The narrator of Warlight, an Englishman called Nathaniel Williams who is fourteen when the story begins and twenty-nine (though sounding much older) when he looks back and tries to piece it all together, tells himself this about the past:
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.
Dark worlds, blackouts, night scenes, bonfires in unlit streets, the hour before dawn “as night began dissolving,” sodium lamps, points of light, writing by candlelight, and the gray buildings of postwar London pattern this novel of chiaroscuro. Secrets and hidden lives remain obscure for a long time; some mysteries never come to light; some things stay lost in darkness. The narrator is feeling his way back through the half-dark.
As in so much of Michael Ondaatje’s work, adult selves have to rewitness what happened in childhood and work out how and why early experiences have made them who they are. This goes for Anil in Anil’s Ghost, and for the traumatically parted sisters in Divisadero, and for the narrator, “Michael,” looking back on his eleven-year-old self in The Cat’s Table, and for Ondaatje himself, returning to Sri Lanka and to the family story in Running in the Family, because “in my mid-thirties I realised I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood.” But how can you know, at the time, how events are going to shape your future life? The question haunts his books, as in Divisadero:
We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives…. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories.
“Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” asks the bewildered narrator of Warlight.
The readers are no wiser than the characters. We’re in the “unlit,” too. There are clues everywhere from the first page, tiny details waiting to have their meaning detonated much later on—a sprig of rosemary placed in a pocket, a line from a Schumann song, a squeaking floorboard, a scribbled map—but we have to piece them together, as the narrator does, like a jigsaw puzzle or papers in an archive. We share the narrator’s hesitancy and uncertainty, and we have to be patient. In The Cat’s Table, we’re told, with approval, about a filmmaker who doesn’t want his audience to feel wiser than his characters: “We do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves.” The effect of that method here is slow, suspenseful, and disquieting.
“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” Warlight begins, with irresistible laconic oddness. The parents say they are going to Singapore for a year, for the father’s job. The mother, Rose, makes much of packing her trunk. Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel (“Stitch” and “Wren,” as their mother calls them) are left in the house in Ruvigny Gardens in South London, in the care of a hesitant, inscrutable, music-loving person called Walter, whom they nickname The Moth. He fills their parents’ house with floating visitors, all with a variety of specialized, sometimes dubious, professions. Ondaatje loves crafts and skills—from bridge-building to bomb disposal—and by the end of the novel we, and Nathaniel, will have learned a great deal about greyhound racing (and smuggling), meteorology, roof climbing, making flies for fishing, thatching, beekeeping, wildfowl shooting, barge steering, chess moves, and the making of maps.
These visitors all have their nicknames and their peculiarities. There is the Pimlico Darter, an ex-welterweight boxer; Mr. Florence the beekeeper; Citronella the couturier; Olive Lawrence, night walker, meteorologist, and ethnographer; and Arthur McCash, a shy, muscular linguist and limerick reciter. Together they make up a “night zoo” of curious companions and mentors. Unlike these surrogate parents, Nathaniel and Rachel’s real father has vanished forever, as fathers tend to do in Ondaatje’s work. He is an absent ghost, never explained or understood. But their mother is the challenge to them. They find her trunk, so they know she hasn’t really gone away. She is somewhere out there, hidden from them. As in The Cat’s Table, we don’t know whether the boy will find his missing mother.
Nathaniel has a loose attachment to his school, which he dislikes (it sounds very like Dulwich College, the school Ondaatje was sent to, and disliked, in his teens). But his real education is with The Moth and The Darter, Olive and McCash. He is taken on night walks “along the bombed-out docklands or into the echoing Greenwich Foot Tunnel,” and on barges smuggling illegally imported greyhounds up the Thames (the dogs are some of the most vivid and beautiful characters in the book). He adventures alone into the unstable wilderness of the postwar world—doing the laundry and washing dishes for big hotels and West End restaurants, heaving sculptures and paintings out of their wartime storage in basements.
Nathaniel has his first affair at fifteen, with one of the waitresses, a girl with a green ribbon in her hair, who takes him to empty houses where they make love surrounded by the greyhounds. He calls her Agnes, after one of the streets where they meet. He drifts away from his sister Rachel. Tough, vulnerable—she is an epileptic—and furious with their mother, she is drawn into the world of the theater and starts to vanish from the story, one of Ondaatje’s lost siblings.
Rachel’s theatrical world mirrors the theater of the novel. Everyone is onstage; everyone is camouflaged or has a false name. Ruvigny Gardens feels to Nathaniel “like an amateur theatre company.” No one is what he or she seems. Like secretive poker players, they are all breasting their cards, as The Darter teaches Nathaniel to do. Gradually, through the secrets and disguises, the story of their mother, Rose, begins to emerge out of her camouflage. It turns out to be her book as much as her son’s, and he becomes the indirect narrator of her life.
Rose grew up in a settled English family in remote rural Suffolk—a part of the county called “The Saints” because of its groups of little villages, each with its church, the perfect setting for decoy airfields to confuse the enemy during the war. Her father was an admiral in World War I. At eight, she befriends the son of rough village thatchers who has fallen from the roof of a house nearby and is taken in by her family. This boy, strangely named “Marsh Felon” (like many of Ondaatje’s antiheroes, he lives on the edge of the law), becomes her life’s companion and mentor, as he makes a remarkable journey away from his country family. He becomes a Cambridge student, a roof climber, a naturalist, a BBC presenter, and a recruiter, in the years leading up to and during the war, of agents for the Special Operations Executive. He is one of those fear-defying, self-made, adventurous Ondaatje characters who seem capable of anything—like Nicholas Temelcoff the immigrant bridge-builder in In the Skin of a Lion, or Caravaggio the thief in that novel and in The English Patient, or Coop the farm worker in Divisadero.
