Whether a reader notices it or not, every form of literature has some form of organization. The elements that are organized that make a story great are, but not limited to, plot, setting, and characters. But of course, authors don’t have to have these elements in sequential order all of the time, nor do they have to use all of them. Because of this organization, the reader can be left either feeling satisfied or unsatisfied with the piece of work. To illustrate, William Shakespeare’s use of climax in his plays set the stage for the rest of the work and leaves the reader satisfied. Unique forms of story-telling can be seen in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family published in 1982 and Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt published in 1984. Running in the Family was created from anecdotes from people that the author talked to get a sense of what his father was like as a person as well as what occurred during Ceylon at the time and because of this, the reader can be left confused due to its repetition and no sense of sequential events. With Cities of Salt, the issue at hand is easier to grasp similar to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and it’s story is told through the transformation of the environment as a whole rather from the perception of a main character.
In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje is the narrator and he goes back to his homeland of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka in the late 1970s in two separate visits. The focus of this book was Ondaatje asking the native people and his other family members if they knew anything about his father, Mervyn Ondaatje. Because of this, the book itself is created by many anecdotes that describe the setting as well as his father’s characteristics and personality through both his interpretation and others. But of course, Ondaatje also informs the reader about other characters like his grandmother Lalla and mother Doris, as well as the yearly events going on such as experiences occurring in Kegalle and the monsoons. Because the story is made up through anecdotes, there’s a question that arises where if the people that gave Ondaatje this information are even correct in the first place. Of course, Ondaatje knows this and doesn’t expect everyone to know exactly what he’s asking them for, so he tends to exaggerate certain stories to make the story more interesting.
In Cities of Salt, the story is set in an unnamed location somewhat similar to Saudi Arabia which describes the Wadi Al-Uyuon, or the Cities of Salt, being a area of “…a phenomenon, something of a miracle, unbelievable to those who saw it for the first time and unforgettable forever after.” (Munif, pg. 2) As the quote states, the people who say this are generally people seeing it for the very first time, thus the people of the wadi do not see it as an amazing sight because they’re already used to it. Throughout the course of the book, the wadi is transformed into this land that’s not recognizable anymore as the outsiders, or the American people, come and modernize the place and take the oil under the oasis. This plot is very similar to Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart where the white men come and modernize the village Umuofia. To add, another similarity can be seen between the two where the indigenous people aren’t against outsiders coming into their land and changing their societies. The “emir” or local ruler in Cities of Salt allowed the Americans to dig up their land to take the oil as well as modernize the place while the tribe leaders in Things Fall Apart let the while folk also modernize their society and convert them to Christianity.
The story-telling in Running in the Family can be seen as a interesting adventure for the reader from the various anecdotes written by Ondaatje explaining the culture of the society. Although this is true, unlike most written pieces of literature, this novel seems to fail in having a plot explicitly seen or mentioned. After reading the book for a good amount, the reader can start to see that Ondaatje talks about his father a lot, so it can be assumed that the purpose of the book was that he wanted to know more about him, and wanted to share his journey in discovering this information with us, but there isn’t any confirmation on that. To add, the anecdotes aren’t formatted in order so there’s noticeable signs of going back and forth between the two trips Ondaatje took to Sri Lanka and is overall inconsistent. For example, the chapter “Monsoon Notebook (ii)” talks about how animals such as bats and snakes would come into his home and how he recorded the sounds of a peacock. The next chapter is “How I was Bathed” and it was about how his sister Gillian talked about a time when Ondaatje was 5 years old and got bathed and cleaned in a very exaggerated but humorous way. Weirdly enough, the next chapter “Willpattu” talks about them having encounters with animals like cheetahs, deers, and boars. The abrupt shift in one topic to something completely different can really throw off the reader and wonder how it got to this point.
The story-telling in Cities of Salt can be seen as a way of the reader watching something grow or change over time, similar to the concept of a parent watching their offspring grow into an adult. In this interpretation, the second emir can be seen as the parents and the wadi can be seen as the child. To add, the second emir can be seen as irresponsible and neglectful who failed to steer their “child”, or the wadi, into the right direction. Because of this neglection, the “child” has become a much worse outcome, entirely because of “hanging with the wrong group of people”, in this case the Americans, and are delusional to where they can’t see that these people are ruining the persona of the “child.” Generally speaking, a person’s behavior and actions can be constructed based on the people they hang out with. Going back to Cities of Salt, the pure environment of the wadi has essentially become a polar opposite by the end with constantly interacting with the Americans and the emir not straying them away and defending their land. Because of this analogy being some so commonly seen in real life, the reader won’t have a hard time understanding, even if they haven’t started a family themselves. As stated before, this story-telling is very identical to Things Fall Apart and thus the same analogy can apply to this novel as well.
Something also important to note is the way of narration that these two novels take. Running in the Family is a first person perspective from Ondaatje himself but once again, not all of the information he’s saying is coming directly from him and he does mention this at the very end of the book where he thanks all of the people who’ve worked with him. It states, “And this book could not have been imagined, let alone conceived, without the help of many people.” (Ondaatje, pg. 205) Compared to Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia”, the main character Jim Burden doesn’t mention that the information that he’s gotten was not all from his personal account, something that’s caused some degree of controversy with the novel. Cities of Salt doesn’t necessarily have an actual character that the story takes place around, but instead “…the book does not offer a main character around whose fate the plot revolves. Instead, the life of the place, the setting, the changes and so forth, are the main elements of the book.” (Martin, Charles. “Comparative Literature102W On-line 09 Cities of Salt 1.” Received by Daljit Liyal, 06 October. 2020.) This makes sense since the novel talks about the negative transformation of an oasis from an outside force and thus has a stronger connection with the analogy of a parent being neglectful towards their child.
Story-telling can be extremely important when writing a story. It’s something that can quickly make the reader stay interested or completely walk away from it. Running in the Family has a first person account from the author himself however the novel was strongly dependent on other people’s accounts and thus exaggerated and imagined certain things to fill in the holes of the stories. But due to his inconsistent placement with these small stories, the novel seems to take the reader into various turns and can quickly get confusing to how they ended up on a certain point. On the contrary, Cities of Salt does an unusual move and has the story revolving around no actual person, instead the main character being the environment and the changes it faces. Despite doing this, Munif makes it clear as to what changes are occurring and makes sure that the environment is the thing that the reader should be focusing on, rather than seeing it as something in the background.
- Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Books, 2010.
- Martin, Charles. “Comparative Literature102W On-line 09 Cities of Salt 1.” Received by Daljit Liyal, 06 October. 2020.
- Martin, Charles. “Comparative Literature102W On-line 10 Cities of Salt 2.” Received by Daljit Liyal, 08 October. 2020.
- Martin, Charles. “Comparative Literature 102W On-line 18. Running in the Family, 1.” Received by Daljit Liyal, 05 November. 2020.
- Munīf ʻAbd al-Raḥmān, and Peter Theroux. Cities of Salt. Vintage, 1984. Pg 2.
- Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. Vintage International, 1982. Pg 205.