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Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works

Jean-Michel Lacroix

Lying in the Family: The True Historical Life of Michael Ondaatje

Karen I. Press


Cet article analyse la façon dont Michael Ondaatje a réussi à préserver son intimité alors que sa célébrité dans les cercles littéraires canadiens atteint des proportions fabuleuses. Running in the Family illustre parfaitement cette stratégie qui consiste à mélanger à dessein la sphère du public et celle du privé. Ondaatje parvient à passer pour un personnage “extravagant” et “romantique” sans rien dévoiler ou presque de sa vie privée.

Texte intégral

1Michael Ondaatje has become a kind of cultural icon in the little world of Canadian letters. While his reputation has been largely created by his talent and success, his “back story,” if you will, has contributed a fascinating Personal mythology. He is the best of every world. An exotic Torontonian. A postmodern patriarch. A famous recluse. He has nothing on the J.D. Salingers of the world, to be sure, but he has managed to become the centre of attention while still being known as a “private writer.” And it is crafty business, an illusionist’s trick through which Ondaatje distracts his loyal reading public with red herrings so succulent that we spend so much time savouring them we lose his trail. His 1982 book, Running in the Family, is the prime example of this trick. In the afterword to the New Canadian Library edition of the book, Nicole Brossard writes that the book’s “magic... holds at an equal distance both the true and the false” (181). While in all his work on historical figures Ondaatje employs a sly mixture of documented fact, educated speculation and pure fantastical invention, and he often inserts himself into these works, only in Running in the Family does he throw traditional autobiographical cues, and by no means haphazardly, into the mix. Ondaatje can have a fascinating reputation, while at the same time maintaining his privacy because he deliberately confuses truth and fiction, and public and private spheres of knowledge. Running in the Family magnifies this technique by telling so much in its flamboyancy and autobiographical cues, but keeping so much at a distance from the reader in its fictionalization and its very deceptive “authenticity.”

2The first biography of Ondaatje to have come out-unauthorized, of course--is Ed Jewinski’s 1994 Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Anyone who has read this book will know that from an academic point of view it is a quick read, to say the least. It is largely useless to anyone looking for literary/critical insight, being as it is composed mainly of well-known information, and its prime source seeming to be, other than public knowledge, interviews with Ondaatje’s ex-wife—a dubious source on which to rely so heavily. The book is composed of short segments recounting the events of his life, segments with titles such as “The Stolen Bride,” “Shootout at the Western Coral,” and “Potshots.” Not to denounce it too much, however; in the style of the writing alone, not to mention the content and documentation, it is apparently not aimed at an academic audience. I would be interested to know, however, if at any point it was intended to be so but was foiled by the difficulty of gathering “facts” about Ondaatje. Jewinski begins the book with what is essentially an explanation of, almost an apology for, the gossippy, severely unauthorized State of his book, telling the reader how Ondaatje refused his request for help, how, because of Ondaatje’s propensity for making up facts about himself, “Even his date and place of birth are difficult to establish” (10). He finally has to rely on the word of Kim Ondaatje, his ex-wife, to establish even the “facts” of his birth. He cites the Canadian Who’s Who biographical entry which States that Michael Ondaatje is a dog breeder—of a kind of dog which doesn’t exist. (This entry is quoted more ironically by Doug Barbour as an epigraph to his own critical book on Ondaatje). He seems to delight in showing up the lies in Ondaatje’s work, when he has the information: that Lalla in Running in the Family certainly did not die of drowning (20), for example. Jewinski refers to her “factual” death by alcohol poisoning as the “brutal truth” (20), as if Ondaatje’s book is meant to hide the “facts” with an amusing tale.

3The biographer brackets the whole book with reminders of Ondaatje’s deviousness and seclusiveness, letting us know at the end of the book that although Ondaatje’s papers are held by the National Library of Canada, no one is allowed to consult them without the author’s express written permission-the implication being that it is very difficult to consult them at all.

