A Supreme Master: Michael Ondaatje’s New Novel, Warlight
Michael Ondaatje needs little introduction. Born in Sri Lanka and partly educated in London before emigrating as a teenager in the early 1960s to Canada, where he still lives, he is a writer of international calibre whose works are widely read and praised. In 2007, when Divisadero (McClelland & Stewart, Canada / Knopf, US / Bloomsbury, UK, 2007) won him the eminent Governor-General’s Literary Award for the fifth time, Ondaatje said he did not have any great expectations of the book, which took him a “quicker than normal” five years to write and is set in California and France.1 Normal for Ondaatje is around seven years, and indeed Warlight (Knopf, US / Jonathan Cape, UK, 2018) appears about seven years after The Cat’s Table (Knopf, US / Jonathan Cape, UK, 2011).
Last year Ondaatje’s notebooks were acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In an interview with the Center’s director, Stephen Enniss, Ondaatje elaborated on his writing process. Each novel is the product of four handwritten drafts, followed by more versions rewritten on a typewriter or computer. After that, he says, he focuses on “reworking it, printing it out, rewriting it by hand.”2 The craft of editing, the shaping of the book, is an essential part of the writing process.
Hints of the writer’s craft appear in the storylines, too. This is the case of his 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient (Knopf, US / Bloomsbury, UK), which was later adapted into an award-winning film by Anthony Minghella. Hana thinks that “[I]f she were a writer she would collect her pencils and notebooks and favourite cat and write in bed.” Lying in the former convent of Villa San Girolamo, outside Florence, the English patient himself has such a notebook beside his bed, also filled with cuttings, maps and drawings. Ondaatje may have been thinking of his own notebooks – and possibly those of other authors, too – Muriel Spark, for one. Ondaatje’s include photos and other images, which intersperse the draft of the novel with what he describes as “a few visual breaks along the way.” Occasionally, these might exert some “subliminal influence” on a particular scene: the covers of his notebooks for The English Patient reveal hints of these associations.
The title of his latest novel refers to a specific quality of muted light produced by blackouts and curfews during the War: especially that half-light in the last months of the war when the full blackout was replaced by a “dim-out” and man-made light was permitted so long as it did not exceed the level of moonlight. In London, full lighting was restored in April 1945. In Ondaatje’s title, warlight also has moral and intrinsic qualities: it is that half-light into which figures vanish or re-emerge, morals are cloaked – maybe absent – a son discovers his mother’s code name, and all actions work to hidden agendas.
In 1945 the parents of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his sister Rachel ostensibly leave London to travel to Singapore for work. The children feel that they have been abandoned to the care of two men “who may have been criminals.” One of them, their guardian, is an enigmatic figure they call The Moth; the other is an ex-boxer, The Pimlico Darter. Their home is gradually peopled by a “table full of strangers” and they start to lead a double life, skipping school and eating takeaways from the nearby street market. The story is a cross between a coming-of-age tale, a spy story, and love stories, not least the love between mother and son. Ondaatje peoples the novel with an extraordinary cast, most of whom have nicknames – the Beekeeper, Agnes Street, as well as the children themselves, Stitch and Wren. No one is quite whom they seem.
When talking about his books, Ondaatje says: “There’s no subject when I begin. I really begin with a fragment. It’s often an image. Gradually as I stay with that image, that situation, a story will gradually emerge.” It’s not just place that engenders plot, but also historical time. Ondaatje was unable to respond to an interview for this article, citing a reluctance to focus on the historical aspects, but they clearly matter to him. In the interview with Stephen Ennis, Ondaatje said: “I need to ground myself in a precise location or time period — a farm in California, Louisiana in 1912 — in order to let the book evolve without drifting off into something surreal or unstructured … the story takes place then, there… it could be a convent where strangers meet and are altered.”3
In Warlight the detail is punctilious: Nathaniel works as the Darter’s accomplice, nosing their way on a barge through London’s web of canals and along stretches of the Thames; now, with Nathaniel, the Darter is smuggling racing greyhounds, but a few years earlier, during the War, he had piloted munition barges. Those activities were part of a massive underground operation, also involving secret lorries that hurtled across London with the nitroglycerin manufactured at Waltham Abbey. Many of the characters in the novel have links to Marsh Felon, a naturalist with a deep knowledge of art and maps. Nathaniel hears him talk on the radio as a boy, but at the time he is unaware of the significance of this figure in his mother’s life. Such fragments of childhood memory haunt him as an adult.
