‘Warlight’ by the Author of ‘The English Patient’ Explores the Human Condition in Post-War Britain
- Michael Ondaatje reveals his well-honed craft as a writer by shaping his characters, painting delightful details of their persona and elaborating on how they interact with the world around them.
A poignant coming-of-age story of a young boy, shaped by the quaint chimera of guardians in post-World War II England. An inheritance of secrets, and love lost in the backdrop of wartime intrigue.
Compared to “The English Patient” which earned Ondaatje the coveted Booker Prize in 1992, his new novel also deals with post-World War issues but is set in England rather than the desert and has very haunting Chiaroscuro moments.
The light in “Warlight” illuminates his manuscript and appears as a thin rim under a closed door, moonlight on the estuaries of Thames, naked bulbs in abandoned homes, blue light in the forest, a capsule of brightness in the city’s blackouts, the light that silhouettes long scars and arrow-shaped heads of greyhounds, and human suffering after the blight of war. The light shapes the consciousness of children being left by their parents with strangers. The book has to be read carefully and slowly because every word, and every interaction, how so ever incidental foreshadows the progression of this alluring tale.
The protagonist: Nathaniel, is an introspective young boy with a high-sounding name. He and his sister are abruptly left to fend for themselves when their parents left him. His pet name: is Stitch. He bonds with strange men and women who move in and out of his parent’s home. He learns about facts like the isosceles triangle at school, but he hides his report card under the carpet because it has too many comments about his “mediocrity” at school. But he is not depressed, and he delves into an unusual self-education by attaching himself to spies, assassins, smugglers, farmers, gardeners, thatchers of roofs and beekeepers.
He falls in love with Agnes, a young waitress from whom he wants to borrow a piece of ham for his sandwich, and succumbs to hypothermia by stealing a frozen ham from the restaurant where she works. His sister misses her mother more and succumbs to several epileptic attacks which he learns to fend off by putting a piece of wood between her clenched jaw and holding her still.
The amusing aspect is that the siblings have nicknames much like our family had when we were growing up. They name Walter “Darter” because he darts furtively and whose idea of a date is to share a goat’s head with a lady! The Moth, their primary guardian is a lanky man who flutters unobtrusively in the shadows, the argumentative Russian who paced the halls incessantly, Ethel the ethnographer falls asleep curled up on a chair in a hall full of noisy people. While reading “Warlight,” I was so engrossed in learning with Nathaniel about details of laundering tablecloths, operating elevators at the Centurion hotel, smuggling greyhounds across the canals of Thames on a barge, in the wee hours of the morning, prepping them for races in illicit but interesting ways, the signals imparted by cicadas and other forest creatures at night. So many undercover special forces operations, cyberattacks, mass surveillance, and drone strikes are detailed deliciously but they don’t distract from the heartache of loss and courage of self-discovery of Nathaniel and his missing mother.
As Nathaniel finds a semblance of safety, a thrill of adventure with strangers wielding knives, rakes and chemicals, he wonders about his mother and her whereabouts but does not allow himself to wallow in loneliness or self-pity. Little does he know that his mother is shaping his personality through “half-truths” and “half-stories.” His sister finds refuge in acting in local theaters and moves away from him literally and emotionally…an aftermath of darkness created by war.
The backdrop in this book reminds me of my own coming of age and unraveling the mystery of our parents’ (and grandparents’ lives) before the development of our thinking mind as children. While reading the book I pondered on the aftermath of millions of Indians who lost their lives fighting for the British in the war. And the aftermath of partition on a large mass of people, arbitrarily forced to flee their homes, like my father and his dear ones during the partition of India in 1945. But that story is my calling and I have to write in detail about it.
In “Warlight,” Nathaniel tries to build his mother’s identity as an individual, a wife, and a career woman from his impressions of her and the cryptic clues she leaves for him before she is buried in a very slender coffin. “He will look like an English gentleman,” she has written on a piece of paper. And Nathaniel does half-meet a stranger who comes up to him at his funeral and says: “Your mother was a remarkable woman. Was he the young boy his mother told him about who had fallen off a thatched roof.”
In the latter half of the book, the author discloses why the parents had left suddenly. How the children’s mother had appointed a network of her “spy” colleagues to watch over her children and teach them survival techniques while she was in hiding. I was relieved that she does spend a few days with her son and takes time to teach him other strategies before passing, via the game of chess. That chapter in the book is endearingly wholesome. If someone can’t read the whole book that one chapter and vivid description of a famous chess game is a wonderful read and in itself a lesson in unconventional but excellent parenting.
“Warlight” offers great insight into character development. Ondaatje reveals his well-honed craft as a writer by shaping his characters, painting delightful details of their persona and elaborating on how they interact with the world around them. I was intrigued by the quote on the dedication page: “Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps.” And committed to reading the book from the first intriguing sentence: “In 1945 my parents left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals!” This is brilliant writing indeed!
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.