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(Philip) Michael Ondaatje 1943–
Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, editor, and filmmaker.
Ondaatje originally established his literary reputation as a poet, and his verse publications include The Dainty Monsters (1967), Man with Seven Toes (1969), and Rat Jelly (1973). Critics note that his subjects, which range from the violent and disturbing to the domestic and personal, are consistently presented in musical, sound-conscious language. Ondaatje's most acclaimed literary achievement to date is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), which won a Canadian Governor General's Award. Billy the Kid combines both poetry and prose in a fictionalized biography which celebrates the life and legend of the famed American outlaw.
Ondaatje has also received critical acclaim as a novelist. Coming Through Slaughter (1976), his first novel, again reflects his fascination with extraordinary personality types. In this work, Ondaatje employs what William Logan has termed "creative mythologizing" to depict the tormented life of another legendary figure, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Coming Through Slaughter is similar to Billy the Kid in its blend of poetic and prose forms, but Ondaatje also uses such quasi-factual journalistic material as interviews and documented reports.
Ondaatje's recent work, Running in the Family (1982), is set in Ceylon, where Ondaatje was born, and combines a travelogue with memoirs of his youth. In it Ondaatje attempts an imaginative reconstruction of his family history, with particular emphasis on the eccentric personalities of his maternal grandmother and his father. While some critics have remarked that in this work his prose is overly poetic and obscure in places, others have praised its innovative structure and Ondaatje's descriptive power.
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
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Michael Ondaatje is a poet and even his prose [in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid] moves with rhythmic, circular precision. "Find the beginning," he writes, "the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in." And from that promising starting point he pries Billy the Kid loose from his legend and takes us inside, to his inner being; we feel as Billy feels….
[It] is through Billy's (or Mr. Ondaatje's) special sensitivity to light and color, movement and sound, that the deserts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico begin to breathe hotly in our imaginations. The slow, sensuous unravelling of these violent lives is filtered through the monochromatic desert light….This is a good little book, carefully crafted and thoroughly literate. But it is a "little" book, a portrait in miniature, and eventually limited by Billy's own character. Its young author proves here that he is capable of moving and tragic persuasions. But a true tragedy must concern itself with a hero, and despite the efforts of movies, television and the perpetuated myth of the Old West, Billy and all the other romanticized murderers emerge as exactly the opposite, as antiheroes. Perhaps it's because our culture has given up all hope of ever seeing another real hero that we're so ready to build myths around these toxic types. (p. 49)
Karyl Roosevelt, "Original Fiction with Toxic Heroes," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1974, pp. 48-9.∗
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To his acknowledgments at the end of Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje adds this final note: "While I have used real names and characters and historical situations I have also used more personal pieces of friends and fathers. There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts that have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction." He indicates here the intricate mingling of fact, fiction, and personal reference through which he records and invents the life of another of his heroes who sail to that perfect edge: Charles "Buddy" Bolden, a part-time barber and jazz musician in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Ondaatje uses documents, quotations, and interviews combined with his own songs, poems, and narrative all in the service of the truth of fiction. By blending history and fantasy, he explores the inner life of his subject much as, in an earlier work [The Collected Works of Billy the Kid], he recorded and invented the inner life of Billy the Kid…. The legend of Buddy Bolden is blended even more richly when Ondaatje projects himself into the book. In one section, he describes his first curiosity and sympathy for Bolden who, at the age of 31 (Ondaatje's own age), went berserk while playing in a parade and then spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. In this way, Ondaatje weaves himself not only into the history, but also into the fantasy of his poetic-novelistic-biography. He makes his own problems as an artist confronting intriguing but intractable material—a "desert of facts" which he must organize, interpret, and bring to a life—a part of the artistry. He draws a parallel between himself and Bolden that emphasizes how all Bolden's frantic struggles with love, music, and madness are part of the same self-perpetuating imaginative conflict. Coming Through Slaughter is a disjointed, though carefully crafted, portrait of the artist; but it is a picture of a particularly volatile artistic temperament. (pp. 126-27)
