Running in the Family: Chapter Notes ¡V Don¡¦t Talk to me About Matisse, Part 2

 Karapothas ¡V Kegalle (ii)


The Karapothas (78-86)

¡P         The chapter begins with quotations from Edward Lear, D.H. Lawrence, and Leonard Woolf, all of whom are English and all of whom show little patience with Ceylon. Lawrence describes Ceylon as an ¡§experience-but heavens, not a permanence¡¨ while Leonard Woolf claims ¡§all jungles are evil.¡¨ Ondaatje also recounts the tale of how Lawrence threw his watch into the lake in a fit of temper when it refused to work in the heat

¡P         The ¡§Karapothas¡¨ are beetles with white spots on them - Ondaatje¡¦s niece calls foreigners this because like the beetles, they ¡§never grew ancient here,¡¨ but just admired the landscape, disliked the natives, and left. [colonialism]

¡P         Ondaatje refers to Ceylon as ¡§a paradise to be sacked¡¨ and indeed this the chapter where he takes his most obvious post-colonial stance, for example in lines like ¡§Every conceivable thing was collected and shipped back to Europe¡¨

¡P         This is contrasted with the descriptions of the island¡¦s ¡¥intricate arts and customs¡¦ and the passage exploring the beauty of the local Sinhalese alphabet.


High Flowers(87-89)

¡P         This poem is about men collecting toddy (an alcoholic beverage taken from coconut palms) from the trees while the women work below in the shadows of their houses. It is a scene of village life that seems to romanticize the idyllic simplicity of life in the past.

¡P         It also appears to celebrate the subtlety and quiet gentility of life in Ceylon


To Colombo (90-91)

¡P         This poem describes the scenery as Ondaatje and his family journey back from Sigiriya, an ancient fortress with pictures of beautiful women and poems written about their beauty painted on to the walls, to Colombo

¡P         The poem is extremely descriptive but irregularly structured which may be a challenge to the Western tradition of writing tightly structured poems but it also creates the impression of a stream of consciousness as Ondaatje¡¦s relates the sights and thoughts he is experience as these flit through his mind which in turn suggests something of the rich vibrancy and chaotic unpredictability of Ceylon.

¡P         There is much natural and light imagery that evokes a sense of Ceylon¡¦s beautiful simplicity


Women Like You (92-94)

¡P         This poem describes the beautiful women who are carved into the rock at Sigirya and the responses of some of the men who came to the rock to write poems to these women.

¡P         The fact that the original poems were written in the 5th Century but have been preserved and can still influence Ondaatje today reinforces the sense of a connection with the past that is the focus for the novel and perhaps also the inspiration for the title ¡¥Running in the Family¡¦ where family would be broadened out to suggest a larger connection between the individual and the culture that they come from.


The Cinnamon Peeler¡¦s Wife (95-97)

¡P         In the first part of the poem, the persona talks about wanting to leave a mark ¡V his mark ¡V on his wife. He imagines the fact that he is a cinnamon peeler and his wife will carry the smell of his hands even when he is not around her.

¡P         The second part of the poem, as indicated by the break in the poem, reveals the fact that the persona¡¦s wife also wants him to leave a mark on her, as seen with her desire to let him touch her ¡V to let his smell linger on her body.


Kegalle (ii) (98-101)

¡P         The first section of this chapter talks about incidents in Ondaatje¡¦s childhood where snakes would sneak into his family home in Rock Hill and frighten everyone. His father and his stepmother would then solve the issue by blasting the snakes into pieces.

¡P         The second part of the chapter talks about the ¡§last incident at Rock Hill¡¨ that took place in the time of the Insurgence. It mentions the young rebels that were against the government going around the Kegalle, ransacking people¡¦s home for food and weapons. They arrived at Rock Hill and asked for weapons, but respected the house due to their respect for Ondaatje¡¦s father. The tale ends with the rebels deciding to play a game of cricket with Susan all afternoon.



