I promised I’d share my favourite bit of Michael Ondaatje’s autobiography, Running in the Family, so here goes.
You have to imagine a wild forest in Sri Lanka. Monsoon season. Extremely hot and extremely wet, and the travellers have decided to make the most of the rain and have a bath.
Everything is white with rain and foaming soap until:
‘Then a new burst of energy. A val oora – a large filthy black wild boar has appeared majestically out of the trees with tusks that turn his quiet face into hare-lipped deformity. He watches, making us aware of each other half-soaped, happy and ridiculous, dresses heavy with rain, sarongs above the knees. All of us – the lilies, the trees with their wind drunk hair, this magnificent val oora who is now the centre of the storm – celebrating the elimination of heat. He moves straight-thighed, stiff, but with a lunging walk, keeping his polite distance.
Wild black pig in white rainstorm, concerned about this invasion, this metamorphosis of soap, this dented Volskwagen, this jeep. He can take his pick, of any of us. If I am to die soon, I would choose now under his wet alphabet of a tusk.’
I love it. See how the pig, something so shocking and out of the ordinary, brings all the details into sharp focus? See how the presence of another causes the author to introspect? See the juxtaposition of the black, the white, the wild, the manufactured. The invsaion of humanity into the pig’s life. They are both as confused as each other, pig and man. Both as caught out, in what they believed their natural aloneness and safety. A pig being described as polite! The choice of words! The staccato picking of those short sentences “Wild black pig in white rainstorm.” Not “I saw a wild black pig while I was caught in a rainstorm.” It’s not the same thing. The words are so precise, chosen with such care. The wet alphabet of a tusk! Not a “slimy white trusk.” Not even a savage tusk. An alphabet tusk. What does it mean? You tell me.
A metamorphosis of soap! Could I delight more in such words!
Now, if only my biography can read half as beautifully as that, I could die a contented writer at an alphabet tusk.