Running in the Family: Chapter Notes ¡V The Prodigal, Part 2

Travels in Ceylon - The Photograph


Travels in Ceylon (147-155)

          The chapter begins with a brief description of the shape of Ceylon as a tear on a map before it goes on to describe Mervyn¡¦s adventures on trains, his obsession with trains and his antics while serving in the Ceylon Light Infantry as a rich man from a prestigious family which allows him to pull off his antics

          After one of Mervyn¡¦s more outrageous train antics where he runs naked into a tunnel Doris is sent in to retrieve him and we get the impression that her experiences with her husband are bbeginning to change her from that carefree, frivolous young woman that she used to be into an increasingly strong and independent woman.

          This chapter also recounts details of the Bandaranaike-Ondaatje feud where Mervyn ¡§waged war¡¨ with Sammy writing derogatory comments about each other on the Visitor¡¦s Book

          The chapter ends with Mervyn¡¦s last train journey before he was banned where he stopped the train believing that there were bombs on board when really all he found were harmless pots of curd


Sir John (156-160)

          Ondaatje and his sister Gilian visit one of his father¡¦s old friends, Sir John Kotewala (who subsequently became Prime Minister of Ceylon) for information about Meryvn

          Most of the scene describes the opulence and elegance of Sir John¡¦s house as he feeds peacocks with muffins and food from the dinner table.

          We also learn of the incident where Sir John¡¦s political opponents published a sex-scandal photograph including Sir John


Photograph (161-162)

          The brevity of this chapter belies its importance as this is the chapter where Ondaatje finds the only picture he has of his mother and father together. The picture is of his parents on their honeymoon making hideous faces

          The photograph reassures Ondaatje that his parents were ¡§absolutely perfect for each other¡¨ and we get the sense that Ondaatje has finally found something for which he has been searching a long time.



Motifs, Images & Symbols

The Lamp and Tunnel

The dark tunnel that Doris travels into in order to rescue Mervyn suggests something of the depths to which he has sunk in his addiction to alcohol and the nakedness here foreshadows the darkness that we see in the chapter ¡¥The Bone¡¦ later on. The fact that Doris brings a lamp into the tunnel may suggest hope (as well as her loyalty to him) and the smashing of this lamp also suggests some obvious fore-shadowing.


The Pots of Curd

The fact that he mistakes these for bombs (and even sees the ¡¥explosions¡¦ when he disposes of them in the river) not only suggests the depth of Mervyn¡¦s alcohol addiction and the degree to which he has lost his way but the fact that it is not clear to the reader that these are not really bombs until the very end of the passage also suggests something about the post-modern idea of unreliability and how it can be difficult to disentangle the perspective of the writer from the details of the text. Although Ondaatje is the narrator, we do at points see the event from Mervyn¡¦s perspective and, in this light, we are unable to see the pots of curd for what they really are. The uncertainty created here perhaps reveals the idea that any text we are given is always going to come at us from a certain perspective and so questions about the reliability of that perspective can always be asked.




Post Colonialism

The description of Ceylon as a ¡§tear¡¨ and the crazy ¡§maze-like routes¡¨ of the train system echo the two (slightly contradictory) stereotypes that the colonial powers may have had of Ceylon: firstly as a beautiful, exotic, unique ¡¥tear¡¦ shaped spice island and secondly as a disorganized and chaotic place. Throughout this section Ondaatje creates the impression that the current colonial powers, the English, are largely disconnected from the real life of Ceylon and do not really know or understand the country that they have conquered. During Mervyn¡¦s last train ride, for example, the English are mocked as having a ¡¥rage for order¡¦ and described as sleeping in their especially appointed ¡¥carriage¡¦ while the Sinhalese tip toe across their roof in the moonlight as Mervyn wreaks havoc and discovers ¡¥bombs¡¦ which are really pots of curd. The image painted of the English is of them as being fusty, faintly ridiculous and out of touch.


The Romanticisation of the Past

The comical account of the visitors¡¦ book feud with Sammy Bandaraike continues to add to the light-hearted impression created of life in Ceylon in the 20s and 30s. There also seems to be a degree of pride (or chagrin) in Ondaatje¡¦s claim that the prohibition against writing anything negative in visitors¡¦ books still prevalent today stems from this time. This echoing of events through the history clearly relates back to the idea of things running in the family and the sense we get that Ondaatje is looking for a connection to his past.




