Running in the Family

Reviewed: August 30, 2007
By: written and narrated by Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
2 hours on 2 CDs, $24.95

This BTC Audio production is the abridged version of Ondaatje’s fairly slender memoir of his family’s life in Sri Lanka, which was known as Ceylon when the poet and novelist lived there and in England before coming to Canada in 1962. Ondaatje returned to the island nation twenty-five years after leaving it, and this memoir became the occasion for a kind of history of his family, and a kind of memoir of a time and place that no longer exists in quite that way.

It seems very quaint, the life that Ondaatje’s parents lived in the 1930s and 40s, a life filled with villas, beaches, tennis matches, jazz and a great deal of alcohol. While it does not seem that the family had any particular wealth, yet they attempted to live up to a style that said they did, and much of the book deals with their leisure time, where they gambled, drank gin and danced the tango in the moonlight.

Ondaatje’s father started out with a family fortune, but lost it through dissolute living. There are a number of strange stories about him here, including the time he took over an entire train, determined that there was a bomb aboard.

Ondaatje’s grandmother was an equally bizarre individual, and nothing about her could have been stranger than the way she died, carried along the streets of her town by the waters from a torrential flood and ending her life in the blue arms of a jacaranda tree.

This reading is spiced up a bit by snatches of jazz from that era, perhaps chosen as a substitute for the poems which fall between some of the chapters in the actual book. Ondaatje seems to have selected some of the longer passages from the book, which is filled with prose snapshots, so the narrative is not as obviously disconnected and out of time sync as it appears to be on the printed page.

Reading his own work, Ondaatje voice is flat and matter of fact, seldom working up much emotion, even as he reads of the terrific emotional upheavals in what appears to have been an extremely dysfunctional family. Despite this, I would have to say that the tone fits with the words, and I found myself falling more and more into the time and place as I listened.