Running in the Family: Chapter Notes ¡V Ceylon Cactus & Succulent Society

Thanikama ¡V Monsoon Notebook (iii)


¡§Thanikama¡¨ (185 ¡V 189)

¡P         This story echoes the extended description of Lalla¡¦s life in ¡¥The Passions of Lalla¡¦ and tells the story of Mervyn after his separation from Doris. He appears to feel lonely and abandoned: ¡§...after the meeting with Doris - tense, speaking in whispers in the hotel lobby - he would force himself to sit on the terrace overlooking the sea¡¨ (pg. 185)

¡P         There is a sense that Mervyn refuses to believe that Doris has really left him for good as he wants her to ¡§stop this posing at her work¡¨. He also appears desperate to speak to her and waits all day in the sun in a place where they could be alone if ¡§she changed her mind and came down to him¡¨

¡P         The title means ¡¥loneliness¡¦ and the section focuses on evoking a sense of pathos for the isolated Mervyn who ends the chapter staring aimlessly at the page of a book that is being carried away from him by an army of ants.

¡P         One quotation that effectively sums up Mervyn¡¦s sense of isolation is: ¡§Objects had stayed and people disappeared¡¨ (186)


Monsoon Notebook (iii) (190 ¡V 191)

¡P         As in the previous monsoon notebook chapters, this chapter is a series of descriptions of the environment surrounding Michael Ondaatje. The school exercise book that he is writing in seems to be the notebook that he has used to record his journeys through Ceylon and that holds the information that he has found out about his family.

¡P         The descriptions are largely of nature. There is a focus on earth, rain and wetness and the chapter finishes with ¡¥the garden a few feet away ¡K suddenly under the fist of a downpour¡¦ (191). The coming of rain in itself suggests the possibility of rebirth and renewal, which helps create an impression that Ondaatje¡¦s journey has been completed and that he has a better understanding of himself now that he can see who he is in the light of his origins. In addition, the almost magical feeling suggested by the fact that Ondaatje ¡¥actually saw¡¦ the sheet of rain fall from the sky ¡¥like an object past the window¡¦ creates the impression that Ondaatje has been granted a moment of rare insight and this is accentuated by the tone of wonder evident in the line ¡¥But I actually saw it.¡¦



Motifs, Symbols and Imagery

Mervyn continues to consume alcohol throughout this section, notably in ¡§Thanikama¡¨. He drinks beer (185), then brings cases of beer and gin to take back to Kegalle (186). Towards the end of the chapter, he also drunkenly looks at his reflection in the alcohol bottle. In contrast to its previous appearances in the memoir alcohol here has lost its earlier outrageous, gregarious and riotously funny connotations and instead the image of a lonely man drinking to drown his sorrows and unable to look at himself in the mirror evokes a clear sense of pathos.


Allusions to Shakespeare

Ondaatje¡¦s reference to Shakespeare may serve a number of purposes. At an obvious level the fact that Shakespeare¡¦s plays are described as ¡¥those plays of love that he wept over too easily¡¦ reinforces the image created here of Mervyn as isolated, broken and alone. However Ondaatje may also be continuing the post-colonial theme introduced earlier as the fact that the book ¡¥was not Shakespeare¡¦ partially echoes the title of the section ¡¥Don't Talk to me About Matisse¡¦ which is the section most obviously critical of the European powers that colonized Sri Lanka. This book may also be a reference to Mervyn¡¦s life which was most definitely not Westernised. Finally the fact that the book that the ants carry away is page 189 (the same page on which this section is actually written) reinforces the link between the book in the bathroom and the memoir that we are currently reading. Mervyn¡¦s lack of interest in this page of a book about him may reflect his lack of interest in his own life now that he has lost his family. Alternatively perhaps Ondaatje is trying to imply that while Mervyn¡¦s life did not possess the grandeur of a Shakespearean tragedy it is worth recording none-the-less and is tragic in its own way. There is also a further sadness in the implied (albeit impossible) connection that the father could have been reading the book that his son wrote and this is perhaps reflective of Ondaatje¡¦s desire to really understand and be understood by his father ¡V the sense that he has come close but will never quite be able to have the conversation with his father that he wants, just like Edgar and Gloucester in King Lear.





Post-modernism is most obviously suggested in ¡§Thanikama¡¨ in the section where Mervyn was in the bathroom and saw a ¡§whole battalion [of ants] carrying one page away from its source¡¨ (189). The fact that the page on which this section is written is page 189 perhaps suggests a blurring of the boundaries between the fictional and the real worlds and thus the post-modern idea that ¡¥reality¡¦ is little more than an agreed upon form of fiction. In this light we can see an interesting parallel between the text Ondaatje is writing and the real world in which he is living. In the acknowledgements, Ondaatje claims that his memoir is more a gesture than a portrait, which reveals that this text is a combination of fictional elaboration and real world information while in parallel the real world is a combination of real world detail and pseudo-textual interpretation.


