by Michael Ondaatje.
Cape, 299 pp., £16.99, June 2018, 978 1 78733 071 9
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If you took​ only the subject matter of Michael Ondaatje’s novels into account, you would expect him to be an austere and even punishing writer. He chooses the darkest material, chronicles passages of life that would test the most resilient cheerfulness. Coming through Slaughter (1976) is loosely based on the tragic life of the jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden, who died in an asylum in New Orleans. Anil’s Ghost (2000) takes on the opening years of the civil war in Ondaatje’s native Sri Lanka. In The English Patient (1992), a man is dying from burns in Italy amid the mayhem of the Second World War. The new novel, Warlight, unfolds – in London and Suffolk and the lower reaches of the Thames – in the grim aftermath of that war: a middle-class brother and sister, seemingly abandoned by their mother, fall into the capital’s underworld, learning to respect and trust its gamblers and thieves. The mood of Ondaatje’s novels is serious, and they take him a long time to write – seven years between each one. He does a lot of research, which he enumerates conscientiously in his acknowledgments; the books are not shallow or perfunctory. And yet the impression they leave isn’t of a stern confrontation with the worst. They sidestep that: they almost seem, for all the research and the heaped-up detail, to sidestep realism altogether. Ondaatje doesn’t flinch – in Anil’s Ghost especially – from horrors, but his stories have something like the charged solemnity of fantasy.

Ondaatje is a poet and filmmaker as well as a novelist; in Canada, where he’s lived for most of his adult life, he was poetry editor for a small press, and for thirty years co-editor of an independent literary journal. He’s been showered with awards: The English Patient was the winner of the Golden Man Booker, celebrating fifty years of the prize (in his acceptance speech he credited the role Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation may have played in that result). These novels, really, are romances, in the sense that everything that happens in them is charged with magic, nothing is merely ordinary or redundant, everything finally connects together inside some larger esoteric scheme – even if the reader strains sometimes to comprehend what the scheme is. In The English Patient, plot twists and revelations supply a moment when everything links up. In Anil’s Ghost, with its more contemporary war, the religious inner life of Sri Lankan civilisation is progressively revealed to Anil, a forensic anthropologist, helping her see past the chaos and violence.

In Warlight it’s difficult at times to work out what’s happening. The novel is narrated by the central protagonist, Nathaniel, who is an adult at the time of writing, but is remembering the destabilising years of his boyhood, years that made him an uneasy, unsettled man. His mother, as he recalls it, left him and his sister, Rachel, at boarding school and went to join their father in Singapore, where he worked for Unilever. When his narrative begins, Nathaniel is 14 and Rachel is 16: they hate their schools, and run away from them almost at once. When the children arrive back in London they find that The Moth – the odd character their mother left in charge – has taken up residence in their home, along with various cronies, including The Pimlico Darter. The Moth and The Darter, like their names, come from a Dickensian dream of London: up to their character-actor necks in greyhound racing, smuggling and art theft, they navigate the backwaters of the Thames in suspenseful darkness, and are full of arcane expertise. The Moth’s face is ‘lit by a gas fire while I asked question after question, trying to force an unknown door ajar’. There are middle-class mavericks too, weaving in and out of the children’s lives, always appearing to know more than they let on, never quite telling their whole story. Gangly, schoolboyish, clever Arthur McCash hands Nathaniel a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories as if it were a clue; Olive Lawrence, an element in The Darter’s colourful love life, is an ethnographer and geographer who speaks to the children ‘of Asia and the ends of the earth’.

The children slip the leash of the middle-class conventions of their era, and escape into the wilderness of the city. Nathaniel takes a job in the kitchens of the celebrated Criterion hotel; Rachel goes partying, comes back late, yet no one asks where she’s been. They join The Darter on mysterious expeditions, smuggling dogs and goods (and, it turns out later, explosives). The idea of a teeming secret London concealed under the grey surface of postwar privation, throbbing with life and trade and risk and pleasure, is engaging enough. The

munitions factories had been dismantled and the unused canals were silting up, becoming narrower between their overgrown banks. And on weekends this was where Rachel and I, the sidekicks of The Darter, now floated in the silence of those waterways … What we carried was probably not dangerous, but we were never sure … Rachel and I no longer fully believed The Darter’s stories about the delivery of European china to pay back the merchant who had let him borrow his barge during dog-racing seasons.

