Sunday, May 25, 2008

Family Storytelling in the Tropics

From Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, a memoir of family and the Dutch-Ceylonese in Sri Lanka. He has returned to Sri Lanka to reconnect with near and distant family, to hear and retell the stories that a family accumulates.

But I love the afternoon hours most. It is now almost a quarter to three. In half an hour the others will waken from their sleep and intricate conversations will begin again. In the heart of this 250-year-old fort we will trade anecdotes and faint memories, trying to swell them with the order of dates and asides, interlocking them all as if assembling the hull of a ship. No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgements thrown in. In this way history is organized. All day my Uncle Ned, who is heading a commission on race-riots (and so has been given this building to live in while in Jaffna), is at work, and all day my Aunt Phyllis presides over the history of good and bad Ondaatjes and the people they came in contact with. Her eye, which by now knows well the ceilings of this house, will suddenly sparkle and she will turn to us with delight and begin "and there is another terrible story . . .."

There are so many ghosts here. In the dark mildewed wing, where the rotting mosquito nets hang, lives the apparition of the Dutch governor's daughter. In 1734 she threw herself down a well after being told she could not marry her lover, and has startled generations since, making them avoid the room where she silently exhibits herself in a red dress. And just as the haunted sections are avoided for sleeping, the living room is avoided for conversation, being so huge that all talk evaporates into the air before it reaches the listener.

The dogs from the town, who have sneaked past the guards, are asleep on the porch - one of the coolest spots in Jaffna. As I get up to adjust the speed of the fan, they roll onto their feet and move a few yards down the porch. The tree outside is full of crows and white cranes who gurgle and screech. A noisy solitude - all the new stories in my mind and the birds totally compatible but screaming at each other, sweeping now and then over the heads of drowsy mongrels. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, pages 26-27

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