The Mists of Time

Warlight

by Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 290 pp., $26.95
Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

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…


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