Analysing the passage ‘Asia’
Analysing the passage ‘Asia’
Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the family is a very heart-touching account of how much he wants to travel to his motherland and relive his childhood which he missed. Each passage describes how he is connected somewhere to his past and craves for getting more connected to it. Though he has been living in Canada and evolved as a usual resident of the country but in his heart, but he is imbued in the memories with his family, motherland, trees, forests, animals and the essence of being connected to Ceylon or Sri Lanka. His emotions and nostalgia brims over the words as he describes incidents from his past and talks about how wonderful though different from Canada his country is. He shows a special respect for the continent ‘Asia’ in the opening passage. This essay illuminates a particular passage named ‘Asia’ from the story Running in the family and its significance in the life of the narrator. Also, it presents an analysis of the passage and the story on whole in terms of tone, themes and techniques.
Why ‘Asia’ seems aesthetic to narrator
The entire story rotates around the central theme of ‘nostalgia for motherland and childhood’. As the author belongs originally to Sri Lanka in Asia, he has a special place in his heart for the continent. He has shown his preference and love for the word ‘Asia’ alone in a way which gives
a glimpse of how much love he holds for the place in reality. He asserts that there is something in the word Asia which makes it sound beautiful. He describes it as a gasp from a dying mouth (Ondaatje, Page 6). He has very innocently compared its simplicity with the names of other places like Europe, America and Canada which seem to have a ‘clipped sound’ (Ondaatje, Page 6). He has very poignantly put the pronunciation in a metaphoric description that the vowel seem to take over and sleep on the map with ‘S’ (Ondaatje, Page 7). This emphasis on the beauty and peace of the name alone shows that somewhere deep within this resident of Canada, lives a complete Asian at heart. There is appreciation and love, with a tint of partiality against the names of other places is all a manifestation of nostalgia, his home sickness for his motherland. This is the part of opening of the story very rightly because it gives an insight into what lies ahead in the story- an emotional description of a man’s nostalgia for his country and above all, family. Also, there is a short description of some other important passages in the story.
Michael Ondaatje has used excellent narrative technique to keep the reader or listener imbued in the spirit of the story. He has very freshly begun with a dream of his motherland which he sees at a background of a Canadian house where he is sleeping after getting drunk. He tells that he was told by a friend that when drunk, he knew best what he wanted to have. And in this sleepy, drunken state, it was the memories of family and motherland which reverberated within the narrator. He has clearly indicated that it’s his childhood and being a Ceylon man which he wanted so badly. He has narrated his state so poignantly when he indicates that the memories of his family are in his mind like a ‘frozen opera’ (Ondaantje, Page 6). He also explains that he has planned the journey back already (Ondaantje, Page 6) which shows that in the deep caverns
of his mind, it’s the desire to go back which reigns all the time.
The Negative Review
Some reviewers do not find Running in the family to be a very impressive or compelling work to study for it is dominated with emotions only. It has been reviewed as being ‘too ahistorical, too sentimentally focused on the private and the familial, that it doesn’t situate the story of the author's family within the wider framework of Sri Lanka's colonial and postcolonial history’ (Paul, 2003). It is true that there is constant focus of nostalgia and the context gets limited to family only (Paul, 2003). But then, it is the personal choice of the author to decide the central theme of his story. The reviewers do not approve of that in the rest of the story (other than ‘Asia’), there is a slight context of colonialism and history but it has not been optimised (Paul, 2003).
Tone, theme and technique
This book can be called a sentimental account of a man’s life- what he was, how he missed his childhood and craves to relive it, how he is haunted with the memories of his childhood and wants to get back to his motherland. The opening passage ‘Asia’ very well builds a context for the entire story to come. One can find certain elements in this story- a subtle comparison between the Western and Eastern world. In ‘Asia’, he has indicated it through the peace in the sounds of ‘Asia’, ‘Canada’, ‘Europe’ and ‘America’. By calling the names of places other than Asia to be having clipped sounds metaphorically presents how he relates chaos to West and peace to East by relating ‘Asia’ to be like a gasp from a dying mouth and a sound as if it can never be linked to a ‘battle cry’ (Ondaatje, Page 6). By mentioning the battle cry, he has very subtly indicated that he relates West to wars or causes of war but Asia to peace and serenity
only. He has clearly shown his reference for East without directly criticising the West.
It is a point to note that through this passage alone, he has given a preface of the tone and tenor in the rest of story to come. E.g. his extreme concern with the memories of his family is shown when he normally tells ‘floods’ to be a natural cause behind the death of her grandmother (Ondaatje, Page 7). Floods are very common in the Asian lands where rivers are found. Especially, the author has related this to his Sri Lankan place where the forests and rivers are a part of the life. He has shown an innate relationship with nature in his descriptions.
One more characteristic that one can see in this passage is the emotional upsurge of finding one’s true identity no matter if it’s late or not. “It was a new Winter and I was already dreaming of Asia (Ondaatje, Page 5)”- this shows the emotional upsurge of a countryman in him. As he starts feeling strongly about his motherland, it becomes a new Winter for him, a new beginning. He has also accentuated the fact that in his mid-thirties, he is thinking about the childhood he lost and could not live to fullest; he plans to live it back in a way by getting back to Asia, to his Ceylon and feel the memories (Ondaatje, Page 6).
The prodigal who hates foreigner
In another passage, he has given a statement- “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner (Ondaatje, Page 79)” Through this he strongly expresses how he feels about being in a different country, where he is a foreigner. He originally is an Asia, from a small, developing country like Sri Lanka who has settled in Canada. So, he is a foreigner. Most people feel proud to live in developed countries and are willing to gain the citizenship of the big countries. But the author has called himself ‘prodigal’ here. He is different than others here. He wants to go back. He hates being a foreigner. This is one of the most important statements given by him in the
story which describes how thinks differently than the usual ‘fame-seeking’ people. It shows his sincere love for his motherland.
A Glimpse at other passages
There are several other passages in this story which further expands the emotions and aspirations shown in the passage ‘Asia’. ‘Harbour’ (Ondaatje, Page 133-134) very emotionally expresses how the author loved the harbour of his Ceylonian coast and relates it to the memories of his mother and sister bidding him goodbye. ‘How I was bathed’(Ondaatje, Page 137-139)- the title itself shows the intimate connection in the author’s mind to his childhood. It gives an account how he was bathed before getting ready for school. The intimate relationship which the narrator has with the country and its forests, seas and animals is shown in Monsoon Notebook I, II and III (135-136). His relationship with his father has been shown subtly in passages titled as ‘The Bone’, ‘the Blind Faith’ and ‘Thanikama’. There are heart-rending accounts of love and memories for the family and the author is echoing with it, willing to relive the lost moments.
This memoir might have received not so good reviews by some reviewers and readers due to lack of historical and colonial context (Paul, 2003). But when judged from the emotional point of view, it is a very well-written account of events and feelings which makes one nostalgic. There is use of brilliant narrative techniques, appealing metaphors and perfect tone and tenor to convey a story which speaks of emotions. And the passage chosen for analysis here- ‘Asia’ is a perfect one to read and begin with as it prepares the reader for further journey by giving an insight of the emotional and nostalgic quotient to come ahead. In one line, it is a story worth reading to see how a Canada based Sri Lankan keeps dreaming of his family and motherland with memories.
- Ondaatje, Michael. “Running in the family”. 1983. New Edition in 2009.
- Paul, Jay. “Memory, Identity and Empire in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family”, Presented at the Midwest Modern Language Association, November 2003. Retrieved from Web on 10 Apr 2013 http://home.comcast.net/~jay.paul/ondaatje.htm