4In “The Alphabet of the Self: Generic and Other Slippages in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family,” Smaro Kamboureli notes about Running in the Family that it “engages in a paradoxically and seemingly redundant activity, for what he discloses... is already public property” (86), a situation oddly similar to the plight of Jewinski’s biography. Kamboureli States that “Running the Family is not, in fact cannot be, autobiography” (81). Rather it invokes autobiography in order to “deconstruct the autobiographical privileging of self-referentiality” (81). However, in large part due to this autobiographical privileging, the book is usually categorized as autobiography by “consensus”, “by default because it is largely about Michael Ondaatje” (Kamboureli 80-1). I once worked in a bookstore in which the other clerks and I had an ongoing war about the genre of Running in the Family. To them, it looked like a novel, and every time I moved it to the biography section, they would move it back. To me, an aspiring English major, the book was autobiography by reputation, and even now it is hard for me to think of it differently. As Linda Hutcheon writes in reference to Running in the Family, in the end it is always the reader who determines a book’s genre (303). I am not here to argue, however, about the “genre” of Running in the Family, it has been argued to death by literary critics and bookstore clerks alike. It can’t be denied it has something to do with the autobiographical: it is, at least loosely, based on the lives Michael Ondaatje and his family; despite the book’s postmodern ambiguousness, the writer places himself in this text more visibly, more recognizably, more conventionally, even, than in any of his other books. As Barbour writes, the book’s ambiguous genre “simultaneously allows and denies conventional readings” (136).

5It is not necessarily “unconventional” for an autobiography to contain a wide assortment of stretched truths, deliberate omissions and even downright fibs. Running the Family becomes unconventional in the extent of its embroidery. Ondaatje writes in his famous acknowledgements section: “If all those listed above disapprove of the fictional air I apologize and can only say that in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts“(176). The adjective “well-told” is important: Ondaatje can lie stretched across genres because he can get away with it. The acknowledgements refer not only to the book’s “fictional air,” but also to its “air of authenticity” (176). That the author can use two such contradictory phrases in subsequent sentences, in reference to his own book, shows the extent to which the reader is being confused. While admitting confabulation, Ondaatje still takes great pains to create a documentary air, just as he has done in other works, particularly in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The invocation of documents is particularly forceful here, however, since it is combined with the apparent authenticity inherent in the self-referential mode. The emphasis on reading and documentation in Running in the Family has been remarked on at length: it refers to, among other things, judicial records, botanical journals, atlases, maps, graffiti poems, and newspaper clippings. The physicality of the documents is emphasized: the narrator stands on words carved in a stone floor, copies information from one writing medium to another, washes “the deep grey colour of old paper dust” (57) off his hands. Insects eat through photographs and books.

6The narrator of Running in the Family acknowledges that his quest to understand his family and his father is an invasion of privacy (42-3). By extension, the reader is another willing invader: Barbour writes that the book “catches” its readers “as voyeurs, gossip lovers” and that “we can only go on reading by admitting our complicity with the writer in this unearthing of the whole story“(151). In an interview with Catherine Bush, Ondaatje says that the oral culture of his childhood which he tries to invoke in both the form and content of Running in the Family, involved “people one-upping each other at a dinner table or someone retelling or inventing an outrageous rumour “(239). Gossip is central to Running in the Family. In the same interview he continues that the documentary cannot be ignored because it is so central to our everyday lives (243). “Gossip” is a similarly important textual obsession and life force. It is a fascinating intersection of public and private: “good” gossip must be about the most intimate details of individual lives. Gossip can be used as a weapon, with a specific purpose. It changes subtly from person to person. It can be deliberately invented. It can be “true” or “false,” documented or undocumented. It is often entertaining. Ondaatje includes a variety of gossip in Running in the Family, from the “grinning and chattering” (65) natives Edward Lear writes of, to the racetrack scandal sheet, “The Searchlight” (39-40). There is of course the story of the resthouse visitor books, a “literary war,” he writes, which “broke so many codes that for their first time in Ceylon history pages had to be ripped out of visitors’ books... ruining a good archival history“(126). Greg Ratcliffe claims that with this section Ondaatje shows how “a ‘private’ history is removed from its intrusive position in the public record” (21). Perhaps, then, gossip is not meant to be written, not meant to be documentary? In being written, has it crossed some boundary? Is Ondaatje trying to reclaim gossip as a valid form of public knowledge about private lives? Rather, I think Ondaatje uses gossip, necessarily in a written form, as one of his tools of confusing the public and the private. He uses it, like autobiography, to call attention to itself.

