Running in the Family: Chapter Notes ¡V The Prodigal, Part 2
• 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
one of Mervyn¡¦s more outrageous train antics where he runs naked into a tunnel
• 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
• 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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.