“No story is ever told just once… We will return to it an hour later and re-tell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized.”
In 1978, and again two years later, Michael Ondaatje left his Toronto home and embarked on an ancestral odyssey – destination Ceylon. Now Sri Lanka, it was Ceylon in his youth. It was his childhood. It was the courtship of his parents, the setting for endless hours of family stories, in all their re-tellings. Ceylon was his history, and echoes of it are captured in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family.
Asia. An ancient whisper of a word. Wrapped around the island of Ceylon, the seducer of all of Europe. Dutch, English, Portuguese have all fallen for its charms. Ceylon has been “the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword, or bible, or language.”
More than traveling from Canada to this storied land, Ondaatje journeyed back through time, through generations. It was a journey to 1970s Sri Lanka, but also to his childhood in the 40s and 50s, and back further still to the land of his parents in the 20s and 30s.
To Jaffna in the north he traveled, to the Dutch-built 18th century fortressed home of his Aunt Phyllis and his improbably named Uncle Ned. Phyllis was the keeper of the family stories and she held court telling and re-telling tales of eccentrics long gone. “We are still recovering from her gleeful resume of the life and death of one foul Ondaatje who was ‘savaged to pieces by his own horse.’”
In Nuwara Eliya in the 20s and 30s everyone “was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations.” There was Francis, who once attacked his wife in an alcoholic haze. Riddled with guilt, he tried to drown himself in a lake. And he might have succeeded if that part of the lake had more than one foot of water. Francis was the social pivot around which Ondaatje’s father’s society swirled. He hosted parties on the rubber estate where he worked, and lived on a steady diet of Gin and Tonic. Around him, the charmed group was part of a lost world. And when he died, the party was over. “What seemed to follow was a rash of marriages.”
Ondaatje’s father Mervyn had a thing about trains. There was the drunken occasion when he stripped naked and leapt from a moving train as it entered a tunnel. And another time when he stopped a moving train by threatening to kill the driver with his army pistol if he didn’t wait for his friend who was stranded in Colombo. But none of his train escapades matches the tale of Mervyn’s ongoing feud with someone through the pages of “comment/complaint” books at a succession of roadside rest-houses.
Ondaatje’s mother Doris, whose patience with Mervyn eventually reached an end, could take the smallest incident or reaction and explode it into a myth-making epic. With a husky, wheezing laugh, she could turn one into a footnote to one’s own action. But this kept their generation alive, this oral mythologizing.
Running in the Family is storytelling from all angles. There are Ondaatje’s narrative accounts of his visits. There are tales told by his aunts sifted through Ondaatje’s narrative pen. There are direct first person accounts from friends and family who remember the events in question, told in their voices, sometimes vying for the reader’s attention. There are poems and photos to flesh out the picture. But at its heart, this is oral family history. Its focus is small, direct. It’s not meant to be an expansive travelogue of a foreign land, though so strong is Ondaatje’s narration that your senses will be filled with the heat. With the breezes and monsoons. With the luxurious wafting aromas from the kitchens. But it’s the people that linger the most, and we fully understand the effect that all these voices, conjuring up all these ghosts, have on Ondaatje.
“During waking hours, at certain times in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from earlier generations that were destroyed.”
See Also: A new novel from Ondaatje, Divisadero, has just been published.