family means perhaps, in the end, much more to Ondaatje than to the reader. It reads consistently like a family heirloom of several less-than-consequential stories which only Ondaatje and his living relatives could possibly care about. Even when Ondaatje blatantly points out the lack of truth or validation in his stories, the accounts are simply too vague and weak to cross over to fiction. The reader’s only real refuge in Running in the Family lies in Ondaatje’s remarkable accounts of Sri Lanka’s virgin territory and his family’s love affairs and parties.


Michael Ondaatje, Memoir, Sri Lanka