Motifs, Symbols & Imagery:

Personal Identity

The concept of identity has come up a few times throughout this section. This is initially apparent with the Cinnamon Peeler, where the man desires to give his wife his smell / an identity, but was reluctant to do so. Her subsequent realization that without the smell she does not belong to anyone / that she has no identity perhaps echoes Ondaatje¡¦s feelings that without a real understanding of his past or his history he doesn¡¦t really know where he ¡¥belongs¡¦ or who he is.


The smell of the Cinnamon Peeler may also symbolize the identity of Ceylon itself. The native cultures have been ¡§disguised¡K over smoking tar¡¨ and ¡§buried¡K in saffron¡¨, which suggests the different cultures of the colonizers that came and went (96) and have attempted to make Ceylon into something else, something in their own image. However, the diction ¡¥buried¡¦ and ¡¥disguised¡¦ suggests that these features of Ceylon were permanent and remained present no matter how much the colonizers tried to hide them. In this case the desire of the Cinnamon Peeler¡¦s wife to have an identity, to have a smell, a scent, reflects the Ceylonese desire to have something that distinguishes them for who they are.


This idea is perhaps accentuated in the chapter Kegalle (ii), where the insurgency by the young rebels can also be seen as a call for identity. The people in Ceylon are finally having a say in who and what governs them, which shows that they are creating an identity for themselves.



Cinnamon is a recurring motif suggestive of the romanticization of Ceylon. In the chapter ¡¥The Karapothas¡¦, readers learn about the richness of natural resources and spices available in Ceylon, which is described as floating in ¡§a perfumed sea¡¨. It is the cinnamon and exotic spices found in Ceylon that makes the place so attractive to the Western foreigners who wish to rob Ceylon of all its rich natural resources. The story about captains spilling cinnamon on the decks of their ships and asking their passengers to ¡¥smell Ceylon¡¦ is also a clear indication that the idea of Ceylon as an exotic spice island is really myth created by the Europeans who wished to see in the country all the sense of the mysterious East that they wanted to believe it represents.



Literally, these are ¡¥beetles with white spots¡¦ but, more importantly, Ondaatje¡¦s niece uses this term to refer to the foreigners who ¡¥never [grew] ancient¡¦ in Ceylon. Beetles are often seen as flying pests, some even damage crops, and so by relating the foreigners to the karapothas, Ondaatje is suggesting that the foreigners are pests and, in the same way that beetles destroy crops, foreigners use up all the resources of Ceylon for their own needs and destroy the fruits of the local people.



The poisons described in Karapothas give Ceylon a mystical sense. They suggest that Ceylon is more lethal than it looks and that the colonialists have underestimated it. Normally poison connotes something deadly and hidden, which may suggest that the complex culture, the people, the knowledge of local Ceylon is very much like poison: hidden and powerful.



Knives appear in the journey ¡¥To Colombo¡¦ and ¡¥High Flowers¡¦ where they suggest the primitive lifestyle of the villages of Ceylon. The image of a knife is also contrasted with the bullets and the gunfire, which suggests the technological under-development of Sri Lanka ¡K or perhaps it¡¦s more honest simplicity. Indeed, Ondaatje seems to celebrate this idea by emphasizing the majestic movements of the knife and perhaps, he is trying to say that the colonialists are cruel and unrefined with their easy use if gunfire and that they lack the grace and elegance and honesty that the closer contact of a knife would bring. The fact that the knife was passed down through the generations also suggests the legacy behind the culture: it is a culture where the son inherits from the father and this creates a sense of a communal society and, once again, the idea that things run in families. As a result, it is only by understanding your past / your parents that you can understand yourself.