7If someone were to write a Running-in-the-Family-esque fictionalized biography of Michael Ondaatje, there is already ample material both “true” and “false.” While Jewinski had a hard time coming up with factual material for his biography, a fictionalized one could be highly entertaining, while subtly examining the phenomenon of Michael Ondaatje as cultural myth, believing all gossip, extrapolating wildly from his work, blowing his “scandals” out of proportion. The book would document the rise and fall of family fortunes, varying accounts of the circumstances surrounding his first marriage, all the drunken female undergraduates who have called up their professors in the middle of the night looking for his phone number. As a character he could lie compulsively, be morbidly obsessed with violence and gore, come to blows with Diefenbaker, and cavort with starlets. The importance of mythology in Ondaatje’s work has been widely commented upon; George Elliott Clarke writes that Ondaatje’s work “dramatizes the creation and dissolution of myths” (18). It might be said that Ondaatje is a cultural mythology, and that his career dramatizes the creation and dissolution of myths. To an extent this is true of any prominent literary figure, but the fantastical myths in Ondaatje’s writing, combined with his mysterious secrecy and great success, aggravate his potential to be personally mythologized.

8Part of the myth is his perceived “exoticism.” Ondaatje describes the mapping of Ceylon as “growing from mythic shapes into eventual accuracy” (53)--giving the impression, at first, that he as a biographer of setting is beginning with mythic shapes which he will fashion into accuracy. But then he describes cartographical myths of Ceylon in all his poetic gusto, and writes of “the dark mad mind of travellers’ tales” (53). Running in the Family fits more accurately in this model: Ondaatje’s dark mad mind, his travel to Ceylon, his fantastic tales. The mythic grows into accuracy not because the fantastic stories are rejected, but because they are better understood for what they are. In a 1982 interview (Shapcott 65), Ondaatje mentions how he hates being categorized as “exotic,” so in making such flamboyant use of Orientalist discourse in Running in the Family, he must be doing it in a deliberate and calculated way. The reviews at the time noted the exoticism of the book, and the romanticization of the characters, but some also caught onto his crafty use of those modes. “Few other families are as collectively and individually eccentric; the author had a childhood that makes those of most readers unspeakably dull,” reads the Toronto Star review (Adachi). “So many questions are not asked” goes the Winnipeg Free Press, that even the wild drinking bouts and escapades of the author’s father begin to seem normal, and so become stand-ins for the impulses and extremes of any life. And that, at last, is what saves Running in the Family from being a lovely bit of exotica. (Hayward)

9Newspaper reviews go far in making the “reputation” of a book and its author. The reviews attribute a fantastic romantic exoticism not only to the book and its characters, but to the author, naturally assuming a conventional autobiographical mode. And that assumption only intensifies the reputation being made: the book becomes more romantic, more exotic, juicier, if it has behind it a romantic, exotic, and juicy individual. The second review I quoted does point out that the book obviously leaves things out, that it is missing the kind of commentary on alcoholism or class or colonialism that another book might include. But the reviewer also recognizes that it doesn’t have to ask those questions, because it is not that kind of book; below the entertainment value, it goes on, lies Ondaatje’s “very real search.” If the activities of the character of Mervyn Ondaatje “become stand-ins for the impulses and extremes of any life,” then the semi-fictional gossip of the book again encroaches on “reality,” and, most importantly, not necessarily on Mervyn Ondaatje’s or Michael Ondaatje’s “reality,” but the reader’s reality: the public reality.