Buddy Bolden is a worthy addition to Ondaatje's growing list of heroes, and Coming Through Slaughter both deserves and rewards close reading. Because there are so many similarities, it is tempting to compare it with earlier works. Personally, I prefer Billy the Kid. I find its images stronger and more startling, its argument more compelling. A symptom of weakness in Coming Through Slaughter is its preface, consisting of three sonographs, with commentary, of a dolphin's squawks, whistles, and clicks. This is puzzling, as it was certainly intended to be, but not really intriguing. Although we do eventually realize how this fragment fits into the entire mosaic of the book, it is only after some forcing on Ondaatje's part and some impatience on ours, and by then the effect is lost. Other sections also seem too remote or too contrived, understated or over-dramatic. As a result, Bolden himself remains curiously remote, despite all the attention he receives, and never emerges clearly from the "desert of facts," real or fictional, which comprises his life. Granted, we are not supposed to see him clearly—the photo is blurred—but we are supposed to sense and sympathize with the contradictions that torment him, even though these contradictions cannot be resolved. We must appreciate his torment, his agony, even though the man himself remains a mystery. We learn less about Billy, yet care about him more; and not even a single photo survives of him. (pp. 128-29)
Jon Kertzer, in a review of "Coming through Slaughter" (copyright by Jon Kertzer; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Fiddlehead, No. 113, Spring, 1977, pp. 126-29.
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The protagonist of Coming Through Slaughter is Buddy Bolden, known chiefly to jazz aficionados as a pioneering musician in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Bolden is a hazy, semi-mythological figure at the dawning of jazz—from the days before recordings or big money or national and international acceptance of Black music. (pp. 92-3)
From these fragments and an acquaintanceship with New Orleans and its history, Ondaatje has fashioned a prose work (his first) that is part documentary, part fiction and essentially a spiritual exegesis of a tragic personality. Upon finishing it, one no longer asks why Ondaatje chose Bolden as his principal character. He has journeyed so far into the world and mind of Bolden—or someone he imagines Bolden to have been—that Coming Through Slaughter represents an imaginative feat of a high order: a transcending of cultural and racial and historical barriers into a state of nearly total identification, on both the author's and reader's part, with the subject.
The pattern of Bolden's life is a familiar one in Black musical history, a precursor of those talents that have self-destructed in despair and heroin. Bolden's music was a search for both ecstasy and oblivion: he lived at top speed, becoming celebrated young, drinking vast quantities of alcohol, doing violence to himself and occasionally those around him, going over the edge into madness at 31. Bolden spent the last 24 years of his life in a Louisiana mental institution. It was his way of committing suicide.
All this comes very close to the romanticized image of the dissolute artist, but Ondaatje isn't interested in that cliche. He wants to burrow under it and chart the subterranean rivers in this man, the subtle and elusive but finally identifiable moments when the decision to go mad is made, rejected, made again.
The process is all the more mysterious because Bolden did not appear outwardly to be a deeply disturbed person. He could usually control the effects of his drinking, was a loving husband and father, an irrepressible raconteur…. He even edited The Cricket, a raunchy broadsheet packed with local sensation and rumour. At night he played cornet in front of the dancing crowds and on holidays there were the festive jazz parades down Canal Street.
Through an aggregation of brief incidents, scraps of documentation, and monologues in various voices, not strictly chronological but generating a powerful sense of momentum, we become aware of Bolden's secret self…. He constantly had dreams of his children dying. This terror of mortality helps to explain Bolden's sudden, unexpected desertion of his family and his music—"wiping out his past again in a casual gesture, contemptuous. Landscape suicide," as his old friend Webb puts it.