Paintings are usually viewed as a form of high art, especially in Western culture where they are symbolic of the ¡¥ civilized¡¦ manners of the foreigners. Yet, painters like ¡§Matisse¡¨ and the painting of the ¡§ nude women¡¨ are contrasted with the gunfire white-washing the primitive mud-huts in Ceylon. In Lakdasa¡¦s poem, painters are used as an ironic tool to show that even though the English believe that they come from a more refined culture (often believing that their mission was to bring civilization to the rest of the world) they are actually savages. The image of the nude woman behind a sheet of blood may also serve to characterize the lust (both sexual and for blood, given the crimson sheet on which she lies) driving the colonialists.


The Sinhalese Alphabet

During the insurgency in 1971, there were ¡§ hundreds of poems written on walls, ceilings and in hidden corners of the campus¡¨. The writing on the walls is used to symbolize the underground expression of ideas and the hidden attempt to preserve a culture. This echoes the sense of beauty, the roots and sense of personal identity, that remain hidden from the colonialists. Lakdasa¡¦s poem is a good representation of this underground Ceylonese individuality where he expresses his disdain towards the colonialists.



Post-colonialism and East vs. West

This is Ondaatje¡¦s most obviously post-colonial chapter and there appears to be a clear criticism of the exploitative attitude of the early colonisers. Diction such as ¡¥sacked¡¦ implies that the country was callously looted and pillaged while the description of these foreigners as ¡§Karapothas¡¨ (beetles that ¡§never grew ancient here,¡¨ but just admired the landscape, disliked the natives, and left) suggests a superficiality and fickleness to these invaders, perhaps even hinting at a weaknesses ¡K as if they were unable to appreciate the chaotic vibrancy of life in Ceylon. Ondaatje emphasizes this in the beginning of the poem ¡¥High Flowers¡¦ in the line ¡¥The woman my ancestors ignored sits at the doorway chopping coconut cleaning rice,¡¦ where the tone suggests that these ancestors failed to realize the value or beauty of this woman, or women like this.


This sense of a critical attitude towards the colonial powers is established from the very start of the chapter by the opening quotations. Lear¡¦s claim that the ¡§brown people of this island¡¨ are ¡§odiously inquisitive and bothery-idiotic¡¨ suggests that the locals are primitive, limited and inferior in their knowledge. However, at the same time, Lear also claims that are roads are ¡§intensely picturesque¡¨. This contrast parallels with how colonialists view Ceylon at the time as ¡§a paradise to be sacked¡¨. They are there merely for the resources, not to appreciate the indigenous people and their culture.


In the second quotation, Lawrence claims that Ceylon is an experience--but heavens not a permanence¡¨. This highlights the egotistic views of colonialists as ¡§ experience¡¨ suggests a momentary stay at Ceylon, presumably while Ceylon is being stripped from all its natural wonders and its resources. Lawrence also claims that all the colonies are only ¡§negations of what  [colonialists] stand for¡¨. By grouping Toarmina, Ceylon, Africa and America together, Lawrence effectively separates the colonialists and the colonies even though individual colonies have individual cultures and beliefs that they stand for, which ultimately undermines the individuality of all the different colonies. Interestingly, D.H. Lawrence writes that these countries like Taormina, Ceylon, etc are the ¡¥negation of what we stand for¡¦ which suggests the post-colonial concept of the importance of ¡¥the other¡¦ and the idea that we only come to know ourselves through comparison with other things. This perhaps explains the dreadful fascination that Europeans felt towards supposedly ¡¥savage¡¦ countries like Sri Lanka ¡V they were perhaps repulsed and terrified by the strangeness they discovered but at the same time they were also attracted to these differences because the contrast gave them a clearer understanding of what they were.


In the third quotation, Woolf claims that ¡§: All Jungles are evil¡¨ yet, the following chapters are dedicated to exploring the wonders of Ceylon: its language, culture and even its poisons which directly contrasts with the attitude of the colonialists. In High Flowers, To Colombo, and Women like You, Ondaatje further emphasizes the short-sightedly dismissive attitude of the colonial powers by celebrating the simple, pastoral life of people in Ceylon.