Nathaniel has an affair with Agnes, a girl from the Criterion, whose brother is an estate agent and has the keys to a succession of empty houses: this is rather a wonderful conceit, and these sexual encounters, where the young lovers run around naked in the dark, are some of the best passages in the book.

And yet all these scenes and their striking ephemera – the greyhounds, the china, the empty munitions factories, Agnes’s handstands in an empty house, the sculptures of goddesses hidden in tunnels under the Criterion – aren’t quite as seductive as they ought to be. Part of the problem is in the awkward narrative positioning, with everything told through Nathaniel’s long retrospect. Since we only hear about it afterwards, in descriptive summary, we’re never actually present in any scene; every element of the action, all the adventures and encounters, come to us muffled and at arm’s length. This has been an issue before in Ondaatje’s novels – he’s a magpie storyteller, and can’t resist the glitter of backstory – but it’s particularly evident here. That scene on the waterways needed to be prolonged and in the present: we needed to anticipate what happened next with real suspense, as if it hadn’t happened already. The present of Warlight is located nowhere in particular, in a lost man wandering inside his past: the adult Nathaniel spends his days searching in a Foreign Office archive for traces of his mother’s story – and yet even the time of his searching is voiced as if from a distance still further on. Such time-play is standard novelistic sleight of hand, but it ought to be managed so that we don’t notice it. And because the story isn’t anchored in any present, it shifts scene too often, adding to the blaze of its effects: there’s simply too much that’s striking, atmospheric, evocative. No detail, no place, no particular moment, has the breathing space to come into its own.

Rachel discovers their mother’s steamer trunk hidden in the basement of the house: the same trunk she packed with ostentatious care in front of her children, choosing dresses suitable for evening parties in Singapore. They wonder if she’s dead, but the truth that gradually emerges is stranger than that: she’s a brilliant, exceptional woman, estranged from their father and working for British intelligence in the Balkans, among other places. Later she seems to become disenchanted with this work: not only does her high-minded self-sacrifice come up against the grubby equivocations of real politics (she may have inadvertently helped Tito’s partisans locate a village where they massacred the inhabitants), she also realises that she’s left her children at the mercy of malevolent forces. There is at least one attempted kidnapping. Her qualms seem belated. It’s all very well, in fact it was standard middle-class practice at the time, to go abroad and leave your children behind, if you’ve got important work to do (or even if you haven’t). But wouldn’t she have provided them with solid, ordinary defences: surrogate parents, establishment figures to oversee their safety and shelter their ignorance? For that matter, why not hide your steamer trunk somewhere less obvious? Stated baldly, the plot of the novel – The Moth, The Darter, The Darter’s enthusiasm for Henry James, Agnes’s love-talk full of poetry, the near kidnapping, the archive, the effortless class slippages – strains credulity. Indeed it bursts credulity at the seams. Of course in a romance it doesn’t strictly matter what’s believable in real-world terms; but the other-world has to work, according to its own logic.

Every one of the adults around the baffled runaway teens seems brilliant and exceptional, not only their mother. The Darter has all along been engaged in essential government transports, alongside his smuggling; Olive Lawrence’s expertise on climatic conditions was invaluable on D-Day. We learn that their mother had a formative relationship with Marsh Felon (Marsh Felon, ‘Buster’ Milmo, The Forger of Letchworth, Sam Malakite: when the names aren’t Dickensian they’re like something from Game of Thrones). Marsh came from a local family of thatchers; she helped to nurse him after he fell from the roof of her house and her family paid for his education. Later, Marsh becomes her mentor in the secret service. (There’s never a moment, even at the beginning of their friendship and before his educational high-wire act, when he sounds anything like a boy whose father is a thatcher.) The adult world in Warlight is charged with power, as if everyone is in on secrets the children are shut out from – even though Nathaniel is an adult as he writes, and is supposed to have his hand on all the secrets contained in the archive. Now that time has passed and his mother is dead, he’s trying to make sense of what she did to her children; he’s trying to forgive her for it, but first he needs to understand it.

