Running in the Family

by Michael Ondaatje

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Michael Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir, published in 1982, is based on two trips to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) which the author took in 1978 and 1980. It is divided into seven sections and forty-two subsections, organized thematically rather than chronologically.

Section 1

The book begins with a nightmare Ondaatje had about his father, Mervyn, being surrounded by wild dogs in the jungle. He realizes how little he actually knows about his father and arranges to travel to Sri Lanka to find out about his family and his past. First, Ondaatje and his sister, Gillian, visit their aunt Phyllis in Jaffna. Phyllis is a rich source of both family anecdotes and history. Her house is haunted, she tells them, by a governor’s daughter who killed herself in 1734. Nobody sleeps in that wing, which the ghost patrols, wearing a red dress. Ondaatje has another dream, in which he sees himself close to the apex of a pyramid of his ancestors moving through the house.

Section 2

Ondaatje writes of his father’s youth. Mervyn travels to Cambridge, ostensibly to study at the university. In fact, he merely moves into an apartment in Cambridge and spends his allowance from his wealthy parents on lavish parties. He finally returns to Sri Lanka to marry a woman called Doris Gratiaen, much to the disapproval of his parents, who hoped he would marry an English heiress. Mervyn’s father, Philip, refuses to pay for the engagement ring but relents when Mervyn threatens to shoot himself. Mervyn and Doris’s early married life is a constant round of wild parties and heavy drinking with Columbo’s wealthy young socialites and visiting celebrities. The worst alcoholic of them all, Francis de Saram, drowns himself, and the social life of the Columbo set slows down somewhat, though Mervyn continues to drink heavily and squander his patrimony.

Section 3

Ondaatje visits a church in Columbo where many of his ancestors are buried. However, Ondaatje now feels hostile to the invaders who created the dynasty to which he belongs. This section is particularly disjunct, and the author mixes in his own experiences and feelings with various stories and poems, including the famous poem about the cinnamon peeler, often anthologized separately, in which the smell of cinnamon becomes a symbol of the love between the cinnamon peeler and his wife. Ondaatje includes various writers’ impressions of Sri Lanka, including those of Edward Lear, D. H. Lawrence, and Leonard Woolf. He says that Sri Lanka has always attracted too many foreigners, including his own ancestors.

Section 4

Ondaatje visits Aunt Dolly, one of his father’s closest friends. She is very old and going blind, showing him photographs she can no longer see, though she has memorized their contents. She tells him about his eccentric grandmother, Lalla—her many exploits and her curious charm. Once, an employee of Lalla’s was tried for murder, and she hid in a friend’s house to avoid testifying. When she was found, it turned out she knew the judge and managed to escape giving testimony anyway. Lalla was a heavy drinker, an alcoholic in later life, who was drowned when she drunkenly stumbled into a flash flood. By this time, she was poor, having dissipated most of her money, much like her son-in-law, Ondaatje’s father.

Section 5

Ondaatje starts by noting the lack of a clear division between the inside and the outside of the house in which he is staying. Animals such as snakes and bats come in and out. The house is full of jungle sounds, which he records to play back to himself in Canada. On a trip into...

(This entire section contains 1065 words.)

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the jungle, he and his friends wash themselves in the rain, using a bar of scented soap he has with him. They see a huge wild boar, and Ondaatje thinks it would be a fine way to die: killed by a boar, washed by the rain, and in the midst of one’s friends. Later, Ondaatje misses his soap and is told that the boar must have taken it. He imagines the boar and its friends washing themselves in the rain. He then describes his father’s life as an army officer, shortly before Ondaatje was born, when Mervyn’s drinking binges led to increasingly extreme behavior, including hijacking several trains and attempting suicide by jumping naked from another train. He was finally banned from traveling by train in 1943, after he stole a gun from a fellow officer (John Kotelawala, the future prime minister), took over the train, stripped almost naked, drank a bottle of gin, and destroyed twenty-five pots of curd, under the impression that they were Japanese bombs. Ondaatje later visits Kotelawala, now Sir John, on his splendid estate, where he feeds scones to his peacocks.

Section 6

Ondaatje visits his half-sister, Susan, to talk about Mervyn’s later life. By this time, Mervyn and Doris had become estranged, largely because of his drinking. Doris, who loved music and theater, even taught the children a song called “Daddy, don’t drink, if you love us, don’t drink.” After fourteen years, she left Mervyn with no alimony and attempted to support herself by working at a hotel. Ondaatje was too young to remember his father at this point, though he has been told that Mervyn’s riotous behavior had largely given way by this time to a dark and somber mood, in which he was still frequently drunk.

Section 7

Ondaatje writes about his father’s last years. Mervyn would hang around in the hotel where Doris worked, hoping to speak to her, then go home and drink himself into oblivion. All his children who remember him say that Mervyn was a wonderful father when sober but terrifying when drunk. He briefly ran a successful chicken farm but soon sank into extreme depression and died of a brain hemorrhage. Toward the end of his life he put on a great deal of weight and was often unable to remember the basic details of his life.

Although he did not know his father, Ondaatje understands that his life was a painful one and that he drank to ease that pain. This, he feels, was understandable. Ondaatje ends his story early in the morning, trying to absorb every physical detail of Sri Lanka—the country of his father and mother, which he left when he was eleven, before he ever thought of becoming a writer.