Romanticisation of the Past

The romanticisation of the past is again evident in this section of the memoir as Mervyn¡¦s actions continue to be eccentrically unique, for example his ability to talk lucidly about the stars with the cinnamon peeler on the drive back from Colombo. However, towards the end of ¡§Thanikama¡¨, Mervyn gradually begins to reflect upon his life in a hopeless and melancholic way. In this way Ondaatje reinforces the impression that the glorious times which is father inhabited in the past are gone for good and he also evokes a sense of pathos as a result of the comparison between the life Mervyn used to live and the one he lives now. Alternatively we might argue that, by painting Mervyn in such a grand state of desolation, Ondaatje continues to romanticize his father as a man capable of truly reaching rock bottom and perhaps there is something romantic, although not attractive, about a man who can sink that low.



The fact that the title is left in untranslated Sinhalese (although a hint is given to us at the start of the next chapter) suggests how perhaps there are some ideas that cannot be truly expressed in English and that there is therefore a richness in Ceylon (and the Sinhalese language) that the colonizers cannot equal nor take away. The reference to the cinnamon peeler who Mervyn picks up on his drive home further reinforces the uniqueness of Ceylon as it echoes the poem in ¡¥Don¡¦t Talk to me About Matisse¡¦ which recongnises the importance of celebrating your cultural identity.



Mervyn Ondaatje

Through this section, readers identify immense changes in Mervyn¡¦s character. From being a reckless and seemingly irresponsible person, Mervyn reflects upon his past for a while. Specifically in ¡§Thanikama¡¨, Mervyn feels alone as he reminisces about the past and his ex-wife. However, some aspects of him still don¡¦t change, and he is clearly still dependent on alcohol ¡K only now, his use of alcohol seems to depress rather than enliven the mood and his character. The fact that Mervyn is drunk by the end of the chapter and ¡§saw himself with the bottle¡¨ creates a sense that he is reflecting on his life as if from a distance and can see how it has revolved around alcohol. The fact that he lost his ¡§book¡¨ (188), the book which is a memoir or record of his life, may suggest how he has lost interest in or control over his life. The fact that Mervyn ¡§surrendered [the page] to [the ants]¡¨ (189), clearly illustrates his hopelessness in Mervyn and the fact that he is ¡§scared of the company of the mirror¡¨ (189), shows how he is unwilling to confront the truth about himself. However, there is something tragic about this as, in order to avoid looking in the mirror, he must in some level already realize what he is going to see if he looks in it. Ultimately, the line ¡§objects had stayed and people disappeared¡¨ (186) suggests Mervyn¡¦s loneliness and his realization that he has lost the people that he loved from his past.



Narrative Style:

The chapter is written predominantly in a third-person narrative style however Ondaatje breaks this on page 188 when he writes from Mervyn¡¦s perspective in the line ¡§The bottle top in my mouth as I sit on the bed like a lost ship on a white sea.¡¨ The switch into first person not only accentuates the pathos created for Mervyn but also suggests that a connection now exists between Ondaatje and his father that wasn¡¦t there before and that Ondaatje can now, metaphorically, stand in his father¡¦s shoes and understand his feelings and actions. The fact that this comes so close to the end of the memoir contributes to the sense of resolution that we feel in this final chapter.


The omniscience of the narrator in this chapter echoes the omniscience in the ¡¥Passions of Lalla¡¦ as Ondaatje writes about things which he could not possibly have found out in his research. This clearly illustrates the fictionalized nature of this memoir and may suggest that Ondaatje celebrates his father in the same way that he celebrates Lalla. There is also a clear contrast between the grandeur of Lalla¡¦s intoxication and her final magnificent ride in the flood with the squalor and loneliness of Mervyn¡¦s alcoholism.


The narrative style of Monsoon Notebook (iii), like the earlier ¡¥notebooks¡¦, is a disjointed, diary-like, first person account of what seems to be Ondaatje¡¦s final night in Ceylon. The first person style helps to evoke this sense of realization and closure that has been reached at the end of Ondaatje¡¦s journey.



Relation of Part to Whole

The entire section seems to be the end of Ondaatje¡¦s quest to find out about his family. This section shows Mervyn in the full pathos of his isolation after his first wife has left him. The sense of despair and loneliness contrasts with the romanticised version of him that we see earlier in the memoir and helps to create a sense of closure, as if Ondaatje has come to a balanced understanding of what his father was like. The final vision of rainfall and the send of wonder at seeing something so rare also creates the impression that a greater understanding and sense of peace has been reached.