Running in the Family: Chapter Notes ¡V Don¡¦t Talk to me About Matisse, Part 1

 Tabula Asiae ¡V Sweet Like a Crow

Tabula Asiae (p. 63 ¡V 64)

¡P         The narrator talks about the ¡§false maps¡¨ on his brother¡¦s wall in Toronto, these maps are old portraits of Ceylon and the word ¡§portrait¡¨ suggests the maps are artistic representations and not records as they were created by ¡§sightings, glances from trading vessels, the theories of sextant¡¨

¡P         At the end of the chapter the narrator shifts his focus from the island of Ceylon to his family¡¦s history and the arrival of his first ancestor in Ceylon, describing how his family name was given to this ancestor as a reward for curing a king¡¦s daughter.


St. Thomas¡¦ Church (p. 65 ¡V 68)

¡P         Ondaatje travels to a local church to further investigate his family history where he discovers the Ondaatje name is engraved on the church¡¦s floor.

¡P         Ondaatje briefly introduces the four eccentric Ondaatje brothers of the late 1800s Simon, William, Matthew and Philip who could not talk to each other without arguing thus continuing this chronicle of a quirky family and their history


Monsoon Notebook (i) (p. 69 ¡V 71)

¡P         This is a notebook style series of seemingly random entries recording Ondaatjes actions, thoughts and reflections such as his  ¡§obsessional sarong buying¡¨

¡P         The setting of the notebook in the monsoon season where rainstorms that flood streets for an hour and suddenly evaporate and where walking for five seconds in the rain would leave you thoroughly soaked, gives this section a disjointed but quintessentially exotic, Sri Lankan feel.


Tongue (p. 72 ¡V 75)

¡P         Ondaatje walks along the beach with a group of children who left Canada when they come across a body of a kabaragoya which is akind of sub-aquatic monitor that looks like a crocodile and can kill you with a whip from his tail.

¡P         This prompts the recollection of the anecdote about Ondaatje¡¦s Uncle Noel who was forced to eat thalagoya tongue even though he got very sick and almost died. Not only does this give us an insight into the traditions and myths of Ceylon but also a further insight into the character of Lalla who embraced these practices as it was she who forced her son Noel to eat the tongue.


Sweet Like a Crow (p. 76 ¡V 77)

¡P         This poem is essentially a list of different unpleasant aural images that may be intended (given the initial quotation which describes Sinhalese music as the worst in the world) to describe Ceylonese music, speech, culture or even the island itself.

¡P         The poem concludes, however, on the melodic noise of ankle bracelets heard in sleep which suggests that perhaps, despite its unusual sound (unusual at least from the perspective of the Western colonial powers), there is something charming and graceful about Ceylonese music and perhaps therefore, Ceylon in general.





In ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ the author once again discusses rumors and myths however this time we see a parallel between the history of Ceylon constructed by the European colonisers and Ondaatje¡¦s own attempt to reconstruct the history of his family. The rumors create a sense of mysteriousness around Ceylon in lines such as ¡§mythic shapes¡¨ and  ¡§the shapes differ so much they seem to be translations¡¨



Marriages briefly reappear as a motif in the ¡¥St. Thomas Church¡¦ chapter where the number of marriages appears to reflect the complexity of the search for reliable information about the past. The shocking age of Philip Ondaatje¡¦s first wife who married at 15 and died at 25 suggests a time very different to our own where our views of right and wrong may not have applied. This perhaps further reinforces how difficult it will be to obtain an accurate picture of the history of this country or family when our cultural views colour and shape even the simplest information that we learn about the past.


Water Imagery

The ¡¥Monsoon Notebook (i) chapter is rich with water imagery including ¡§wet sand¡¨, the ¡§curl of a wave¡¨, the ¡§rainstorms that flood¡¨, the ¡§sweat falls [that] in the path¡¨, the ¡§steam after the rains¡¨, the ¡§gleaming with underwater phosphorus¡¨ and the ¡§thunderstorm we walked through¡¨ that left them ¡§thoroughly soaked.¡¨ This imagery seems to be used to emphasise the exotic power of the rain in Ceylon and hence its difference to the rain in Canada.