Webb is a police detective (Ondaatje doesn't say if he ever existed) who takes it on himself to search for Bolden and restore him to his former place in the world. In a nice paradox, this structurally unconventional narrative acquires a detective-story suspense in the course of Webb's investigation. (p. 93)
Ondaatje doesn't belabour the facts of poverty and social oppression as sources of Bolden's agony—they are implicit in the pungent historical asides…. More importantly, Ondaatje succeeds in giving us a sense of how Bolden actually played—"showing all the possibilities in the middle of the story." The texture of the book itself has that fertile, driving, improvisational quality, rich with its own pleasure in language and human complexity. Its considerable drama is marred only when the author shows himself too self-conscious about literary architecture; there is an archly obscure epitaph about the sounds that dolphins make, and bits of poetry are inserted now and then, as if to remind us of the author's other avocation. But it is undoubtedly Ondaatje's experience as a poet which has liberated him from the tired conventions of the novel and helped him to produce a fictional work of such uncompromising existential power. (p. 94)
Roy MacSkimming, "The Good Jazz" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 73, Summer, 1977, pp. 92-4.
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[There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do] contains the best of two of Ondaatje's earlier collections, published in 1967 and 1973 [The Dainty Monsters and Rat Jelly], as well as 19 new poems. The 1967 pieces are precocious and sometimes good; those of 1973 are often very good; most of the new ones are a joy. Never a bad poet, Ondaatje has grown to be one of the finest in a country where reputation rarely depends on the sheer quality of work. He has always had a gift for the killing image; now there is a richness, a mellowness, an alertness to complicated truths. Though "we wear sentimentality like a curse" there is no excuse for shunning emotion. Poems about his wife, friends and children are sprinkled throughout, and recently Ondaatje has begun to face directly his vanished Asian childhood. A visit to India and Ceylon in 1978 inspired some of the keenest poems in the book. He has learned how to unsettle without resorting to the Gothic bravado and gore that occasionally stains his prose.
The trick is to appear relaxed and intense at once. Even when Ondaatje is harshly evoking pain, a sense of humor almost never deserts him. Sometimes he rambles from tale to tale, yet the endings have a cunning elegance: In the movies of my childhood the heroes / after skilled sword play and moral victories / leave with absolutely nothing / to do for the rest of their lives. This is the poetry of daily speech, a poetry of the myths by which we live. The trick is to cut away the vanities with words as haunting as memory. Ondaatje has learned what to do. (p. 63)
Mark Abley, "Bone Beneath Skin," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 92, No. 17, April 23, 1979, pp. 62-3.
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If [Douglas] LePan's and [Leonard] Cohen's myths have to do with an expedition or descent into darkness, horror, a mystical sensuality, fragmentation, and madness, then Michael Ondaatje's work could be said to carry this movement to a further, darker extreme. For here there is virtually no intimation of the possibility of return or reintegration, of transcendence or the possible achievement of community (or even a more than momentary communication), at least for the author's doomed heroes. Ondaatje's is, thus far, a darker and apparently more nihilistic vision than those of Watson, Klein, LePan, Cohen, MacEwen, Atwood, or Helwig, in whose work more positive human possibilities still exist even in the midst of darkness. (p. 144)
It is, no doubt, of significance here that Ondaatje is not a native Canadian. Though he began to develop his extraordinary gift after his arrival in the new world, his earliest and most profound emotions and intuitions were shaped elsewhere, in far-off Sri Lanka. But he has been familiar with much of the best Canadian writing throughout his early career and has adapted the tradition to his own ends. (pp. 144-45)