Ondaatje writes about the Sinhalese alphabet, and how ¡§The only freedom writing brought was as the author of rude expressions on walls and desks.¡¨ Language here is seen as a tool for rebellion (albeit a limited rebellion in the form of breaking minor rules) but the fact that this rebellion is in an indigenous language perhaps reflects the way in which the colonized can retain a sense of their identity by clinging to the elements of their culture to which the colonizer is denied access, for example their language. Tentatively a post-colonial reading of the text may see in Ondaatje¡¦s rude graffiti an echo of the attempts by the colonized to carry out minor rebellions against the colonizers in the only way they can ¡V through seemingly petty or trivial criticisms. Criticisms that are too minor to evoke serious punishment but which nonetheless chip away at the status and authority of the colonizing power. Admittedly Ondaatje is descended from colonial ancestors but these ancestors have intermarried with locals and  lived in Ceylon for long enough for him to identify more with the Sinhalese than the occupying British.


In ¡§Kegalle (ii)¡¨, the insurgency movement of 1971 is, in itself, a post-colonial concept since the rebels are fighting for their own beliefs against the government, even if it is their own government. Throughout Ceylon¡¦s colonial history, the culture of the colonizing power has displaced the native culture and as a result post-colonial Ceylon is in search of its own identity. The insurgency of 1971 was one attempt made by the people to find a better way to govern themselves, this time through Marxist revolutionary theory. Although these rebels were violently suppressed (which is significantly not mentioned in the book and perhaps reveals how selective Ondaatje¡¦s account of the past is), the people had tried to create a future for Sri Lanka with their own determination and judgment.


The Romanticisation the Past and the Pastoral

The poems, ¡¨High Flowers¡¨ and ¡§To Colombo¡¨, are a clear representation of this theme. High flowers outlines the life in rural villages, e.g. shuffling rice in a cane mat, collecting white liquid for tavern vats and cutting flowers. By lifting the villages up higher, gliding through trees seamlessly, Ondaatje is trying to show how beautiful and exalted the lives of these people are. Obviously, however, this is a simplification of their daily routine, which may consist of hard work. This harmony between nature and villagers in Ceylon and the exploitative nature of the colonialists only further distances ourselves from the foreigners and draws us closer to side with the locals.



The structures of the poems are often irregular or disorganized and this perhaps reflects the nature of Ondaatje¡¦s memoir as he is obtaining information from different points of view with no, single, coherent overview or vision of the truth.


The sense of Post-Modernism is accentuated by our uncertainty about the narrator. The line: ¡§I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner¡¨ creates a sense that Ondaatje is ambivalent about his origins and that he is confused about where he stands and what his position should be. Does he side with the likes of Lear and Lawerence or with the locals. The fact that we, as leaders, are limited to the emotions and the images that he sees, rather than an objective truth, reinforces this sense of post-modern uncertainty. Is Ondaatje¡¦s depiction of the colonialists as cold hearted exploiters or his celebration of the simplicity of Sinhalese life reliable?


The War Between Men and Women

The poem ¡¥High Flowers¡¦ raises issues like the status of women in Ceylon. In some ways the women seem to have a lower status because they remain on the ground and carry out work obscured in the shadows of their huts. However, a closer reading seems to suggest that Ondaatje is idealizing these traditional gender divisions in the Ceylonese culture and this reading is supported by lines like ¡¥everything that is important occurs in shadow¡¦ and ¡¥Within a doorway the woman turns in the old pleasure of darkness.¡¦


In the poem ¡¥Women like You¡¦ the women initially seem to be in a more powerful position as Ondaatje talks about women who capture the hearts of men in lines like ¡§Seeing you I want / no other life / The golden skins have / caught my mind.¡¨ However, while this may initially seem to empower these female figures, reading the text from a feminist perspective we may argue that these women appear only to be statues or monuments that do little more than  ¡§stand against the sky¡¨ looking pretty and so, although they appear powerful, they are no more than depictions of the passivity and beauty that men have traditionally idolized about women. As such they are no more than a male fantasy of what womanhood should be. If we continue reading from this perspective we may even argue that the way in which that the men who are writing these poems of adoration have turned away from the real world represents the way in which men are so attached to their imagined ideal of womanhood that real women are no longer enticing to them as they do not live up to this stereotype. Indeed it is only unreal, dead or idealized women that are celebrated in this way.


