The Fog of War Never Clears Completely
Michael Ondaatje is so adept at creating seductive and compelling settings and observations of the human element in his storytelling that he can share the premise and foreshadow the entire novel’s narrative in the opening line.
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.
In WARLIGHT’s first sentence, he tells us the who, what and when of the novel. There is also something in the voice and phrasing that suggests the where. And by his omission of the why, he hints at an entire universe of mystery, adventure and discovery.
Ondaatje writes as if it’s just the two of you apart from distracting crowds, bosses, spouses, children, marketers, even smartphones. He wants you to know this story and tells you exactly what you need to know to get to the next sentence with its revelation of another intriguing surprise. And on he goes, rewarding your interest with deeper insights again and again.
Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents and left in the care of a not very talkative enigma, an ageless fellow they come to know as The Moth. As they become certain that the Moth and his associates are as untrustworthy as their aliases, Nathaniel and Rachel worry less and adapt each in their distinctive way to their mysterious circumstances.
Years later, Nathaniel penetrates the reality of his myth and that of his parents and others and chooses to continue his journey to understanding.
Ondaatje was born in Columbo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to unreliable parents. By the time Ondaatje was six years old, his father abandoned him for alcohol. His mother left for England. Eventually, he followed his mother and kept going to Canada to study literature.
In addition to being a Booker Prize novelist – The English Patient – Ondaatje is a gifted poet. He writes from a place of such sensitive and elegant connection to truth that one occasionally wants to pause and reread a sentence for its power and artfulness. His writing possesses a sense of time, place, and action so profoundly known and understood that he doesn’t slow down for exposition. Nothing bores a reader faster than telling. It slows the momentum. Any obstacle to complete surrender to the story is to be avoided.
Ondaatje draws upon his distinctive grasp of human aspirations and fears as he relates the young teenagers’ coming of age among a ring of operators who manage to survive during World War II London by skillful manipulation of the levers of hidden night schemes. Each setting evolves from shadows with characters that resonate with the cleverness of Dickens’ Artful Dodger, the resolution of Le Carre’s George Smiley and entirely new yet recognizable strangers who become acquaintances, some of whom we trust.
Some critics have held Ondaatje’s patience in revealing character strictly through action against him. I laud him for it. In life, we are each on our own ultimately to discover the truth of things in other people and ourselves.
“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 or should remember about them. You are on your own.”
In WARLIGHT, Nathaniel and Rachel grow stronger through uncertainty in ways that Michael Ondaatje seems uniquely qualified to tell us.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE is the author of seven novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film and several books of poetry. In addition to Warlight, he wrote The English Patient (Booker Prize), Anil’s Ghost (Irish Times International Fiction Prize and Prix Medicis), The Cat’s Table, The Cinnamon Peeler, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter and Divisadero, Coming Through Slaughter and Running in the Family.