MICHAEL ONDAATJE is above all a poet, and in his novels and in this memoir he does things with language that only a poet can do. In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaajte explored the myth-shrouded life of the western desperado in a narrative that moved gracefully between prose, poetry, historical document, interview and photograph. Such a "collage" of forms suited his literary talents very well, becoming the means to reach beyond the popular myth of the romantic gunslinger to conjure up the palpable life of the cold- blooded murderer with dust on his boots and long, "beautiful fingers." Ondaatje's new work, Running in the Family, continues the concern with myth, and takes it into an autobiographical terrain no less exotic.
Ondaatje is a Canadian, but his origins are in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), that "pendant off the ear of India." Here his family lived in the twilight of the British Empire, in a world apart, one ripe with privilege and ease, whimsical passion and subdued boredom. Ondaatje left Ceylon at age 11, and now, as he approaches middle age, feels the need to establish continuity between his fabled past and the "peace and order" of the present. He is most compelled to sort through the outrageous stories associated with his father, who stayed on in Ceylon and died of alchoholism, a man who could "remove all his clothes and leap from a train," and of whom he says "my loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult."
Running in the Family is composed of the stories, anecdotes, poems, reveries and photographs Ondaatje has collected on return visits to the island. Out of its rich, meandering course a myth takes shape involving the parents and grandparents who lived at a time when Ceylon was still "only forty miles to Paradise." They traveled in a group in which "everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burger blood in them." Having little to do with the English --borrowing only their pride and the best of their culture--who were seen as "transients, snobs and racists," they were also oblivious to Ceylonese natives less fortunate than themselves. As late as 1971 when a nationalist rebellion shook the island, they stood calmly in the wings, pausing only to play a game of cricket with a group of young soldiers who had entered the family estate to collect guns.
Life, for this group, was a strange blend of innocence and decadence. Its members were capable of a refinement of manner and emotion lost forever to the modern era. Ondaatje's grandfather regularly went to England to purchase crystal and learn the latest dance steps. And at Nuwara Eliva, the family's mountain retreat in the hot season, they "danced to the music of a Bijou-Moutrie piano while log fires crackled in every room, or on quiet evenings read books on the moonlit porch." But life was not always so genteel. Gambling, the author discovers, "was the only occupation that could hope to divert one from drink and romance." The insouciant romancing was unmitigated by critical self-consciousness: "The men wore tweed, the women wore their best crinolines. After the races they would return to Ambalanquda, pick up oysters which 'we swallowed with wine if we lost or champagne if we won.' Couples then paired off casually or with great complexity and danced in a half- hearted manner to portable gramophones beside the cars. . . . The men leaned their chins against the serene necks of women . . . slid oysters into their partner's mouths. The waves collected champagne corks . . . Deeper inland at midnight, the devil dances began, drums portioned the night . . . Love affairs rainbowed over marriages and lasted forever."
In reality, this is a mythology exaggerated and edited by the survivors. Seduced by the wealth and luxury of its imaginative reality, Ondaatje enters the myth without disturbing it. With a prose style equal to the voluptuousness of his subject and a sense of humor never too far away, Running in the Family is sheer reading pleasure.
The shortcoming of Ondaatje's method, however, becomes apparent when he turns to his father in an attempt to go beyond myth and enter an actual life. One of the book's pleasures is indeed the way the narrative gravitates and finally zeros in on his father. But once having arrived, nothing much can be done. Ondaatje has spent too much time setting up the father as Cambridge dilettante, comandeerer of trains, and savage drinker. To begin to qualify, to produce a compassionate and devoted family man, a founding member of the Ceylon Cactus and Succulent Society, is too much. In the end we are left with only confused notions about the father's downfall, and the author's resignation at life's irresolution: "He is still one of those books that we long to read whose pages remain uncut."
Neither does Running in the Family leave us with an understanding of the author. Seduced by his material, Ondaatje becomes the lyrical recorder, hard-pressed to get his own story in edgewise. He has confessed that in reading Lear, "he longs for the moment when Edgar reveals himself to Gloucester but it never happens." In fact this father and son do reveal themselves to each other--only the moment occurs offstage. The father-son relationship in Running in the Family is central, and yet the unmasking never really comes. This is a serious flaw, but one that does not depreciate the author's virtuoso use of language, beguiling subject matter, and a laudable habit of continuing to break new ground.