10Ondaatje’s reputational association with the exotic and romantic is not limited to the immediate reaction to Running in the Family. Eleanor Wachtel, interviewing him right before he won the Booker Prize, represents a public need for him to be romantic. Teased with an exotic back story, to which he contributed in Running in the Family, not to mention fame and fortune, it is impossible to leave him well enough alone. After discussing the romanticism of the The English Patient, which Ondaatje denies, she persists in asking, “You yourself, I think, cut a romantic figure. Have you ever seen your life in romantic terms”? Ondaatje hees and haws and essentially complains about the conflation of art and life. But Wachtel still refuses to give up the point, coming back to it after his answer saying, “So from the outside, we can see you as romantic, but from inside, you know better.” Ondaatje replies, “That’s right” (261). So by this point in his career he concedes, grudgingly but politely, that the public might see him as a romantic figure. Compare this to the interview with Tom Shapcott ten years earlier in which he comes off rather bitter and annoyed saying, “they keep trying to put me into an ‘exotic’ category. Which I loathe. Its like being called “gothic.” I don’t think it actually means anything” (65).

11 In Running in the Family, Ondaatje does not claim that gossip is a superior way of knowing; rather, he uses gossip as a tool, as part of his technique of elaborately mixing public and private realms. In arguing about how Running in the Family is not really autobiography because it re-tells public events, Kamboureli writes that memory in Running in the Family threatens to scandalize the reader’s sense of decorum about public and private matters which already belong to collective memory. Public knowledge returns to the public when the writer recontextualizes and appropriates memories. Memories of language and of scandals further mythify the Ondaatje family. (87)

12Is Ondaatje then merely returning to the public what is already public? In fact, in embellishing and re-telling the gossip, from his authoritative, documentary-style, award-winning-writer’s point of view, he makes it even more public than before, at the same time as his fictionalization deceives the reader, pushing knowledge of individual lives further back into the private realm. “I still cannot break the code of how ‘interested in “or “attracted” they were to each other,” he writes in the section entitled “Tropical Gossip,” “Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us in the end nothing of Personal relationships” (42). Gossip is just as superficial as other forms of history, just as ”deceptive” a way of knowing. Barbour recognizes that the book wishes to “transcend” gossip but also “history”: “If history fails, he will have to invent, “he writes, “and that is what he does as the text accumulates” (142). It is not the “lies” that are the red herrings, but the “facts.” Invention provides an understanding that history, official or unofficial, cannot, because you are not led astray by its deceptive “authenticity.” This, he says in the Wachtel interview, is a good reason just to make things up. “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming,” he says. “Anyone who has listened to a politician or businessman knows you can make facts and figures say anything” (257). He also admits, however, that his fictionalizing can be deceptive for those who expect facts. “I showed what you had written to someone,” he has his sister saying in Running in the Family, “and they laughed and said what a wonderful childhood we must have had, and I said it was a nightmare” (151). He admits that his is only one point of view on events, that different interpreations of facts differ startlingly; he has to admit as much, for it is his own reason for not sticking to “facts” in the first place.

