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In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje uses motifs, syntax, and analogies in order to create a mythic Ceylon and convey his fragmented identity through the fate of history. By employing a sarcastic and ironic tone, he creates an analogy between what people in the past did to Ceylon and what he is doing in the memoir; he is making a “chart” of his father.
Ondaatje first uses the motifs of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and what is lost in translation to highlight that subjective reality precedes objective reality. While thinking about Ceylon during his time in Toronto, he introduces the motif of in-between-ness and hybridity, emphasizing that he is stuck between the two worlds: Ceylon and Canada. He combines the fragmented syntax with “old portraits” (2-3) as a metaphor to “false maps” (2) in order to emphasize these motifs. The motifs of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and what is lost in translation are also highlighted through the paradox of “rumors of topography” (19); the paradox is that since topography is science, how can there be rumors? Ondaatje uses what these maps project to give power to the subjective truth and to undermine facts and objective truth. The motifs of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and what is lost in translation are later combined with the motif of what it means to be a foreigner. Ondaatje uses these aspects of his narrative to show that truth is based on perception, and that the course of history fragments his and his family’s identity. He also combines these motifs with allusions of mythic images to justify his own mythmaking. Using the images of “satyrs” (17) and a “cherub” (9), Ondaatje creates magical realism to juxtapose the Greek mythical creature and Asian images, thus highlighting the hybridity and in-between-ness motifs. Together, these motifs are what allow Ondaatje to create his own mythmaking, and to therefore be able to create his own fiction and ultimately know his father.
Ondaatje also uses syntax to highlight his fragmented and hybrid identity; his authorial devices also fragment time and space in the memoir. By using the fragment sentence “the island seduced all Europe. The Portuguese. The Dutch. The English. And so its name changed…” (22-23), Ondaatje personifies Ceylon as a starkly seductive woman, highlighting the fact that his memoir is a postcolonial commentary. This excerpt also echoes back to the title, “Tabula Asiae” (1), which means blank slate; Ondaatje uses it sarcastically, to criticize the colonizers who only saw what they wanted to see in Ceylon and made what they wanted of the land. The repetition of the fragmented syntax also develops the construction of identity motif. The fragmentary syntax here is used to describe Ceylon. However, when Ondaatje explains the name “Ondaatje. A parody of the ruling language” (34-35), he uses the fragmentary syntax to describe himself and his family. The fragment sentences reflect Ondaatje and his family’s fractured, hybrid identities. He emphasizes that even at the core of his identity, his name is a hybrid. The final sentence of one early passage reads, “here. At the center of the rumor. At this point on the map” (36-37). These final fragment sentences once again reflect Ondaatje and his family’s fractured, hybrid identities. They quickly take us from the distant past to the present, fracturing time and space. All of these fragment sentences set up the analogy that Ondaatje makes regarding the colonizers and himself; Ondaatje is to the European colonizers as his and his family’s fractured, hybrid identities are to Ceylon.
Lastly, Ondaatje uses analogy to compare what people in the past did to Ceylon and what he is doing in the memoir; he is making a “chart” of his father. The list of names that he at one point provides, “Ptolemy, Mercator, Francois Valentyn, Mortier, and Heydt” (5-6), serves as an allusion to important contributors to geography and cartography. Yet Ondaatje believes that he is considering “false maps” (2), since they are illustrations of what the colonizers saw and made of Ceylon. However, false maps “[grew] from the mythic shapes into eventual accuracy” (6-7). Ondaatje uses this analogy to explain that such approximate “mapmaking” is what people of the past have done to Ceylon and what he is doing in the memoir. He is creating his own fiction through disregarding objective truth and giving power to the subjective truth, thus “charting” a map of his father through his family. Through the construction of identity motif developed by the fragmented syntax, Ondaatje creates an analogy between Ceylon and his own fragmented identity, emphasizing that his identity is fractured just like Ceylon due to the fate of history. Using the analogies, Ondaatje justifies his actions of creating his own fiction through the memoir in an attempt to achieve self-integration by knowing his father. Since Ceylon only “pretended to reflect each European power” (29), Ondaatje’s paralleled identity only “pretended” (29) to achieve or to be able to achieve self-integration, thus placing ambiguity on the actions of Ondaatje in attempting to achieve the impossible.
Through motifs, syntax, and analogies, Michael Ondaatje attempts to achieve the impossible task of self-integration by knowing his father. He emphasizes that subjective truth precedes objective truth in mythmaking. By envisioning a mythical Ceylon, he creates his own myth in the memoir. However, the question of whether or not he achieved his goal of fully establishing that myth remains ambiguous and unanswered.
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