Mervyn Ondaatje

Mervyn¡¦s outrageous antics are once again stressed ¡V stopping the train so that his friend Arthur can join him on the journey, for example - however this time his antics seem to have more dangerous or worrying effects and we given the impression that his alcoholism is now fuelling something much darker than the lively vibrancy and exuberance that it did in Mervyn¡¦s Flaming Youth. At times Mervyn is also portrayed as a vulnerable, almost broken character, who heavily depends on his wife, Doris, for emotional support. As such, no matter how outrageous Mervyn¡¦s behaviour, we continue to sympathise with him.


Doris Gratiean

In this chapter, we begin to get a glimpse of Doris as a character and she is depicted as a strong, loving, independent woman who is tolerant of his antics even going as far as journeying alone, ¡§armed with [only the[ clothes she had borrowed from another passenger, and a light, and her knowledgeable love of all the beautiful formal poetry that existed up to the 1930s¡¨ into the tunnel to rescue him. The pitiful state of her armoury evokes a sense of sympathy for Doris that we rarely see elsewhere in the memoir. The reference to poetry echoes the old, romanticised, sophisticated, elegant days of the Gasanawa group and the inadequacy of this as a tool for dealing with a deranged madman suggests that, for Doris at least, the romantic days of her ¡¥flaming youth¡¦ are well and truly over. As a result we learn that she had to develop as a character and becomes ¡§like a tough and demure breeze¡¨ a change that is reflected in the labourious nature of her handwriting. Ondaatje writes that it was as if she had been ¡¥blasted ¡K lost the use of habitual style and [was forced] to cope with a new and dark alphabet.¡¦ (150) a line which suggests that there was a deep and traumatic shift in the way that Doris viewed the world, a shift that Ondaatje appears to associate with Doris¡¦ experiences with his father.


In the chapter ¡¥Photograph¡¦ Ondaatje¡¦s parents are described as having a strikingly different appearance to one another as he is darkly tanned while she is pale. While these differences were portrayed as unimportant in the light their common sense of humour in ¡¥Photograph¡¦ this no longer seems to be the case in ¡¥Travels in Ceylon¡¦ and Ondaatje begins to suggest that there is a clear (and perhaps unbridgeable) gap between these two characters that foreshadows their later separation.


Sir John

He is a respected man who used to be in the army with Mervyn and was subsequently the Prime Minister of Ceylon. He is described as a ¡¥Victorian dream¡¦ with his opulent house surrounded by peacocks ¡K despite their being something clearly colonial about this character, Ondaatje portrays him indulgently as if he is one of the last vestiges of the elegant and sophisticated Ceylon of the 1920s and 30s that Ondaatje seems to find so attractive.


Michael Ondaatje

The tone of excitement and achievement in the line ¡¥the photograph I have been waiting for all my life¡¦ (161) begins to paint a picture of Ondaatje¡¦s character as it suggests that, in addition to writing this memoir in order to record the details of his parent¡¦s marriage, he is also searching for reassurance that his parents were happy and, perhaps, that his own life is therefore meaningful.



Narrative Style

Ondaatje continues to glorify his father¡¦s antics in this chapter although there is now a sense of increasing darkness creeping into the pictures he paints; this is most notably the case in the symbolism during the tunnel scene. The last part of the chapter is written confusingly as it is unclear for a while whether the ¡¥bombs¡¦ that Ondaatje finds really are bombs. This confusion may be intentionally created to reflect the distorting effects of alcohol on the mind or perhaps the difficulty of obtaining an objective view of the truth from a post-modern perspective.



Relation of the Part to the Whole:

The section title ¡¥The Prodigal¡¦ conjures the image of someone who is extravagant and reckless which accurately describes Mervyn. This chapter also begins to introduce the marital difficulties that Mervyn and Doris are experiencing which foreshadows the more thorough exploration of the break down of their marriage in the section entitled ¡¥What we think of married life¡¦.


Photograph was written from Ondaatje¡¦s perspective and this chapter is vital in creating the impression that Ondaatje has motivations for writing this memoir that go beyond the neutral and purely historical. The fact that he had been ¡¥waiting ¡K all his life¡¦ for this photo is one of the first indications that Ondaatje is also getting something out of this process and is a key beginning point for the development of the theme of the search for personal identity which becomes more significant as we near the end of the memoir.