Early reviewers were correct in recognizing Ondaatje's markedly individual if eccentric talent. An obsession with violence has also contributed to his popularity in these apocalyptic times. Whence this comes remains a mystery, though it is something that he shares with Pratt and Cohen, among other Canadian writers. His interest in animals is a thing common in Canada, too, of course: but his animals seem to be descendants of Ted Hughes's animals, who are in turn descendants of D. H. Lawrence's animals. And the exoticism of treatment, while it has an obvious kinship with that of Wallace Stevens, whom Ondaatje introduces to King Kong, is presumably Ceylonese in origin. By means of these interests, the poems attempt to reveal the wonder, beauty, and horror of an inner life on which "civilized" society tries to keep the lid very tightly clamped. This is his version of the notorious Canadian garrison-and-wilderness theme. All in all, a heady mixture: the general effect is strange and intriguing to Canadians, and quite rightly. (p. 145)
Ondaatje is at his best in longer works. In the longish poems "Paris" and "Peter," which is a kind of portrait of the artist as persecuted and misunderstood monster, his characteristic extravagance is subordinated to the overall theme in a satisfying way. Ondaatje seeks out the heroic in the mythic past, as Gwendolyn MacEwen does: "Paris" has the same magic as her "Arcana" series. A longer sequence, The Man With Seven Toes, is striking as well. It concerns a woman lost in the Australian bush, and this situation is at least analogous to the encounter with Canada's very different nature. It is purer than the earlier narratives, in a sense; it cannot be construed as allegory or disguised autobiography as they could. Ondaatje's descriptions of violent events have a tactile and kinetic quality that is somewhat rare in poetry, and the absence of any meditation or apparent moral or other attitude to his materials gives the work startling immediacy and power. But it is with Billy the Kid that he finds a vehicle, albeit an American one, large enough for the fuller expression of his vision.
Reading this extraordinary work, one suspects at first that Ondaatje relishes the bizarre or the whimsical or the grotesque for its own sake; but a little reflection makes it apparent that this is how he wants the reader, at least temporarily, to perceive the world. The true story of the historical William Bonney is not all that important here, in spite of what certain, perhaps stunned, reviewers have written. He is irrecoverable, anyhow, as Ondaatje's stress on the slipperiness of legend and of reality itself makes clear. Beneath the world's apparent order, beneath all civilized decorum, is a mindless ferocity. By implication, the reader is asked to prefer the "natural" (that is, animal, even cosmic) murderousness of Billy to the efficient killing of the near-mechanical "sane assassin" Pat Garrett, but in any case the world itself appears to be insane or at least very delicately balanced…. (pp. 145-46)
[The Collected Works of Billy the Kid] seems to suggest that Billy is more sinned against (by authorities anxious for "progress") than sinning, but nothing finally is certain except that both his faults and his virtues are human and representative, though much magnified. Legend and reality blend. The brilliantly fragmented narrative involves both poetry and prose, the latter much more vital and evocative…. (p. 146)
Rat Jelly is a collection of individual poems, and thus it is related more to The Dainty Monsters than to the books in-between. It is an advance on that book, which was uneven. It contains poems of "loathing" (for all except family, friends and heroes—his own island), domestic poems (in which the domestic tends to the legendary), poems about the artist as spider, a powerful poem about the poet's father, poems about animals, and a final poem about the void, the silence underneath, within and beyond all relationship, brotherhood, love—the stunning "White Dwarfs." The logic of the attitudes expressed here suggests a movement to silence, to the place where speech is meaningless. It is a black or negative mysticism, or perhaps a dark night of the soul. But Ondaatje is too much in love with "choreography," with bright colours, images and sounds, with the erotic force in the world, to give it all up at this point. He has developed his own original and flexible free-verse style in which language is often pared down, all unnecessary words, especially articles, eliminated, in order to render the movement of the moment "to the clear." There is more for him to say—more about people and their relationships, more about human society.
