Running in the Family

by Michael Ondaatje

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Fantasy Versus Reality

The tension between fantasy and reality is woven throughout Running in the Family. The theme emerges in both the structure of the book—whose blend of autobiography and fiction defies easy categorization—and in the content of the writing itself. A vein of fantasy runs through his stories about his family, and this thread connects the many truths and half-truths that make up his telling of his family’s complicated and colorful history. Through the stories about his parents and their relatives, Ondaatje takes the reader on a journey that blurs the line between fact and fiction; family members that are long dead live on in his imagination, and they become real again on the page, sometimes in ghostly form and sometimes in vivid and colorful detail.

Ondaatje weaves together his childhood memories, his travel experiences, and his impressions of the sights and sounds of Sri Lanka. The result purposefully disorients the reader, interweaving reality with the mind’s imaginative workings. Ondaatje impressionistically records the smells and the sounds of Sri Lanka, including its humid monsoon seasons and aromatic cuisine. Ondaatje’s powerful imagery provides a realistic grounding to otherwise imaginative scenes. Thus, readers continually engage with the rich interplay between fantastical and realistic elements in Ondaatje’s prose.

The Link Between Oral Tradition and Family Identity

In Running in the Family, Ondaatje documents many of the stories he was told by his relatives, demonstrating the importance of oral history and storytelling to the cultivation of a family identity. Ondaatje’s Aunt Phyllis, for example, enjoys the position of story-keeper, and when Ondaatje travels to the north of the island of Sri Lanka to see her, he hears many artful tales of relatives long deceased. Usually, these tales involve dramatic and emotional demonstrations of love and disappointment, regret and shame, and they all resonate with Ondaatje, who writes about his own experiences and those of his relatives in both prose and poetry.

The stories of Ondaatje’s family, many centered around his appealingly eccentric relations, appear to have become myths in his imagination. For example, Ondaatje’s father, Mervyn, was an alcoholic, and some of his antics while under the influence of alcohol are truly memorable. The stories told by Ondaatje’s aunts and others almost celebrate Mervyn's alcoholism for its contributions to family lore rather than solely consider it a source of familial shame. Ondaatje’s mother, Doris, similarly mythologized tales from Mervyn’s life, and Ondaatje portrays her as a dramatic storyteller.

The Vicissitudes of Love and Marriage

Love is often the main occupation of Ondaatje’s family members—both his parents’ generation and his grandparents’ generation. Inappropriate and irresponsible love figures as prominently in the family’s stories as dutiful love. Several chapters in the book address the tumultuous nature of love and marriage, especially in the context of Ondaatje’s parents’ complicated marriage. Ondaatje closely examines their meeting, courtship, and honeymoon. Ondaatje’s explorations are both private and public, as he presents some details of their relationship with great tenderness and others with the air of amusing gossip.

Ondaatje also uses marriage as a vehicle to describe and identify the country of Sri Lanka, previously known as Ceylon. Because Ceylon held appeal for many Europeans, Ondaatje employs a marital metaphor to describe the relationship between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. He compares the island nation to an oft-married wife and the island’s various invaders—namely Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain—to her series of husbands. From this comparison, the reader can surmise that Ondaatje believes marriage is a disempowering experience for some women. This belief is further validated in the story of Ondaatje’s own mother, who left her marriage to Ondaatje’s father and chose to make a new life for herself in England.

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