13There is a moment in Running in the Family which is simultaneously a turning point of the narrator’s search for understanding of his father and himself, and a key to the reader’s understanding of how the text works. The narrator realizes the difference between his father’s and his mother’s eccentricities: “it is from my mother’s side,” he writes, “that we got a sense of the dramatic, the tall stories, the determination to now and then hold the floor. The ham in us. While from my father, in spite of his temporary manic public behaviour, we got our sense of secrecy, the desire to be reclusive” (142). Out of that combination, then, comes Michael Ondaatje, with the easy ability to be the centre of so much literary attention-and the desire to be reclusive. Out of that combination also comes Running in the Family, a book both flamboyantly excessive in what it tells and deceptive in how it diverts the reader away from private lives. Ondaatje further contrasts his parents’ styles of reading: “my father swallowed the heart of books and kept that knowledge and emotion to himself. My mother read her favourite poems out loud, would make us read plays together and acted herself...” (142). Two functions of books, two possibilities for readers: the private function and the public function. At the beginning of the book, he says his impetus for writing it is “A perverse and solitary desire” (16). But this is at odds with the fact that the book has readers. “To publish” means “to make public,” but as Ondaatje writes in the introduction to Anthony Minghella’s screenplay of The English Patent, reading itself is an individual experience, as opposed to film, which, if I may digress, he writes is “doser to the simulated excitement of a soccer stadium” (xv), and which can work wonders in expanding the reputation and at least superficial public knowledge of a writer. W.H. Verhoeven writes that all of Ondaatje’s work, while obsessed with self-creation, contains the realization that “the self is unknowable and incommunicable” (25), whether that self is historical or autobiographical. “The work also lies,” Verhoeven continues, “between the unavoidable creation of a public, writer’s self (as part of the communicative process involving author, text, and reader), and the need to protect his private, ‘author’s self” (25). It could be said that all literary writing--at least that with a reader--exists in this nether-region between not saying enough and giving too much away. Running in the Family as fictionalized autobiography hones in on this inevitable paradoxical position, bringing the reader into the secret heart of the text while keeping him or her away with lies and treachery.

14Another passage of Running in the Family compares family history to Shakespearean tragedy:

During certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our job becomes to keep peace with enemy camps, eliminate the chaos at the end of Jacobean tragedies and with “the mercy of distance” Write the histories. Fortinbras. Edgar. Christopher, my sister, Wendy, myself. I think all of our lives have been terribly shaped by what went on before us. (152)

15Here Ondaatje writes about how we are “shaped” by history, but does so in reference not to history, but to literature--because he knows we are also shaped by the “fictions” that went before us, and still surround us. Running in the Family clearly admits its debt to literature, along with history and gossip: it is rife with allusions and intertexts, Shakespeare being only one. History, such as Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation, becomes literature, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Literature then makes its way back into history, like all the “signed first editions” in the bookshelves Ondaatje climbed upon as a child, of which he writes, “All this was here before I dreamed of getting married, having children, wanting to Write” (174). And so Michael Ondaatje as a historical public figure and as a spinner of tales, will continue to shape us; despite, or perhaps because of, his sly evasion of too much public exposure, I believe his life and writing, his “truths” and his “fictions,” will only continue to be conflated into a “myth” of Michael Ondaatje.


Works Cited

Adachi, Ken. “A Memoir Illuminated by Imagination.” Rev. Running in the Family. Toronto Star 9 Oct. 1982: F10.

Barbour, Doug. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Brossard, Nicole. Afterword. Trans. Sally Livingston. Ondaatje, Running in the Family, 1993.179-82.

Clarke, George Elliott. “Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature canadienne 16:1 (1991): 1-21.

Hayward, Judith. “Amazing Autobiography.” Rev. Running in the Family. Winnipeg Free Press 23 Oct. 1982: 48.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Running in the Family: The Postmodernist Challenge.” In Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Ed. Sam Solecki. Montréal: Véhicule, 1985.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Toronto: ECW, 1994.

Kamboureli, Smaro. “The Alphabet of the Self: Generic and Other Slippages in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family.” In Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature. Ed. K.P. Stich. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1988.79-91.

Ondaatje, Michael. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” With Tom Shapcott. Westerly 27:1 (Mar. 1982): 65-69.

---. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” With Eleanor Wachtel. ECW 53 (Summer 1994): 250-61.

---. Introduction. The English Patient: A Screenplay. By Anthony Minghella. Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje. New York: Hyperion, 1996. xv-xviii.

---. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” With Catherine Bush. ECW 5 3 (Summer 1994): 238-249.

---. Running in the Family. New Canadian Library. Toronto: M&S 1993 [1982].

Ratcliffe, Greg. “Archives and Anecdotes: History and Auto/biography in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family.” New Literatures Review 26 (Winter 1993): 19-30.

Verhoeven, W.M. “Playing Hide and Seek in Language: Michael Ondaatje’s Historiography of the Self.” American Review of Canadian Studies 24:1 (Spring 1994): 21-38.


Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999

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