History comes flooding into the novel with the story of Rose and Felon. Rose’s hidden work is pieced together in later years by her son, who is working in the Foreign Office archives—a rather laborious piece of plotting that enables him to listen in on crucial interrogations and track down people who have gone missing. During the war, Marsh Felon recruited her as an agent. She was a radio operator, intercepting enemy and Partisan signals, harvesting data on enemy maneuvers and broadcasting them over the airwaves, working clandestinely in Europe in the period when she left her children. Her code name is “Viola”: perhaps an echo of the heroic agent Violette Szabo, as well as of Shakespeare’s disguised heroine in Twelfth Night, homeless in a foreign country, and perhaps too an echo of the word “violent.”
She and Felon play their part in the tensions between the Allies and the Partisans in Italy and Yugoslavia. Brutal acts of torture, extermination, revenge, and betrayal are part of this history. There are scenes in Italy in secret agents’ camps and interrogation rooms. Looking back from the security of the Foreign Office archive room on the closing stages of the war and the actions of the Partisans, the Fascists, and the Allies, Nathaniel sees that “moral positions” are equivocal; there is always conflicting evidence.
Because her children are endangered, Rose severs her links to the intelligence world after the war. But she is a wanted person, and her past catches up with her. As in many of Ondaatje’s novels, war presses in on the private lives of the characters. There is no such thing as a safe house. The words “danger” and “safety” ring uneasily all through the book.
The grown-up Nathaniel works out that the nighttime dog-smuggling had been a cover for the dangerous transportation of nitroglycerin from the wartime munitions factory at Waltham Abbey. The “night zoo” of oddballs in Ruvigny Gardens were guardians sent to keep the children safe. They were all working for the Intelligence Service, part of an intricate world that resembled a “remarkable theatrical performance.” They were always in danger, and one of them gave his life for the children.
Realizing, years later, how unknowing, ignorant—or innocent—he was, Nathaniel has to ask himself how dangerous he was to others, how much damage he did unknowingly. His strange rite of passage from childhood to adulthood has to be rethought. He ends up looking back at damage and tragedy from the apparent safety of his “walled garden” in Suffolk, a regretful, sad narrator, like Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, or Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.
Those are all English stories, or stories about Englishness, and this is Ondaatje’s English novel. English heroism, eccentricity, irony, shyness, and duplicity, English landscape and history, are the subject of Warlight. There are eloquent, haunting, precise evocations of the atmosphere of London at the end of the war, of the seasonal life of rural Suffolk, and, best of all, of the great tidal river and its traffic. At the end of The Cat’s Table, the boys from Asia arrive in England, where they are going to spend the rest of their childhoods. Their ocean liner rides up the Thames to Tilbury docks, through a scene that seems to them “a remnant from another industrial time—jetties, saltings, the entrances to dredged channels,” a place “full of names.” This becomes the adventure ground of Warlight, the world of barges and lightermen and secret cargo and tideways:
Sometimes we travelled east beyond Woolwich and Barking, and even in the darkness knew our location by just the sound of the river or the pull of the tide. Beyond Barking there was Caspian Wharf, Erith Reach, the Tilbury Cut, Lower Hope Reach, Blyth Sands, the Isle of Grain, the estuary, and then the sea.
As in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, this river too is one of the dark places of the earth. Warlight (which is full of literary, musical, and theatrical allusions) is partly an adventure story of danger and discovery. The boy sometimes feels he is in a fairy tale, or an old ballad, or a detective novel, or a thriller. But as his angry, alienated sister will tell him, their story is not a childhood romance: “We were damaged, Nathaniel. Recognize that.” She reminds him of the Schumann song that their guardian, The Moth, used to play to them, with the line: “Mein Herz ist schwer.” Heavy, difficult: that is the reality of life.
There is a question always asked in Ondaatje’s work, and it is asked painfully and anxiously here: Whose story is this? As he puts it in Divisadero, “There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives.” Olive, one of Nathaniel’s guardians, tells him, “Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” He learns the lesson from her, and comes to see that “the lives of others…were part of my self-portrait.” As usual in Ondaatje, we are reading a mixture of “partial stories,” out of which the narrator has to construct his life as best he can.
Not all of them come to light. I would like to have heard more of the stories that get erased—of Rachel the fierce sister, of Agnes the young lover with the green ribbon, whom Nathaniel abandons and whose life we only catch up with at the very last, and indirectly. There is some frustration for the reader here—but it is also the narrator’s frustration. There may be occasional moments of frustration, too, with Ondaatje’s plangent, lyrical generalizations about the human condition: “She thinks now that perhaps the truth of what is before you is clear only to those who lack certainty”; “Is this how we discover the truth, evolve? By gathering together such unconfirmed fragments?” Read with a cold eye, these recurring retrospective musings can sometimes feel schwer—heavy. But it is hard to read Ondaatje with a cold eye. He casts a magical spell, as he takes you into his half-lit world of war and love, death and loss, and the dark waterways of the past.