Thirteen of us sat bleary-eyed around an off-white table, high above the Hong Kong skyline, while my ever-enthusiastic English teacher, Ms. Yeo, excitedly discussed Michael Ondaatje’s writing style. She had four dog-eared copies in front of her, each annotated to the point where no further writing could be added in the margins.
I first read Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family” in my high school English class. At the time, it was nothing more than an above-average book I was coerced into reading and memorizing quotes from for my International Baccalaureate exams. However, succumbing to homesickness this year, I reread the entire novel one night in bed when I was already awake way later than I should have been. It consumed me wholly. I was uncontrollably drawn to it but knew if I kept going, the tears that were already streaming down my face would multiply exponentially.
“It was a new winter and I was already dreaming of Asia.” It felt like I was reading my deepest thoughts, the thoughts I could not personally articulate or fathom clearly, in the writing of a man from far away. While the author’s search for his family and his Sri Lankan roots was not something I could personally identify with, the yearning for Asia and for family, and a quest for personal understanding, resonated within me.
By interspersing personal interactions with tales of his family’s history, Ondaatje chronicles his attempt to gain insight into his own identity by embarking on a journey to better comprehend his family. With this in mind, he journeys to Sri Lanka in the 1970s, to the home he had departed at the age of 11 after his parents’ divorce, to “recreate the era of [his] parents.”
As the book progresses, it becomes blatantly obvious that at the core of the author’s journey home lies a heartbreaking quest to better understand the father he hadn’t seen since leaving Sri Lanka and who had since passed away. However, it dawns on him that the void which haunts him, which he so desperately longs to fill, can never be filled. He writes that his father will forever be “one of those books we long to read, whose pages remain uncut.”
Ondaatje has a way of making his readers nostalgic for a place they’ve never been and a decade they did not experience. In the midst of unendingly brittle winter days, his writing made me miss the intoxicating smells of Asian streets, the ever-pervasive blanket of humidity, the whirling chaos and cries of hawkers.
When asked to describe the genre of what has now become my favorite novel, I can’t help but quote Ondaatje himself: “[W]hile it may have an air of authenticity, I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or a ‘gesture.’” Part fact, part fiction. Part poetry, part image, part prose. It is, as Ms. Yeo loved to claim, “a travel narrative or family memoir or delightful mixture of ‘I have no idea what to call it!’”
I would describe the novel as intoxicating. It is vivid, delirious, otherworldly and whimsical ― a woven tapestry of truth, memory and legend. It is a glorious fusion of everything, a work of magical realism. The book covers all bases of writing; one simply cannot be bored reading it.
Ondaatje tactfully handles themes such as the lack of permanence in the passage of time, self-exploration and identity, Western perspective and Orientalism and the wild intoxication of life and substances.
His words are utterly transfixing. His readers will be uncontrollably and completely spellbound by the magic his letters hold. Within the lines on the pages, Ondaatje seems to perfectly capture the essence of Sri Lanka, Asia as a whole and the era of his parents. Flawlessly, shockingly and hauntingly beautiful is the only way to describe Ondaatje’s writing. I have often turned to quoting him in my attempts at phrasing thoughts that undoubtedly everyone feels but cannot find the words to express. His descriptions of Asia perfectly capture the home I have left behind, and his desire to return often mirrors my own.
Ondaatje writes for his home, for the father he lost and for himself in his journey to reconcile his new life with the life he feels has slipped away from him. “Running in the Family” simultaneously places the reader in a state of awed silence and gives them a fleeting sense of understanding the world. It causes the reader to reflect on their own history and recall their place of origin. It led me to reflect on wild nights at home with my friends where I was unfathomably happy; on Sunday night dinners with my relatives shouting at each other across the table in Cantonese; on the ephemeral and tender childhood moments with my parents that live within my memories.
This is a book for those who are nostalgic, for those who want to be transfixed and for those who want to journey to a delirious Asia from the comfort of their bed. This is a novel that has to be read.