To some extent that’s a characteristic position for an Ondaatje narrator: a baffled ingénu protagonist studies with awe and fear the moves of an adult dance he can’t quite grasp or join in with. It’s no wonder that over and over he references Conan Doyle and Kipling: both of them arch-romancers in the English story tradition, the worlds of their fiction a connective web of meaning, where a thread pulled in one place can be counted on to wrinkle the fabric in another. Everything always adds up; no detail is accidental or redundant. Their writing makes a cult of knowing; the world is made up of mystified innocents and initiated wise ones, who minister to the mystique. Knowledge is dangerous, as well as liberating – especially for the innocents.

There’s​ a clue to Ondaatje’s interest in the opposition between ingénu and insider in his 1982 memoir of his Sri Lankan childhood, Running in the Family, an account of the family and class he came from, with ‘Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations’, in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. They were privileged and had inherited wealth; without the stuffiness of the inner circles of the colonists, who were ‘snobs and racists’, they were Europeanised in their social life: tennis, horse-racing, pranks, Oxbridge, affairs, vast consumption of alcohol, the fancy-dress parties that were such a telling passion of the empire. Ondaatje’s grandparents held onto their wealth in respectable stability, his parents spent it crazily and lost it, and his own generation, in a fundamentally changed Sri Lanka, was left with nothing much but stories of the past and its awful glories. At one party when his aunt was young she volunteered to have an apple shot off her head by a stranger in a circus; that same night ‘T.W. Roberts was bitten in the leg by a dog while he danced with her. Later the dog was discovered to be rabid, but as T.W. had left for England nobody bothered to tell him. Most assume he survived.’

Ondaatje’s father, Mervyn, was sent to university in England, but he only pretended to his family that he had matriculated and was attending lectures, until after two years of fine living among intellectuals in Cambridge, ‘reading contemporary novels, boating, and making a name for himself’, he was found out by relatives sent to check up on him. Back home, he got engaged to Michael’s mother, but one night after much drinking ‘announced that now he must shoot himself because Doris had broken off the engagement’. His uncle, Aelian, ‘especially as he was quite drunk too, had a terrible time trying to hide every gun in the Ceylon Light Infantry building. The next day the problems were solved, and the engagement was established once more.’ Mervyn was superintendent of a tea and rubber plantation for a while, but his drinking was inspired and terrible: he became notorious on the Colombo-Trincomalee railway, once holding up the driver with a revolver because his friend had missed the train. The family’s wealth and status trickled away. Michael and his brother, Christopher, built lives for themselves in Canada; Christopher, beginning as a stockbroker, made a fortune there. Larger than life family legends most haunt the generation that comes too late to the party.

There’s something’s exhausting – or tired, slack inside the sentences – in Warlight’s effort to be enchanting, extraordinary, legendary. Late in the story, the adult Nathaniel seeks out The Darter, and finds him living in what appears at first to be quiet domesticity, with a wife and child, welcome mat at the front door, folded tea towel in the kitchen. The sheer ordinariness of all this dismays Nathaniel:

I asked if I could use his bathroom for a moment … I looked at my face in his mirror, no longer the boy who had travelled with him on those midnight roads, whose sister he had once helped save from an attack. I turned around in that small space as if the room had an unbroken seal, was the only place that might reveal something more of my wild, unreliable hero from the past, my teacher … I picked up the three toothbrushes on the edge of the sink … All this was sad.

Why is it sad? And it soon turns out anyway, needless to say, that The Darter’s domesticity isn’t really ordinary domesticity after all. We should have guessed that Sophie, his wife, wasn’t really Sophie, but someone we already knew, under another name.

Nothing in the world of this novel is ever redundant; nothing is accidental. Whenever you come across a striking detail – the gorgeously named long-flew knife used for thatching, for instance – you can be sure it will crop up again, be charged with more significance, be joined with the rest of the story in a long chain of meaning, even if that meaning may never become entirely clear. If your hunch on the nature of things generally is that cock-ups are more likely than conspiracies, then your suspicion of this connecting magic may spoil the enchantment of the novel. When there’s too much puffing of smoke and positioning of mirrors, we’re in danger of missing the actual mystery of ordinary real things: toothbrushes on a sink, shaving foam on a shelf, a marriage, a home.

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