Coming through Slaughter, Ondaatje's first novel proper, is, however, a kind of enlargement upon the theme of "White Dwarfs." Once again the author insists upon an art that culminates in silence and darkness. The book, an arrangement of brief and vividly effective prose passages interspersed with pieces of poetry here and there, is somewhat more perfectly executed and balanced than Billy the Kid, which had its ragged edges and its quirky or less interesting parts, but it is also rather less challenging, perhaps because readers have become acclimatized to Ondaatje's artist-(or hero)-in-deeper-and-deeper-isolation theme. This time the ambience is New Orleans, wonderfully evoked or invented, and the hero, jazzman Buddy Bolden, who was never recorded and who went mad: two circumstances that, I suspect, appeal greatly to the author. Bolden's art and inner experience are lost, but he may have encountered chaos purely before retiring into silence. His mind, Ondaatje writes, is "helpless against every moment's headline."… He does "nothing but leap into the mass of changes and explore them and all the tiny facets."… Themes of friendship, love, and sexual jealousy are subordinate to this basic theme: "he was tormented by order, what was outside it."… (pp. 147-48)
The apparent impossibility of finding a wholly adequate form for the apparently formless: this is a problem no serious artist can escape. Like Atwood, Ondaatje makes frequent use of and reference to photography as one way of expressing this theme. The grotesque photographer Bellocq is Buddy's foil, a voyeur-artist who takes pictures of whores and then slashes the prints for satisfaction, his interior journey more obviously bizarre than Bolden's own. His perfect isolation, which culminates in suicide, fascinates Buddy. (p. 148)
This is a less violent fable, though there is violence, than the earlier ones in poetry and prose, but it is meant to disturb. The question that arises is whether it is really necessary for a fictional artist to pursue (as opposed to perceiving and experiencing without succumbing to) void or chaos to this suicidal extent. Perhaps, imaginatively, it is necessary, if only as a caution to others…. Is it not possible, though, that there is something just a bit sentimental about this latest highly coloured version of the myth of the exemplary doomed hero or "beautiful" loser? Is there not a whole social world of more immediate and potentially fascinating human problems that is equally the artist's province and rather more profitable a field for Ondaatje … the novelist in the future, if he is not to begin repeating himself in less and less rewarding ways? It is one of the paradoxes of this novel that Ondaatje does begin to explore a social world of complex human relationships even as he pursues his obsessive interest in the man beyond "social fuel." Coming through Slaughter is, in any case, his most accomplished performance to date. (pp. 148-49)
Tom Marshall, "Deeper Darkness, after Choreography: Michael Ondaatje," in his Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition (© The University of British Columbia 1979), University of British Columbia Press, 1979, pp. 144-49.
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Michael Ondaatje … has set himself apart from [the dogmatic certainty of much mainstream Canadian writing]. He works by suggesting the final unknowability of the world. He disrupts comforting pieties and surrounds his characters with an almost absolute darkness. His urgent interest has always been to drive the reader away from familiar settings and expected motivations. What he seems to want is to maximize our terror of, and fascination with, our own ignorance. As protagonists, he favours the "possessed" of the world—the mad, the outlaw and now most recently, the dipsomaniac paranoid—whereas standard Canadian fiction is about decent, reasonable though often disappointed citizenry.
The main difference between his earlier fiction and Running in the Family is that this time Michael Ondaatje has turned his shrouded vision on himself. The new work is an existential biography. Ondaatje renders family life ignoring verifiable data, choosing to tease to the surface those portions that for almost 30 years have been forgotten, devalued, suppressed or left deliberately unexamined….
The book is part family saga, part the typical North American roots search, part travel account and part social history, delivered with the conciseness and intensity of poetry. History is rendered as a series of vivid moments, and personalities are developed through fragile ellipses. The island that emerges is not Sri Lanka so much as Prospero's isle over which Shakespeare broods, promising Ondaatje absolution from family guilts. People (especially the author's father, Mervyn, and his maternal grandmother, Lalla Gratiaen) and places (hill stations, governors' mansions, tea estates, national forests) are transformed by Ondaatje's mythologizing faculties….
Set-piece passage succeeds set-piece. There is a marvellous description of assorted Canadian and Sinhalese members of the family in Wilpattu Jungle "soaping themselves with a green bar of soap and throwing it around like a foaming elixir" while servants, deer and a boar watch them. All passages are emblematic, all perceptions accidentally reached….