Mervyn Ondaatje

His character develops in the chapter Kegalle (ii). The fact that he has donated several acres of Rock Hill towards a playground shows that he is a generous man. The young rebels being ¡§extremely courteous¡¨ to Ondaatje¡¦s stepmother and his family emphasizes this point (100).


Michael Ondaatje

At this point in the memoir we can begin to get a sense that Ondaatje is developing a greater understanding of himself as he develops a better grasp of the history of his family and of Ceylon and connects to the local culture through the different poems that he writes. He says, ¡§I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner.¡¨ (79) and this contradictory statement may reflect his internal conflicts and the uncertainty he feels about his own personal identity as a Ceylonese Canadian.


Ondaatje¡¦s criticisms of the colonial attitude suggests, however, that he feels more of a connection with the Ceylonese than he does with the European invaders and he clear approves of the poetry of Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, who he describes as ¡§a powerful and angry poet¡¨ (85). In addition, the beauty of the Sinhalese alphabet shown on page 83 further accentuates the sense that he appreciates the hidden beauty of Ceylon.


William Charles Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje¡¦s ancestor knew ¡§at least fifty-five secies of poisons easily available to his countrymen¡¨ (81) which suggests he is intimately in touch with the world around him. Again, this is perhaps a trait the Ondaatje sees as running in the family.



Narrative style:

In Running in the Family, Ceylon is portrayed as an exotic and almost magical place. This is especially true when describing the things that have happened in the past. Ondaatje uses a light-hearted tone to make even the most serious things seem quite trivial, for example setting fire to a dorm room appears to be a regular habit for Noel and this is just one of the earliest incidents that Ondaatje downplayed using a light-hearted tone. In Kegalle (ii) and Lunch Conversation, there is another technique used by Ondaatje that allows him to romanticize the events, which is the anticlimax at the end of the chapters. For instance, in Kegalle (ii), the young rebels were supposed to search for weapons in homes around Kegalle to prepare for their takeover for the country, but they decided to play a game of cricket with Susan in the front lawn for most of the afternoon. What they were doing was supposed to be extremely serious, but Ondaatje has downplayed their efforts with the anticlimactic ending (where an important event ends in something trivial) perhaps so that it better fits with the magical, carefree image that he was trying to create of Ceylon. This technique is also evident in the incident described in the Lunch Conversation where Lalla was supposed to tell Dickie about David Grenier¡¦s death but eventually decides to lie casually about him sitting in the next room. Ondaatje uses the anticlimax here again to introduce humour and downplay a serious situation.


Ondaatje¡¦s use of poems is also a clear indicator that this is, stylistically, no ordinary memoir. The inclusion of these different text types reinforces the sense of postmodernism and the chaotic structure echoes some of the chaos (or freedom) of Ceylon in comparison to the West. Rather like the poem ¡¥Sweet Like a Crow¡¦ these poems may not look poetic (or beautiful) in the traditional sense but as a result of their difference they have their own unique charm. In addition the inconsistency of the contents may suggest Ondaatje¡¦s own sense of confusion and uncertainty as he struggles to come to a better understanding of himself.



Relation of the Part to the Whole

This section mainly describes the history of Ceylon and its beauty as Michael Ondaatje reflects upon historical and ancient objects. This section contains the most obviously post-colonial section in ¡§the Karapothas¡¨ and Ondaatje¡¦s disdain towards the attitude of the colonizers is apparent. The absence of Ondaatje¡¦s family in this section suggests that his journey back to Ceylon was not carried out solely to find out about his parents marriage, but also to gain an understanding of his own personal identity as well.