‘Warlight’ is a quiet new masterpiece from Michael Ondaatje

Washington Post
Monday, May 28, 2018

Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight, his first in seven years, has the immediate allure of a dark fairy tale. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” the adult narrator begins, leading us into the shadowlands of memory.

On a summer day in postwar London, Nathaniel and Rachel, both teenagers, listen bleakly as their parents announce that they are leaving for Singapore on business, without them. The reader too is blinkered from the outset, permitted to see only what Ondaatje, a master of concealment, reveals as Nathaniel exhumes his parents’ secrets from the mire of espionage and war. “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth,” he declares decades later when the ultimate revelation strikes with quiet but lethal force. And Warlight is a mosaic of such fragments, so cunningly assembled that the finished pattern seems as inevitable as it is harmonious.

In a bomb-cratered London, the abandoned brother and sister grow up “protected by the arms of strangers.” A household lodger nicknamed the Moth is their official guardian. But other adults soon populate their childhood, most notably the Darter, a boxer turned dog-racing fixer who knows the ways of the river, the weather, women and thievery. There is also Olive Lawrence, a glamorous ethnographer briefly attached to the Darter, and chimerical Arthur McCash, who will say only, “Your mother is away. Doing something important.”

For the first hundred pages, all is atmosphere and allusion. Nathaniel, his first love, Agnes, and later his sister, Rachel, join the Darter as he plies London’s waterways at night, transporting greyhounds and other mysterious cargo.

A year passes. The sinuous narrative meanders, its desultory pace mesmerizing, and Ondaatje’s characters seem adrift on currents that are slow moving yet menacing.

Until the first shock arrives, jolting a hazy world into focus: a sudden attack, a rescue and then “I could hear Rachel’s muffled crying as we were bundled into separate vans, to be delivered to separate destinations. Where were we going? Into another life.”

The novel alights in 1959. Nathaniel, now 28, buys a house in Suffolk – a house he already knows, somehow – from Mrs. Malakite, a widow whose memory is dimming. Nathaniel’s recollections, on the other hand, are vivid though fractured. He observes his need to solve the riddle that is his mother, Rose: her childhood, her disappearance and reappearance, the scars he later glimpses on her arms. Recruited by British Intelligence to review wartime files, Nathaniel unearths details of a massacre in Yugoslavia and other fragments of the covert past that form a larger history of betrayal and revenge.

Gradually, we see that no detail or character, however incidental, has been extraneous. All are relevant, everything fits.

“No one really understands another’s life or even death,” Nathaniel learns, and this conundrum is dramatized again and again throughout Ondaatje’s work.

Like its more immediate predecessors – The Cat’s Table, in particular – Ondaatje’s new novel is leaner than The English Patient and its focus tighter, a searchlight’s focus. At one glorious moment, for example, it captures young Nathaniel and Mr. Malakite, his rural mentor, in “the shade of his one large mulberry tree. We used to work mostly in vigorous sunlight, so now it is the shade I think of, not the tree. ... The breeze lifted itself over the shallow hill and entered what felt like our dark room, rustling against us. ... The ants in the grass climbing their green towers.”

In Warlight, all is illuminated, at first dimly then starkly, but always brilliantly.