Sensory imagery

In ¡¥Monsoon Notebook¡¦ there is also a succession of rich sensory images such as the ¡§eighteen ways of describing the smell of a durian¡¨ and as a result Ondaatje decides to ¡§smell things for the whole day, it was so rich I had to select senses¡¨ which once again reinforces the exotic intensity of Sri Lanka.



¡§mythic shapes,¡¨ ¡§cherubs,¡¨ ¡§slipper-footed elephants,¡¨ ¡§conch,¡¨ ¡§satyrs,¡¨ These symbols give the reader an image of Classical grandeur. Especially because these images are drawn on the sides of the maps and around the drawing of the island, it seems as though these are the inhabitants of Ceylon and as such they impart a sense of exotic mysticism to the island.




Topography and Map Making (Cartography)

Topography is especially evident in Tabula Asiae. Ceylon is introduced as an ever changing, wondrous island. Diction such as ¡§translations,¡¨ (which suggests that it can be interpreted in another way) ¡§theories,¡¨ (which suggests that it is only a hypothesis) and ¡§imagined¡¨ (which suggests that it has no basis in fact) shows the inability of the European travelers to grasp Ceylon, implying that it is a beautiful, unattainable thing. On page 64, Ondaatje writes that the maps reveal ¡§rumours¡¨ of topography. These rumors referring to ¡§the routes for invasion and trade.¡¨ At the end of the section Ceylon is directly referred to as a ¡§rumor¡¨ on the map again adding to the mysteriousness of the island.



The line ¡§fifteen-cent sandals and the obsessional sarong buying¡¨ echoes Kegalle (i) (56), where Michael¡¦s grandfather ¡§became a real part o the landscape around him¡¨ ¡§when dressed in sarong and vest¡¨, as opposed to his typically English clothes. It seems as though his obsessional sarong buying also makes him one with the land as he can ¡§witness everything¡¨ and be a part of so many of these wild experiences.


The engraved name

In ¡¥St. Thomas Church¡¦ the church, although described as ¡§a pale dirty blue¡¨ that was ¡§once beautiful¡¨ has nonetheless ¡§stood here for over three hundred years, in the palm of monsoons, through seasonal droughts and invasions from other countries.¡¨ This is perhaps a metaphor for the author¡¦s family legacy. Ondaatje¡¦s emotional exclamation upon seeing his family name engraved on the floor reveals the importance of this search for personal identity to Ondaatje, an idea accentuated by the poetic hyperbole when Ondaatje says that seeing the stone ¡§in some strange way removes vanity, eliminates the personal. It makes your own story a lyric.¡¨ Here we can again see the romanticisation of the past.


Thalagoya tongue

The thalagoya ¡¥has a rasping tongue that ¡¥catches¡¦ and hooks objects¡¦ ¡¥if a child is given a thalagoya tongue to eat he will become brilliantly articulate, will always speak beautifully and in his speech be able to ¡¥catch¡¦ and collect wonderful, humorous information.¡¨ ¡§the tongue should be sliced off and eaten as soon as possible after the animal dies.¡¦ These are traditional, local practices. The fact that eating it makes you very sick shows the western colonial ideas that Asia was a wild place of savages that needed to be tamed and modernized. It also shows Lalla¡¦s determination to adhere to the local cultural practices as she forces here son, Noel, to eat one.


The crow

The crow in ¡¥Sweet like a Crow¡¦ appears to be a symbol for Sri Lanka or at least Sri Lankan music (and culture). It appears unattractive, unusual, different and coarse at first but this difference is the source of its beauty and so Ondaatje may be trying to imply that Sri Lanka similarly repays the visitor who is willing to forget their original preconceptions of what is melodic, or beautiful, or artistic, or normal and embrace the cultural standards and mores of this new land. Hence, perhaps, the juxtaposition of the title.




Post-Colonialism and the Contrast Between the East and West

Throughout ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ Sri Lanka is associated with richly fantastical imagery, for example it is described on the map as having a ¡§blue-combed ocean busy with dolphin and sea-horse, cherub and compass¡¨ or ¡§naive mountains, drawings of cassowary and boar who leap without perspective across imagined ¡¥desertum¡¦ and plain.¡¨ The mythical imagery of ¡§slipper footed elephants¡¨, the ¡§white queen¡¨ and the ¡§Moorish king¡¨ paints a picture of Ceylon as some kind of exotic paradise ¡K and while there are elements of truth in this they are also mixed up with ¡§rumors of topography¡¨ and ¡§routes for invasion and trade¡¨ which suggests the ultimately exploitative intentions of the Western map makers, such as the Portugese, the Dutch and the English who eventually colonized the island. Ondaatje may also be mocking the superficial and exaggeratedly stereotypical ideas of the colonizers.