It might seem paradoxical, but for Ondaatje, whose work has been described as the epitome of a nomadic and cosmopolitan existence, a sense of place is essential. His most lyrical descriptions are of landscape or cityscapes. In Warlight, Nathaniel discovers the hidden landscape of the Saints, a secretive group of villages where his mother grew up in deepest Suffolk. This coastal area became sign-less overnight in the War in order to confuse potential invaders. When Nathaniel returns to the Saints as an adult, there is a sense that the scale of his life diminishes. At work he moves among the cabinets of the secret archives, while at home he delves into the secret walled garden of the house he has bought and penetrates the dark workings of the beehives there. Nathaniel’s search to make sense of his childhood is a key theme of Warlight: the ghosts of childhood return, singing out warnings like the “nightingale” floor in the hall of his mother’s old home.
Facets of Warlight draw on the same rich vein that inspired his earlier masterpiece, The English Patient. Both novels are set in the damaged post-war years, where many individuals struggle to realign their damaged lives and threats persist long after the actual enemy has withdrawn. In The English Patient one of the physical threats is the mines that Kip, the Sikh sapper, identifies and defuses around the villa. In Warlight, the damage is to the two children’s lives and to those who protect them. Revenge can be set in motion across borders and across generations. In his late twenties Nathaniel works on the fringes of the “Service” and finds himself searching for clues in the warren-like basement of the archives that might help him to trace his mother’s wartime activities. Technically, Nathaniel’s job is to destroy evidence that somehow escaped the initial wave of censorship in the closing stages of the War. Ondaatje cites the factual event of February 1946 when the Baker Street offices of the Special Operations Executive were damaged by fire, resulting in the large-scale destruction of their archives.
It seems fitting that maps play an important role, echoing the book’s epigraph: “Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps.” We have to be most alert when the lines don’t match up, when gaps mask reality. Nathaniel recalls a map that he saw as a boy which showed his father’s company offices spread across the globe; as an adult, he wonders whether the map didn’t show something quite different. Recall plays a key part in Nathaniel’s patient reconstruction of his mother’s activities, too, using fragments of memory, maps and records. In Divisadero, Ondaatje wrote that “we live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever stories we tell.”
Olive Lawrence is one of the few “un-nicknamed” strangers whom Nathaniel and Rachel meet during the years they are living with The Moth. An expert on winds and weather, she thrills them with her knowledge of night-time walks through the woods, lenticular clouds and Saussure’s cyanometer, which is used to classify the various blues in the sky. In Warlight, Ondaatje applies a similar spectrometer to the shades of human identity and loss – like warlight, the boundaries are indistinct, blurred, but the importance for the planning of wartime flights is clear. This spectrum of blue also charts another evolution: time. Ondaatje began his writing career as a poet and won the Governor-General’s Literary Award twice for poetry before turning to fiction. Although completely different in form, the poet’s finely tuned ear has influenced his prose. In the poem “Untitled,” Ondaatje writes about a poet who has passed through “wars and eras of love,” but the “precise pitch” of his poems are “unaffected by time.” “What,” he concludes, “could we learn by leaving the color blue for another?”4 Ondaatje’s mastery of style and language will earn him further prizes, but it is his storytelling and his portrayal of character and human nature that profoundly touch and enrich his readers.
- Michael Posner
“Ondaatje ties MacLennan for most G-Gs.” The Globe and Mail, 28 November 2007. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/ondaatje-ties-maclennan-for-most-g-gs/article1090486/
- Stephen Enniss
“A nomad’s writing finds a home.” Ransom Center Magazine, 25 September 2017. http://sites.utexas.edu/ransomcentermagazine/2017/09/25/a-nomads-writing-finds-a-home/
- Michael Ondaatje
“Untitled.” The Threepenny Review, No. 138 (Summer 2014), p. 18.
About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is Features editor of Historical Novels Review and translates mainly non-fiction from Italian into English. A World of Words: https://textline.wordpress.com/