Running in the Family

  I simply adore Michael Ondaatje. His novels are like liquid poetry in prose, and his poems are like sparse, fragmented short stories. His favourite of mine is Anil’s Ghost, though –  I haven’t read ‘The English Patient’ yet, for fear of disappointment (it seems to me that expectations almost always fall short with novels of great reputation). I picked up this copy of Running in the Family about a year ago, when I wanted to read something by Ondaatje, but his new novel ‘The Cat’s Table’ hadn’t been published yet.

In the opening pages, Ondaatje describes how his ‘bright bone of a dream’ became the seed for: first, a trip to his native Sri Lanka, and then the starting point for this memoir.

I had mixed reactions. On the one hand, it encapsulates everything that I love about his work. It’s poetic and fluid and wonderful to read, as always. A lovely form of memoir which seems intimate and raw. The sentences are pure Ondaatje – fragmented, lovely, concise. In fact, it’s more like a writer’s notebook that’s filled with bits and pieces of memory, portraits of family members, impressions of his visits to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) than a polished piece of literature. That, I loved. Yet I can’t help but agree with what Noriko Nakada has to say:

Readers tend to love or hate Ondaatje depending on their tolerance for meandering, character-driven plots and how far a few beautiful lines of prose can propel you through a text. And not only does he break the rules of pacing and plot… but he also fictionalizes, fills in scenes; takes liberties with truth.

And now a passage from the book itself:

Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us in the end nothing 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 he 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.

Nakada seems more sympathetic to Ondaatje’s work than not, that ‘every perspective can provide only a limited view of the past and reminds the reader how elusive truth can be.’ But I wonder. ‘Fictionalizes, fills in scenes; takes liberties with truth….’ This is the part that gets to me.

It is one thing to write of one’s impressions, to capture subjectivity and emotion and feeling in a memoir. But it is another thing entirely, to use one’s imagination to create the semblance of fact out of a string of elusive, lost stories. That’s fiction, with a factual inspiration/basis.

The role of truth, of authenticity and honesty in memoir? It is everything. Otherwise, the bond of trust between reader and writer is utterly and completely destroyed, and we are left wondering which parts are true, and which are not – or is the entire thing, in fact, a fabrication, with only the names and settings being real?

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4 thoughts on “Running in the Family

    1. Isn’t it wonderful? So poetic and starkly, darkly beautiful. I’ve also read ‘Divisadero’, but it wasn’t as good as Anil’s Ghost. Definitely have to read the English Patient sooner or later though!

  1. I’ve been dying to read this (but The Book Depository ran out of copies of this particular cover, haha). I agree readers tend to either love him or hate him. There’s a limited audience for meandering, poetic writing.

    Did you feel, though, while reading, not thinking about Nakada’s comment, as if some parts of Ondaatje’s stories didn’t ring true?

    1. The thing is that it read like fiction, and he wrote so certainly of events where he couldn’t possibly have been there (years and years before he was even born) in a narrative form. But I suppose you’re right – I did have more of a problem with it after other people questioned the truthfulness of it all….

      Dahl’s autobiography, Boy also has moments like this when writing of his parents’ backgrounds, but somehow it feels different. Perhaps because Running in the Family is a memoir not so much of himself, but of the Ondaatje clan? I think you’ll know what I mean when you read it… it’s very vague and wishy washy.

      I still love Ondaatje though!

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