Tuesday 18 December 2018

Secrets and lies slowly surface in post-war puzzle

Fiction: Warlight, Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 304 pages, €23.99

Michael Ondaatje: creates his characters like a master gallerist
Michael Ondaatje: creates his characters like a master gallerist
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Hilary A White

Threading together distant and fragmented memories of a family after the Blitz makes for an often gripping read from a grandmaster.

'In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." So goes the opening line of Michael Ondaatje's jigsaw-puzzle war novel that hits the ground running, zig-zags into a range of post-war intrigues and mysteries before slowing to a contemplative but revelatory amble.

This inversion of the usual narrative pacing progression is all in a day's work for Ondaatje, who begins projects without direction or planning and yet arrives at such lofty junctions as Anil's Ghost or the uniquely resonant The English Patient. Warlight, his first in seven years, is particularly concerned with memory and the manner in which, like the untethered Almásy himself, advancing mortality can often force us to "order our lives with such barely held stories".

It is a theme that will never leave the field of literary fiction because it is a drum that bangs louder with age, you suspect. For Ondaatje, a migrant from his earliest years who was born in Sri Lanka before moving to London at age 11 and finally Quebec at 19, there appears to be a particular interest in how memory becomes unmoored against a backdrop of conflict. London is picking up the pieces after the Blitz, as are 15-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel.

They have been informed by their mother Rose that she and their father must go abroad for some time to see to important matters. The reasons are non-descript, as is the motive. Making things even more murky is the peculiar, hands-off stewardship of their incumbent guardian who they dub The Moth. Very little is known about him other than he has an odd assortment of friends who seem to come and go from the children's home.

An essence is left behind each time by The Moth and his cohorts - especially one man named The Darter - that both puzzles and inspires the young pair. Nathaniel, our narrator, is particularly intrigued by The Darter and the women he rendezvouses with at their home.

He is coming of age as a young man, and the world is too disordered to provide him with a conventional father figure. The Darter, who begins to draw Nathaniel into a black-market greyhound-importing venture, provides something bizarrely akin. When Nathaniel embarks on a sweetly flowering romance with a waitress he calls Agnes (after the street where the young lovers meet for romps in vacant rental properties), The Darter is made to masquerade as his father to make all seem normal in her eyes.

But it is unquestionably the mother figure that looms the largest in Warlight, as is so often the case. Nathaniel is looking back years later after she has passed away and his relationship with Rachel is irreparably damaged. Where did she really go? Why was the suitcase that her parents packed for their long journey discovered hidden in a basement corner? Who are these friends of hers and why don't they give straight answers to questions about her?

As the camera pans back, so stealthily at times that it makes you doubt yourself, Nathaniel, working as an archivist, threads together the memories of his mother. In doing so, he replaces the assumption that she and The Moth et al were involved in criminal activity for something far more heroic and life-threatening than that. Without giving too much away, Rose never neglected her duty as a mother to protect her children.

This seam of subterfuge and the truth being gradually released from the shadows make Warlight gripping reading at times, especially given Ondaatje's ability to land you in it without you seeing it coming.

The entire outing is so coated in uncertainty and elusiveness at times. Several characters go by assumed names - even Nathaniel and Rachel are known as Stitch and Wren ("Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises") - and shards of memory are pieced together or padded out by Nathaniel, situations and incidents that were beyond him at the time.

In a similar manner to what Graham Greene pulled off in The End of the Affair, the disarray London finds itself in spreads beyond the bombing rubble and into the lives carrying on at street level. People not saying what they really are, or clearly spelling it out but leaving an ocean unspoken of. The warlight of the title is the system of blacking out London to enemy bombers in the sky by leaving on only dimmed orange lights on bridges for secret nocturnal transportations. It is a useful metaphor for an individual trying to fill in the gaps years later on what exactly took place during his formative years. "If you grow up with uncertainty, you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis. You do not concern yourself with what you must remember about them. You are on your own."

This can make everything tricky to hold securely in the reader's hands, and thus very gripping at times. Fleeting sensations expand into ruminations on something or someone, only for that slow-burning energy to flare up into action, danger and excitement.

Ondaatje adorns the walls with his characters like a master gallerist, all of them quietly obsessive and nerdish in their own ways, hauntingly seductive, sculpted from paper and coated in little but grey smoke and tender vibrations. The women in Nathaniel's life that offer slightly less of an existential conundrum than his mother - Rachel, Agnes, the mesmeric effect had on him by a liaison of The Darter's called Olive Lawrence - shimmer the brightest.

"I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth," Nathanial reflects towards the close of Warlight. Ondaatje, the grandmaster novelist who starts writing in order to see what happens next, has performed a similar feat.

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