Ondaatje!

Just finished reading Micahel Ondaatje’s 1982 work Running in the Family… what an experience!

Had not heard of it, discovered it by accident while looking for his new book The Cat’s Table, which I’ve been meaning to read for some time, having read about five of his books and loved them… and am just speechless with wonder at the magic he does. This book, which I read over the weekend, has reached into nearly every part of my own heart and opened it up for better or worse, and now I’m feeling washed over. Burned clean. Nothing I can say can approach what this book opens up. It is truly a spiritual experience to read his work.

It really catches up the whole great thing of family… all the beauty and pain of it wrapped into one account. And so much more…

It’s also an intense look into the personal aspects of 20th Century colonial life, all the beauty and pain of that! It was like a vast flood that raised several generations of people up in this fantasy of aspirations and accomplishments and then just smashed them down into the rocks of reality. He has this wonderful, probably mostly allegorical, story of his grandmother’s death that depicts that so beautifully.

It is – one of the levels it touches – a rare clear look into the impact of Empire on the lives of the aristocracy in a country which was washed over by wave after wave of European colonialism. We generally know, if we have thought of the subject at all, that colonialism vastly degraded the lives of the poor and ordinary peoples of the world, but often I think we have wrongly assumed that the upper classes, the wealthy, the elite benefited from it.

In fact, as Ondaatje shows in his lyrical way, they were as devastated by Empire as any street beggar or farmer. A member of the Asian diaspora, he revisits his home country, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and delves deeply into his own family, his ancestors and contemporaries, their friends and enemies, revealing lives and families and a whole culture torn apart by the exotic influences of Dutch, English, and American invasions – peaceful, benign, courteous, even kind invasions though they were.

It’s a powerful account, with deep social, cultural and personal strains that I’m still sorting out.