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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

I wanted to touch them into words

By Gesse Stark-Smith

My senior year of high school I took a comparative literature class that introduced me to some of my favorite authors and that is a gift not easily matched. The course opened up a new world for me and I have continued steadily to read my way through that world.
Sheltered 17 year-old that I was, wandering around with my nose jammed in a Hercule Poirot mystery, I’d had little exposure to modern international fiction. The freshness of voice and perspective was astounding. These were authors unafraid to loop off into the realm of the unreal, to play with experimental narrative structure or to write prose so dense any poet would be pleased. It’s hard to pick one favorite. Jhumpa Lahiri is definitely in the running, what with her sharp observations and lyric sense of humor. Haruki Murakami makes an even stronger bid for the title and “The Second Bakery Attack” is definitely in my top five all time best short stories. But if I had to choose just one author from the inspiring slew that we read it would have to be Michael Ondaatje.

Ondaatje is a versatile writer, having published novels, collections of poems and a couple of books that are somewhere in between (I bet you can guess how I feel about those). In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient are beautiful novels but Running in the Family, as Ondaatje’s most personal book, perhaps best exhibits the full range of his skills as poetic observer, chronicler of history and supreme storyteller. In this trim volume Ondaatje describes his trip back to his native Sri Lanka after many years of living abroad.

As he travels through his home country, he pieces together the history of his family and his own memories of his former life. His approach is nonlinear, mirroring the process of remembering that it documents.
He accesses that which he is trying to convey from many angles, interlacing a first person recount of his activities in Sri Lanka with a semi-removed narration of the varied adventures of his relatives. The book is divided into small sections, which consist of anything from a single poem to a chapter-length story to a few paragraphs of an old relative’s recollections.

The result is rich with the pathos of nostalgia and gives you the urge to transport yourself back in time to finally understand where you come from. As Ondaatje tries to fit the pieces of his past into some kind of coherent narrative, it becomes clear that the past is not something we can ever get an accurate picture of; rather it is in the attempt to understand it that we finally come to grips with our own identities. Personal history includes not only the facts but also all the conflicting accounts of the facts. Each event could have happened so many ways and these possibilities are just as revealing as any actuality.

“In the end all your children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues. Not that we ever thought we would be able to fully understand you. Love is often enough, towards your stadium of small things. Whatever brought you solace we would have applauded. Whatever controlled the fear we all share we would have embraced.”

Immigrants perhaps most keenly feel the quest for an identity constructed out of history, but it is one that calls to all of us. In Running in the Family Michael Ondaatje illustrates the limits of this quest with great empathy, using some of the most freshly evocative language you’re likely to come across.

Vintage International, 1982. 207 pages.

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