Friday, July 01, 2011

Michael Ondaatje: Running In The Family

"I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner."
What is family? Where did it start and where does it end? Not the immediate family of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc., but the larger one that stretches far beyond current geographical and cultural locations. I'm Canadian, but at any point in my history I could have easily ended up Scottish, Irish or Russian. If my great grandfather had slipped on some ice on his way to the docks my language, cultural assumptions and geographical boundaries could have been radically altered. All because of the weather, I may have become a different person with a completely different family and sense of identity.

Ondaatje's parents Mervyn & Doris ham it up
Many Canadians share the same "could have been/might have been" story, including Michael Ondaatje, but few go back and explore the possibility with such sensuous and riveting prose. Ondaatje's personal story began in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where he was born in 1943. After spending eleven years with his Burgher family, he moved to England in 1954 and then to Canada in 1962. Running in the Family is his attempt at reliving his family history in Sri Lanka. He takes the island as his formative touchstone, traveling there in his late thirties to visit relatives and re-inhabit the buildings and locations his family once called home.

The results are on the page. Ondaatje recreates an experience and an encounter that comes alive in his writing:
Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us nothing in the end of personal relationships. There are stories of elopements, unrequited love, family feuds, and exhausting vendettas, which everyone was drawn into, had to be involved with. But nothing is said of the closeness between two people: how they grew in the shade of each other's presence. No one speaks of that exchange of gift and character - the way a person took on and recognized in himself the smile of a lover. Individuals are seen only in the context of these swirling social tides. It was almost impossible for a couple to do anything without rumour leaving their shoulders like a flock of messenger pigeons. (Pg. 48)
Beautiful and so true. The magic that we feed on, for better or worse, takes place in our daily interactions with one another. It's those pigeons carrying rumour as truth that form history. Running in the Family chronicles the shifting, "social tides" that turn the prodigal into a foreigner and the foreigner into the prodigal while maintaining "home" in the ever-changing ellipses of time. "Home" may sometimes be a foreign word, but a foreign word can also mean "home."

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