The book isn't flawless. Some readers may find the beginning too slow; too many minor heroes are immortalized. All the same Running in the Family is extraordinary, and may help—among its other virtues—destroy the myth that the Canadian imagination is the sole property of liberated Ontario W.A.S.P.s and lacerated Quebec Catholics. It is nourished on papayas as well as Red River cereal.
Bharati Mukherjee, "Ondaatje's Sri Lanka Is Prospero's Isle" (reprinted by permission of Quill and Quire and Russell & Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author; copyright © 1983 by Bharati Mukherjee), in Quill and Quire, Vol. 48, No. 10, October, 1982, p. 30.
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Running in the Family … is the bravest, gentlest and funniest of [Ondaatje's] nine books.
The text is centred around a long trip he recently made to [Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon], visiting those members of his family who remain there. Interspersed with his own experiences are chapters that forage through time to recreate the vanished world of his grandparents and parents. By entering the darkness of history, Ondaatje hopes against hope to bring his father to light. Opening the pages at random, the reader might come across a conversation, an essay, a poem, a journal or a tall tale. Ondaatje is an excellent raconteur, fond of spinning yarns, and his Ceylon suggests a cross between the Corfu of Gerald Durrell's childhood and the Colombia where Gabriel García Márquez grew up. Ondaatje lingers with relish on the incongruous details that take root in the imagination: a polecat that got drunk on yellow berries and wandered up and down on the keys of a piano; a grandmother who had a mastectomy by mistake and kept misplacing her false breast; a sudden epidemic of betting on the flights of crows. His emotions are constantly embedded in physical events; in particular, he has the rare gift of recreating in language a variety of smells. His words are as sensuous as mangoes.
One of the incidental delights of Running in the Family is its sweet evocation of old Ceylon, a country that has rarely gained its due in literature…. Ondaatje … observes its nature and cultures with a sympathetic eye. Yet, he is blessed, or cursed, by a double awareness: "I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner." Unable to see the island as an alien, he is equally unable to feel at home. Although the past created him, he belongs on different soil. This tension runs throughout the book and provides much of its energy….
At its deepest level, the book records an obsessive quest: to discover the truth about a dead father…. Running in the Family is the son's attempt to make peace with his forlorn spirit; it is an act of homage, frustration and love.
Mark Abley, "The Past Is Another Country," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1982 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 95, No. 41, October 11, 1982, p. 66.
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Each new book by Michael Ondaatje seems wholly different from those that preceded it, and wholly the same. [Running in the Family] is a family reminiscence…. A far cry, I thought when I began it, from a cycle of poems about Billy the Kid, or a prose poem on the New Orleans jazz scene and cornetist Buddy Bolden. Not so far a cry, it turns out.
But how does it seem different? First, it has the flavour of autobiography. Of course the narrative "I" is always present in Ondaatje's work. The little kid in the cowboy clothes at the end of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is the author. And the narrator of Coming Through Slaughter enters the work at various points with a similar kind of identification: "When [Buddy Bolden] went mad he was the same age as I am now." But in Running in the Family the identification appears to be more direct. The characters in this book are the author's real family: his father, Mervyn, his grandmother, Lalla, and the rest. Autobiography, in other words, is not simply a motif here, but a part of the narrative surface as well.
Different but the same, for the characters keep outgrowing the confines of fact. Thus the narrator (who is usually "I" but sometimes "he") and the author may not be any more or less strictly interchangeable than elsewhere in Ondaatje's work…. Like Alice Munro, Ondaatje takes what look like very personal risks in his fiction. It is always hard to know where the line is drawn. Maybe that's part of the point. Ondaatje is continually slipping through the net of categories: documentary slides into fantasy, prose into poetry, and history, personal and otherwise, into myth.
