Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

by Edith Cody-Rice

The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.

This is a quote from Michael Ondaatje which applies to all of his novels and his recently published Warlight is no exception. Born in Sri Lanka in 1943, Mr. Ondaatje moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. The winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Booker, the Giller, the Prix Médicis étranger and the Governor General’s literary award, he now ranks as one of the most important literary figures in Canada, particularly after the publication of his enormously successful novel The English Patient which was made into an equally successful film.

Mr. Ondaatje is essentially a poet and his use of language reflects a poet’s sensibility.  Warlight reveals his talented use of economical language to create an atmosphere, a story and a sense of mystery which permeates the work. The setting is post World War II London, still dark and traumatized and the narrator is Nathaniel, the son of an apparently normal father and mother who are leaving him and his sister Rachel while the husband takes up a job in Singapore. To leave two young children and go half way around the world is strange enough, but they leave the siblings in the care of an odd character whom the children dub “The Moth”, a lodger who invites into the home a strange collection of seemingly shady characters. The children suspect he is a criminal. And the couple prove to be far from “normal”.

In describing the London of the time, Nathaniel muses,

I used to sit on the top level of a show-moving bus and peer down at the empty streets. There were parts of the city where you saw no one, only a few children, walking solitary, listless as small ghosts. It was a time of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over in black material where glass had been. The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself. It allowed one to be rule-less. Everything had already happened. Hadn’t it? 

The story is told in retrospect by Nathaniel, now adult, who reflects on his childhood, so abruptly terminated by the departure of his parents. He recounts his adolescence when he was set apart from his peers by his involvement with the Moth and his friends. What is t he truth underlying all of this? That truth is revealed slowly, darkly and in bits making a whole with difficulty.

For the backdrop of the novel is a Europe in which the war did not end with the armistice. Deeply injured and vengeful factions wreak chaos and catastrophe upon each other in actions small and large across Europe. The story hints at and obliquely engages with the deep and cataclysmic trauma that has scarred its people.

But not only London is uncertain. Life itself is on unstable ground and the reader feels this throughout the book. The children live, but are never sure what they are living or why and they grow up in what seems to be the rather careless protection of The Moth.

In an interview with the Toronto Star about Warlight, Mr. Ondaatje said,

I didn’t want it to be a book about the Second World War, or a war novel. It was much more a domestic situation in a way. The ending of wars is always kind of a treacherous time you know, we (take it) that it’s always kind of a positive thing, but all these deals are being made, contracts are being signed, so it was just that leap from a war period to a peacetime period and all those hidden things that go on.

Slowly, the fog clears, but never entirely and Nathaniel is left, himself rather damaged it seems, to sit reflecting in his walled garden.

Mr. Ondaatje’s great forte is  his use of the most finely tuned prose: his ability to conjure up a scene through meticulous attention to detail but to leave an underlying mystery intact and his talent at making tangible the intangible: the atmosphere, the complex emotions. It is all on display in this novel. You feel he has penetrated a trembling soul. The work of a master.