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Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Warlight’: Pieces of a puzzle

Michael Ondaatje's new novel harks back to his preoccupation with archives and the fragility of human memory, but still lacks his usual bite

Set in the years following the turbulence of World War II, Ondaatje’s new novel deals with a brewing family drama and intrigue. Photo: Alamy
Set in the years following the turbulence of World War II, Ondaatje’s new novel deals with a brewing family drama and intrigue. Photo: Alamy

Stories of war often talk of closely fought battles, friendship and treachery, tragic losses in times of complete chaos. Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, though, tells a more sombre tale, not in the throes of blitzkrieg but in the murky, often neglected, period that follows war.

“It was a time of true and false recollections," says Nathaniel, Warlight’s narrator. Although he is referring to the years immediately following World War II, a decade that occupies almost the entire book, his words seem a fitting description for how the story of Warlight is told. Here is yet another tale that dangles between history and fiction, truth and secrecy—a condition that has come to be associated with Ondaatje’s work; from the outset, we know we cannot trust what we read because memory has its blind spots, and even the characters whose stories we are reading can get their own story wrong.

Nathaniel is 14 at the start of the novel. He and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are left in the custody of a strange man—whom they christen The Moth—when their parents suddenly have to leave London for Singapore. What initially seems like a hurried but benign departure dictated by their father’s transfer to Unilever, soon reveals itself to be a dubious situation where nobody is who they say they are—including the parents. Nathaniel and Rachel’s adolescence is coloured by a series of half-understood situations and half-known people. The peculiar visitors invited to their home by their new guardian become the trademark of their new and bizarre life. “The house felt more like a night zoo," Nathaniel remembers, “with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer."

These odd bodies seem at once intriguing and dangerous to the teenage Nathaniel, mostly because he never fully understands their presence in his life. But, as the years pass, these same people, some of whom become constants, display what Nathaniel considers possibly criminal behaviour. Still, they also show inexplicable care to Nathaniel and his sister. “I am now at an age where I can talk about…how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers," Nathaniel says, though, of course, he isn’t certain whether he was protected at all back then. The behaviour of the guardian grows increasingly questionable when it turns out Nathaniel’s mother has a secret life the children know nothing about. When they learn their mother isn’t in Singapore but in some undisclosed location, doing undisclosed work somehow related to the war, they know their guardians, too, must carry many secrets. Indeed, we know of several characters only by the nicknames the children assign them. As Nathaniel says, “Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises."

Disguise quickly becomes a way of living. For Nathaniel, it is a steamy, teenage love affair with a girl whose real name he never learns and to whom he never discloses the mysterious absence of his parents. For Rachel, theatre, a profession of daily disguise, becomes an escape from a life invisibly bound to a mother she distrusts immensely. Years after their mother re-emerges and eventually dies, Nathaniel gets a job in the government archives. Here, he attempts to trace the story of his mother’s secret life in the hope he may finally discover the truth about his own. In trademark Ondaatje style, a detective-like piecing together of distant memory and discoveries made years later upturns familial ties and what were thought to be loyal friendships. Characters from the past come into new light. Between learning of state secrets and wars that persisted on the continent long after World War II ended, Nathaniel learns that the most unexplained time of his life hasn’t ended. Somewhere, in digging into the leveller of truth that is the archive, he longs to lay these enigmas to rest.

Warlight has the makings of a classic Ondaatje novel—memory carefully arranged and rearranged until it exposes devastating truths to its characters. The novel’s beauty lies in its scale, in the epic leaps that remembrance takes between recorded history and lived secrets. Still, in that expanse, the tenor remains fragile, and the smoky darkness of post-war life often seems fantastical. But, unlike its predecessor (The Cat’s Table), Warlight fails to sustain its intrigue. The first part of the book is gripping, with each chapter turning a blind corner. In the second part, though, the novel loses steam and learning more about the disguised characters becomes somewhat uninteresting. Shocking revelations begin to come as a listing of facts, rather than playing out in suspenseful situations. Perhaps this attempt at creating loopholes and filling them pales because of the premise of the narration.

Nathaniel is working with physical archives (a long-time interest of Ondaatje’s) to tell this story. Unfortunately, the latter part of the novel starts reading like an assemblage of file-room facts as he unearths them. The tenderness and intimacy of memory that one has come to expect of Ondaatje’s works elude Warlight, and it is difficult to care for a character even as he struggles with the immensity of not truly having known the life he led. The lush poetry that typifies Ondaatje’s work, too, falls short. Too often, Ondaatje states the obvious or his narrator lapses into musings on the writer’s own preoccupation with certain tropes and form.

“When you attempt a memoir," Nathaniel writes, “…you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you…will come almost casually towards you." As jarring as that statement seems within the narration, it is also telling of why the novel lacks bite—nothing comes casually, so the momentum often strains. By the end, we are left with beautiful language, an eccentric palette of characters, and a cascade of truths divulged, still wishing that, somehow, it all mattered more.

Warlight: By Michael Ondaatje, Penguin Random House, 304 pages, Rs599.
Warlight: By Michael Ondaatje, Penguin Random House, 304 pages, Rs599.

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