There is, I think, a good deal more comedy here than in previous books. That's one kind of difference. But the similarity to the other works is this: that the comedy is seldom more than a step away from darkness. Ondaatje tosses the coin of remembrance into the air, and its two sides—laughter and tears—alternately catch the light as it falls. (p. 19)
Photography is an important metaphor throughout Ondaatje's work. Billy the Kid opens with an empty, four-inch square, and under it the words, "I send you a photograph of Billy …" And in Coming Through Slaughter: "There is only one photograph that exists of Bolden and his band. This is what you see." Running in the Family includes some wonderfully evocative pictures that are more than simply illustrations of the text. Like the prose, they have the surface of documentary but the presence of magic. (pp. 19-20)
In some ways, in fact, Running in the Family is like a box of snapshots and tapes. From the frozen, still images, and the fragmentary stories told in familiar voices, emerges a complex and many-sided family portrait. There are some outstanding individual shots here, of Lalla and of Mervyn especially, but the whole pyramid of family is revealed by the time the box has been emptied.
What else is familiar? There are thematic echoes, and repeated images: as elsewhere, dipsomania plays an important part in this book. There is Ondaatje's astonishing sensitivity to language, the perfectly timed shifts of tense, the transformation of sound into meaning.
Asia. The name was a gasp from a dying mouth. An ancient word that had to be whispered, would never be used as a battle cry. The word sprawled.
Like a gymnast, Michael Ondaatje does difficult things with such grace that they look easy. (p. 20)
Gary Draper, "Stranger than Fiction" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books in Canada, Vol. 11, No. 10, December, 1982, pp. 19-21.
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Running in the Family turns out to be an intelligent and responsible piece of work, full of good stories and colourful evocations of a world that will be foreign to most of its readers.
The book conflates descriptions of two separate visits to Sri Lanka, where Ondaatje was born and lived for the early part of his childhood. Significantly, the country is always referred to as "Ceylon" in his text, for this is very much an exploration of times past, a way of life that has all but irrevocably vanished….
By quizzing surviving relatives and friends, Ondaatje has created a picture of the life and times of his parents' and grandparents' generations that is necessarily impressionistic, but nonetheless telling. He is particularly good on the 1920s, the decade summed up by his maternal grandmother, Lalla, as "so whimsical, so busy—that we were always tired". The hectic partygoing, drinking, gambling and adulterizing described here might have been characteristic of a fast set in any part of the world, but detailed annotations of the people involved and of their exotic setting give Ondaatje's account a special poignancy….
All this, however, is simply to set the scene for the book's two major portraits, those of Lalla and of Mervyn Ondaatje, the author's father. The former was a kindly and impulsive woman, as "whimsical" as the decade she so aptly described. Anecdotes about her are plentiful. She was the first woman in Ceylon to have a breast removed surgically and the rubber article that replaced it was a constant bother to her and an embarrassment to others. She exercised a considerable fascination on children, but her generosity, here as elsewhere, was tempered by a "noli me tangere" [do not touch me] aloofness. She drank heavily and died by drowning.
Drink figures, too, as the motif of Mervyn Ondaatje's life. He was a spectacular scapegrace, who, given money by his parents to pay for an English education, spent two and a half years living as a civilian in Cambridge, enjoying himself lavishly in the company of students, until he was eventually found out and obliged to return home. Bouts of drinking at regular intervals helped to ruin his first marriage and destroy his prosperity, making him a danger to his children when driving and a menace to the entire railway system of Ceylon, to which he was mysteriously attracted during alcoholic episodes. The record is presented factually and we are left to make what we can of this man, who inspired both terror and fondness.
It is only when the author's "poetic" impulses begin to assert themselves that the reader is liable to quibble. Those fictionalized passages that are meant to convey Lalla's drowning and Mervyn's moods of introspectiveness do not succeed. There is, however, much that is uniquely enjoyable and moving in this book and when Ondaatje allows events to speak for themselves he achieves true eloquence.
Christopher Reid, "Whimsically Busy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4191, July 29, 1983, p. 811.
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