Michael Ondaatje’s extrardinary play of warlight & shadow

Michael Ondaatje. Warlight. (McClelland & Stewart 2018).

Set in early post-WW2 London to begin with, told from the point-of-view of a young man in his late 20s writing in 1959, Warlight takes up the tropes of mystery, spy thriller, & youthful family abandonment, & as one would expect of Ondaatje, tramples them underfoot while offering mysteries galore, extraordinary invention, a beautiful opaqueness, the usual Ondaatjean deviousness of narration, & a slyly oblique series of imbedded stories slowly unfolded by a narrator who knows just how unreliable his memory & the fragments of historical archives force him to be. It is, as one would expect, a terrific & emotionally engaging read.

In 1946, the parents of 14 year old Nathaniel (‘Stitch’) & his 16 year old sister, Rachel (‘Wren’) tell them that their father’s job will take the two of them to Singapore for a year, & so their upstairs lodger, whom the kids called ‘The Moth,’ would be their guardian for the year they were away, while the kids attended their different schools & were home for the holidays. All those years later, Nathaniel is trying to recall their life during that time, to see if he can reconstruct what happened to him (he’s estranged from his sister, & can’t now understand her interior life then) & what it all did to make him the person he is now. Yet, he drops some earlier memories remembered, that hint at other stories, those of his mother & of some of the other people whom The Moth knew & invited into their home.

Some of these other people become Stitch’s wayward mentors over the next few years as his parents, especially his mother (his father quickly disappears from his narrative, & in a quietly traumatic way from his memory) fail to return, & he & Rachel learn quite early that she never joined their father in Singapore. So in the kinds of unrelated/deeply related narrative fragments that slowly accumulate into the larger narrative that is the Ondaatje novel, Nathaniel writes of his younger life, the love affair with a waitress in one of the places he works, his adventures with The Darter, who uses a borrowed mussel boat to ferry illegal greyhounds across London, & of his sister’s epileptic fits (not large but needing to be dealt with properly), & some of The Darter’s lovers who influenced him.

Then, he starts writing as his older self, now working for the Intelligence service as a reviewer of archived information, much of which is to be destroyed. And his mother, whom we will learn later, left the Service to protect her children & returned to her ancestral home in Sussex, where he lives with her when not at university, but Rachel never visits. Nathaniel now begins is obsessive research into her double life, & finds enough scattered hints to start imagining her life, & that of her mentor (a man mentioned as a boy in passing in the first few pages of Warlight). Slowly both narrator & author begin filling in the spy thriller/mystery story a more conventional writer would have made the central & driving plot of the book. But, of course, Ondaatje is after subtler, more difficult game here: the psychologies of both narrator & narrated, how Nathaniel’s telling tells about him, the kind of isolato he has become, the kind his mother perforce had to be to do her intelligence work both during the war & perhaps more importantly in the tiny wars among various participants, especially in Italy & the Balkans, afterwards.

The accumulation of details, whether ‘real’ or simply imagined by Nathaniel, the ways in which some of what seemed unimportant ones in the early tales of Nathaniel & Rachel’s teenage lives come into the dark foreground later, the ways Nathaniel’s tracking of soon-to-be-destroyed Intelligence documents as well as rumours & occasional memories passed on, slowly add up, creating their own devious & oblique suspense, leading the reader ever deeper into the maze that is this skein of interrelated fragments of mystery. The title is offhandedly explained late in the novel, & suggests the hidden light & strong shadows in which everything takes place in these interleaved stories. There is a richness, a depth of arcane & ordinary information, to Warlight that lends it immense fictional weight (& I haven’t even mentioned how craftily & sneakily the adjectives & adverbs do their devious work throughout). Indeed, although I’ve barely begun to touch on all that Warlight accomplishes in its complex narrative bricolage, what I can say is that it’s a wonderful addition to the Ondaatje oeuvre, an experience to enjoy slowly & fully.

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