Shelf Life
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Shelf Life: Running In The Family by Michael Ondaatje

Reading this little book while making my way through Singapore/Malaysia gives me the particular feels. Perhaps it is because, Michael Ondaatje’s nostalgia is present in his words, constrained and self-aware, but present nonetheless.

Ondaatje’s ability to draw out an image across pages is what made me a fan of his writing to begin with. In fiction, this grounds his narratives in place, and also turns place into a character in his stories.

Similarly, with Running in the Family, the sounds, scents, and sights of Sri Lanka pervade Ondaatje’s journey, memory, and also retelling of family history. Place and character bleed into each other, like Lalla, whose life becomes inextricable from the beauty and chaos of Sri Lankan climate (from “The Passions of Lalla“ chapter).

Throughout the memoir, Ondaatje allows communal voice to tumble into the pages, overlapping and contradicting: telling narratives that are the same and yet not the same, that are chronologically confused; detailed like cracking paint (the “Dialogues” Chapter).

The cacophony of voices points to the memoir’s reconstruction of memory and history, and the artifice of his endeavour. What do you, after all, do with three versions of a story, all claiming to be the same story, and yet not telling the same thing?

Well you end up with “Lunch Conversation”—one of the more memorable chapters in the book for me—leaving a quiet impression of how something like truth doesn’t always mean a spotless memory. Truth sits somewhere in the mix of voices of speaking together, arguing over what actually happened. The family members Ondaatje never knew or can no longer remember, emerge in the text this way.


The “Monsoon Notebook” chapters are my personal favourites in the book. They present an unfiltered voice, broken thoughts reorganized into something like stream of consciousness, yet bringing attention to the way a writer gathers thoughts, sentence fragments and images together before reshaping them into a narrative; into meaning.

Running in the Family also is the first place where Ondaatje’s famous poem, “The Cinnamon Peeler” appears. Reading it in the context of the memoir is significant, as the poem takes on the strong sense of place that the memoir has. It is a sensibility that gets lost a little (I think) when the poem reappears in Secular Love.

Ondaatje also inserts a poem by Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, excerpted here:

“Dont talk to me about Matisse…
the European style of 1900, the tradition of the studio
where the nude woman reclines forever
on a sheet of blood

Talk to me instead of the culture generally—
how the murderers were sustained
by the beauty robbed of savages: to our remote
villages the painters came, and our white-washed
mud-huts were splattered with gunfire.”

It’s an arresting poem. I pause to go back and re-read it over and over because of how much ferocity is churning in the words. It is a fierce rage that deviates from Ondaatje’s own words, but sandwiched in his memoir, seems to charge Ondaatje’s words with a bit of a bite.

The short, last chapter that closes the book is a full-blown dive into nostalgia. But it is a nostalgia fuelled by his body grounded in a present. The past sits just out of reach, behind the materiality of the moment he is in, and Sri Lanka is a veil, fluttering between what Ondaatje is looking for and where Ondaatje is. It is moving and sad, but it is also enough.

“Half an hour before light I am woken by the sound of rain. Rain on wall, coconut, and petal. This sound above the noise of the fan. The world already awake in the darkness beyond the barred windows as I get up and stand here, waiting for the last morning.
My body must remember everything, this brief insect bite, smell of wet fruit, the slow snail light, rain, rain and underneath the hint of colours a sound of furious wet birds whose range of mimicry includes what one imagines to be large beasts, trains, burning electricity.”

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