Michael Ondaatje’s autobiographical novel Running in the Family is an imaginative reconstruction of the author’s family history. A mixture of fact and fiction, the novel chronicles Ondaatje’s attempt to gain insight into his own identity by better understanding his parents and relatives.
In the novel Ondaatje returns to Ceylon for the first time since his childhood in order to meet relatives and learn about his family. The novel consists of stories about Ondaatje’s aristocratic family interspersed with accounts of Ondaatje’s experiences while visiting Ceylon. As the novel progresses, the reader learns that Ondaatje left Ceylon to live with his mother in England and that his father, who remained in Ceylon, has died in his absence. It becomes increasingly clear that Ondaatje’s desire to understand his family is at bottom a desire to know and understand his father. His lack of knowledge about his father is an empty space in his identity and this emptiness haunts him throughout the novel.
As he meets various friends and relatives and listens to their stories Ondaatje struggles to understand his father’s life and his father’s relationship with his mother. He also struggles to put to rest fears he has about his father’s character. Ondaatje hears stories about his father’s wildness and drunkenness, about his mother’s dramatic flair, about his parents’ arguments, and about the circumstances surrounding their divorce. He comes to realize that while these exaggerated and contradictory stories capture the spirit of the 1930’s generation of aristocrats in Ceylon, they tell him nothing of what he really wants to know, nothing of his father’s thoughts and experiences, nothing of “the closeness between two people,” of how his parents “grew in the shade of each other’s presence.” In the end, Ondaatje recognizes that his father will remain “one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut.” Ondaatje can rely upon only faith and imaginative insight as means of understanding his father and of filling the empty space in his own identity.
Running in the Family has been appreciated for its striking imagery as well as for its carefully crafted prose. Although it was initially criticized for failing to address the political realities in Ceylon, the novel has since been accepted as an evocative depiction of the relationship between one’s identity and one’s family history.
Running In The Family Summary
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Sri Lankan-born author Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family(1982) is a memoir with many magical realist and stream-of-consciousness elements. It also includes poems and travel materials, including travel essays, personal narratives, and maps. It centers on the author’s father, Mervyn Ondaatje. According to interviews with Ondaatje, the memoir,which has strong fictional elements, is his attempt to better understand the man he hardly knew, but who, nonetheless, shaped his identity.
The material in Running in the Family comes from Ondaatje’s trips to Sri Lanka in 1978 and 1980. As with his other work, including his most famous work,The English Patient, Ondaatje’s themes include the fallibility of memory, the necessity of community, and the overwhelming force of certain societal obligations.
The novel begins with the author, now living in Canada, relaying a dream he had about his father’s death in Asia. The dream reaffirms his trip to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which he happened to plan weeks before the dream.
His ultimate intention for this trip is to come away with a greater understanding of the forces that built the man he currently is. The work is unique for resisting a linear narrative. In each of the seven chapters of considerable length, Ondaatje may present a personal essay followed by a historical report on a major institution of the island, such as the Governor’s House, which he discusses in the second part of the first chapter, “Asian Rumors.”
Ondaatje explores the island territory with his sister, Gillian, a professional researcher. He talks with his other siblings – Janet and Christopher – who help him to remember certain aspects of their childhood. As the memoir-novel progresses, he pieces together more about his past and current cultural customs on the island with the help of his extensive family,who have lived there for several generations, as well as people he meets in pools halls, churches, and markets.
In the second chapter, Ondaatje reviews how his parents met. He details their upper-class life as British colonizers. He analyzes the rifts in their marriage, particularly his father’s alcoholism. As an eighteen-year-old, Mervyn says he has been admitted to Queen’s College in England. His family is thankful for the success and sends him over to live in England. Three years later, around the time he should be graduating, the family discovers that Mervyn was never admitted to the college. He has lied to them about his studies, living around London on the tuition money and reading whatever strikes his fancy. His family is going to confront him, but he pacifies them by informing them that he is engaged to the prestigious young lady, Kaye Roseleap. He returns to Sri Lanka, where his parents are horrified to discover that he is actually engaged to the rather ordinary young woman, Doris Gratiaen, who would become the author’s mother.
The third chapter, “Don’t Talk to Me About Matisse,”most resembles a travelogue. Ondaatje reviews, in-depth, the landscape and history of Sir Lanka. In prosaic prose, he documents its famous flowers and ecosystem that inspired artists such as the French painter Matisse. His family was part of the first colonizers arriving in the 1600s. Growing up, Ondaatje knows his family’s name is important and is full of a rich history. He recalls walking by the church and seeing his family’s name in one of the memorial plaques.
Ondaatje recalls the kinds of animals that would break into the house: from birds and bats to dogs and snakes. He had a natural urge to document them, whether through voice recordings, drawings, or writings.In one subsection, “How I was Bathed,” Ondaatje and his family are eating their favorite meals. His sister Gillian regales the group with a story of bathing Ondaatje as a five-year old. Apparently, he did not like taking a bath at all.
He explores his grandmother’s life. Lalla was notorious around town for being very vocal, a bit selfish, but always memorable.His father was an alcoholic, and the whims he demonstrated under the sway of alcohol affected the young Ondaatje deeply. Like his mother, Lalla, Mervyn Ondaatje did not shy away from creating public scandals. As a young man, he was written about in local papers for causing a ruckus in a local bar.
In the penultimate chapter, “What We Think of Married Life,” Ondaatje is traveling through the land where his parents were married. He is joined by his half-sister, Susan.
With age, Mervyn gains a serious amount of weight. In one subsection, “Thanikama,” Mervyn is too drunk to remember where his wife or children are. It is 1947, the author is three years old. Hours pass, and eventually Mervyn finds the family house,but sadly, it’s empty. Mervyn is so drunk that when he looks into the sky, he cannot see the moon. Regretting many of his life decisions, Mervyn falls into a deeper depression. The section ends with Mervyn realizing he has only the bottle for company.
Ondaatje considers why his father never let any of the family into his inner life. He thinks it is partially due to Lalla’s constant brashness; though she was a good storyteller, she was never a good listener or overly caring parent. Ondaatje thinks if he did allow someone to get close to him, that someone could have helped him through his depression and alcohol dependency.