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October 18, 2017

Ondaatje, Sri Lanka, Family

On this day in 1943 Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Ondaatje left Ceylon at the age of eleven, for England and then Canada. Much of his earliest work couldn't have been more Western in topic or setting -- Billy the Kid, jazz, Toronto -- but both his novel, Anil's Ghost and his poetry collection, Handwriting are set in Sri Lanka. So too is Running in the Family, the 1982 memoir based on two trips back home in the late '70s. As Ondaatje is of Dutch-Indian ancestry, raised in London, living in Toronto since the age of nineteen, so this book is a blend of forms -- poetry, verbatim tape recordings from family members, reconstructions, journal entries, etc. The result is a biographical "gesture" with a "fictional air," for which Ondaatje apologizes to his relatives, reminding them "that in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts."

We learn in one paragraph that the privileged, St. Thomas College schoolboy had to write out lines: "I must not throw coconuts off the roof of Copplestone House," "We must not urinate again on Father Barnabus' tires." The next paragraph moves back to the 5th Century B.C. graffiti poems on the rock fortress at Sigiriya, love poems to the mythological women in the painted frescoes there: "The phrases saw breasts as perfect swans; eyes were long and clean as horizons." The following paragraph moves on to the hundreds of poems written on the walls and ceilings of buildings on the Vidyalankara campus of the University of Ceylon during the Insurgency of 1971: "Quatrains and free verse about the struggle, tortures, the unbroken spirit, love of friends who had died for the cause. The students went around for days transcribing them into their notebooks before they were covered with whitewash and lye."

What doesn't have the ring of truth or history certainly has the pleasure of Ondaatje's style. We learn of his eccentric grandmother, Lalla, whose "great claim to fame was that she was the first woman in Ceylon who had a mastectomy." She would swing her false breast around to the back, "for dancing," or send the grandchildren to fetch it, or lose it:
    One she left on a branch of a tree in Hakgalle Gardens to dry out after a rainstorm, one flew off when she was riding behind Vere on his motorbike, and the third she was very mysterious about.... Most believed it had been forgotten after a romantic assignation in Trincomalee with a man who may or may not have been in the Cabinet.
Lalla would die by "Natural causes": after many hours of drinking and cards, desiring a quiet walk to Moon Plains, "she stepped out towards the still dark night of almost dawn and straight into the floods."

Ondaatje's father was a darker force, though he sang, and ran the Ceylon Cactus and Succulent Society, and protected his chicken eggs from the neighborhood cobras by distributing indigestible ping-pong balls. His drinking would result in more than one local train being commandeered, sometimes at gunpoint, and would finally force Ondaatje's mother to flee:
    She bundled us all up and, after my father grabbed the car key and threw it into the darkness of a hundred tea bushes, she got four servants and with each of us on a pair of shoulders, marched off through tea estate and dense jungle in utter darkness to a neighbouring home five miles away.
Much of Running in the Family is a search for the father. This dead-ends "among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues," though with something:
    Whatever brought you solace we would have applauded. Whatever controlled the fear we all share we would have embraced. That could only be dealt with one day at a time -- with that song we cannot translate, or the dusty green of the cactus you touch and turn carefully like a wounded child towards the sun, or the cigarettes you light.

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