Ceylon is also frequently associated with feminine imagery. It is described as being ¡§a pendant off the ear of India¡¨ and the ¡§wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword of bible or language¡¨ which suggests a submissive and inferior role in its relationship with these foreign powers. In this way the post-colonial theme overlaps with some of the points about gender roles that have been made elsewhere. There is also mimicry implied in the line ¡§this pendant, once its shape stood still, became a mirror. It pretended to reflect each European power till newer ships arrived and spilled their nationalities¡¨ which ambiguously suggests both a submission to the colonizing powers in the act of ¡¥mimicry¡¦ but also that the country does retain a sense of hidden power at times which is hinted at when in the word ¡§pretended.¡¨


The title of the chapter, ¡¥Tabula Asiae,¡¦ could also be a reference to the board game Tabula which is very similar to modern backgammon. Tentatively it might be argued that the movement of the pieces may echo how the possession of Sri Lanka went back and forth between the different European powers and the dice rolls may reflect the way in which Sri Lankans didn¡¦t have control over their own country. Their fate was controlled by chance and luck and the vicissitudes of fate.


The poem ¡¥Sweet Like a Crow¡¦ can also be read from a post-colonial perspective. The initial quotation from Paul Bowles which says that ¡¥The Sinhalese are beyond a doubt one of the least musical people in the world. It would be quite impossible to have less sense of pitch, line, or rhythm.¡¦ shows how Western critics fail to see the beauty in Ceylonese music. However, from a perspective other than the Western there may be something charming about the discordant nature of Ceylonese music (perhaps like the strident voice of a child) and this is reflected in the title of the poem as in general, crows are not considered to have melodious voices but here, after continued exposure, they are described as sweet.


The Search for Personal Identity

Interestingly Ondaatje does take advantage of the ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ chapter to explore the original identity of the Ceylonese people and the closest he comes is hinting at the inextricably intertwined nature of the Ceylonese and the invades when he states that some of these colonizers stayed and were rewarded with land, wives and new titles. This suggests that Ondaatje does not know the true nature of the Ceylonese identity and as a result we sense that neither Ceylon nor Ondaatje really know who they are. In the end even his family name is only a ¡§parody of the ruling language.¡¨ In a sense both are mirrors, reflecting the different influences that have shaped them but with no content of their own.


Post-Modernism, intertextuality and the impossibility of obtaining objective truth

The ¡§sightings¡¨ and ¡§glances¡¨ that were used to construct the maps on Ondaatje¡¦s brother¡¦s wall in ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ make it clear that these maps are something subjective and therefore unreliable. This is reinforced when Ondaatje says the shapes of the maps ¡§differ so much they seem to be translations¡¨ which creates the idea that the explorers who created these maps never quite managed to obtain a clear image of Ceylon. Instead of recording the truth, these explorers created in Ceylon the image of what they expected of an exotic ¡¥Spice Island¡¦, we can see this echoed in the chapter title ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ with it¡¦s implication that Sri Lanka (and Asia in general) was a blank slate (or blank text) that the Europeans could write on as they wished and in so doing they created the perfect (although misleading) image of a wild and exotic paradise. We can also see this idea when Ondaatje describes Ceylon as a ¡¥mirror¡¦ reflecting what each subsequent colonial power wanted to see there. Ondaatje eventually admits that these translations did in the end ¡§grow from mythic shapes into eventual accuracy,¡¨ however the fact that we can see Ondaatje echoing the actions of the early explorers in his creation of an almost ¡¥mythical¡¦ picture of Ceylon in the 1920¡¦s & 30¡¦s perhaps just suggests that the subject of the mythologizing has changed while the act itself remains the same: we are still unable to get to the truth, although it is a different truth that we are now unable to access.


In ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ the Post-colonial and Post-modern themes that run throughout the memoir are clearly overlapping: the presumption that Sri Lanka was a ¡¥blank slate¡¦ reveals the arrogance of the European colonizers but the idea that a country, a history, a people are a ¡¥text¡¦ that can be written in a variety of ways each of which might reveal a different kind of truth is clearly a post-modern ideal. Similarly the changing names of Ceylon (Serendip, Ratnapida, Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, Sri Lanka) shows that there is nothing special in what a country is called. The country could be called by any name but would still be the same and so the name, ultimately, tells us nothing abut the country reflecting the fundamental post-modern idea of the unreliability of language.


In addition, Ondaatje uses documents from the past combined with details that he couldn¡¦t have found in those documents which makes it clear that at least part of the story is invented / reconstructed ¡K reinforcing the post-modern idea that this text is a creation of the author, that it is just one kind of view on the world and that there is nothing special or privileged about this view and another one could be equally valid.


Romanticisation of the Past

In ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ the different names of Ceylon, ¡§Serendip, Ratnapida, Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and [finally] Ceylon¡¨ contribute to the mythical or magical mood of the memoir and his sense of the romantic is reinforced by the appearance of cherubs and satyrs on the maps. Again we can draw a parallel between the way in which the colonizers romanticised Ceylon and the way in which Ondaatje is romanticizing his family¡¦s own past. Perhaps this reflects the way in which Ondaatje has decided to create an inaccurate but alluring image of Ceylon in the 1920¡¦s and 1930¡¦s in an attempt to capture some of the magic implied in the ancient, mythical allure of Ceylon.



Narrative Style

The most interesting and noticeable use of a distinct narrative style is in ¡¥Monsoon Notebook¡¦, which is written in a disjointed and almost random fashion. The effect suggests that Ondaatje has recorded bits and pieces of information in his own notebook, hence the seemingly inexplicable juxtaposition of ¡§reading torn 100 year old newspaper clippings¡¨ and ¡§watched leopards¡¨. This hint at the process through which Ondaatje has constructed the memoir is an obviously postmodern element of the text and the fact that we are given an insight into the initial (selective) process of taking notes and the (implied but again selective) secondary process of deciding which notes to expand on and include in the final memoir once again reinforces the constructed nature of this text.


The poetic style of ¡¥Sweet Like a Crow¡¦ is representative of the disjointed structure of the majority of Ondaatje¡¦s poems in this memoir. There is no regular rhyme scheme or regular rhythm pattern and this may be Ondaatje¡¦s challenge to the dominant Western conception of what poetry is supposed to look like. From a post-colonial perspective Ondaatje¡¦s avoidance of traditional poetic structures may represent an intentional challenge to the cultural dominance of Western art forms and an attempt to reassert the value of traditional, non-Western art forms.


Ondaatje often writes in first person and yet hardly mentions himself at times. This perhaps suggests a detachment or distance between the author and his experiences possibly implying his inability to fully reconnect with his Ceylonese heritage. Alternatively it may reflect the post-modern idea that although the text seems like a factual description of what is going on it is inevitably (even if only subtly) a description from the perspective of somebody and so therefore the illusion of objectivity is revealed for what it is: little more than a subjective account pretending to have more universal validity than it actually does. Post modernists might point out that we can never have a truly valid, objective and neutral account of the world as the world always has to be seen from someone¡¦s perspective and this will always, unavoidably colour that view and make it unreliable.



Relation of this Section to the Whole

This section begins by reinforcing the post-colonial feel that has been established throughout the memoir so far but eventually it focuses more on the attempts by Ondaatje to re-construct this history of his family. As such the emphasis in these chapter is more on Ondaatje¡¦s personal journey rather than what he finds out about his past. Revelations about the relationship between Mervyn and Doris are put on hold which creates a form of tension as the reader knows that the couple divorce but we are unsure why and Ondaatje may have structured his novel to switch back to the present at this point so that he can delay the revelation of details of the break up for as long as possible.


Additionally this section continues to romanticize the past and draws parallels between the colonial romanticisaton of the blank slate of ¡¥Tabula Asiae¡¦ and Ondaatje¡¦s romanticisation of his family history and life in Ceylon in the 1920¡¦s and 30¡¦s.