'Mute Dialogues': Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family and the Language of Postmodern Pastoral

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Editor: Thomas J. Schoenberg
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,583 words

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[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Giltrow and Stouck discuss Michael Ondaatje's novel Running in the Family as a postmodern pastoral and provide an analysis of the major stylistic shift near the end of the book.]


As we begin reading Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, we encounter an italicized, untitled fragment that is not announced in the book's 'contents.' The narration is in the third person and proceeds elliptically, sometimes by means of sentence fragments. In focus for a moment is a man who has returned in a season of drought to the tropical landscape of his childhood. The speaker describes this man waking from a nightmare in which the vegetation attempts to suck all the moisture from his body, and brings into focus his sensations of the bedroom and the exotic garden outside barred windows. Then the writing stops at the bottom of the page with the line "Half a page--and the morning is already ancient" (17). As readers we are left to ask 'what page?' the half-page we have just read? And we ask, 'who has been speaking?' 'Is the speaker then a writer?' 'What is his status in relation to the sleeping man he has been describing?' 'Is this fiction?' We probably cannot answer these questions but what is foregrounded significantly in this half page of text is the issue of writing, and also the activity of reading, because the fragmented and evocative nature of what we have read demands our immediate participation in constructing a meaningful text from what is otherwise only sensation.

When we turn the pages and enter the first announced sequence of narrative, "Asia," we appear to be starting again, for the setting this time is Canada, in winter, and the narrator speaks to us in the first person. Again a sleeping man awakes from a tropical nightmare, but here the narrator and sleeper are one and if the first untitled fragment appeared to be fiction, the second entry feels more like a sequence from a personal memoir or autobiography, as the narrator describes his father at the centre of the dream, his own weeping, and inability to sleep further. The narrator's subsequent resolve to make a trip "back" to Ceylon introduces a specific generic possibility, that of travel narrative, or "running" as he obliquely phrases it. But again what is foregrounded is writing, here thematized when he says he will take this trip back to the landscape of his family because he wants "to touch them into words" (22).

The third sequence, "Jaffna Afternoons," is yet another beginning, for the narrator has now arrived in Ceylon and the family visits have started. But if genre boundaries seemed unstable in the first two sequences, they grow even more complicated and intricate in this third entry. Autobiography would seem to be confirmed when the narrator identifies himself as an Ondaatje,1 but genealogy then supplants travel writing, as the narrator's aunt and sister help him "trace the maze of relationships...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420083878