Other side of silence

P Anima | Updated on July 13, 2018

Twilight zone: In Warlight, Ondaatje weaves a vast world of deception where characters lead double lives and have multiple names.   -

Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel Warlight is a subtle yet searing thriller set in the immediate aftermath of World War II

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s opus on wartime love and loss, has won the Golden Man Booker prize. Readers voted it ahead of VS Naipaul’s In a Free State and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The award attests to Ondaatje’s continuing resonance among readerssince his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, was published four decades ago.Warlight, his latest, is a deserving follow-up.

Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the novel has at its heart conflict the trigger that wreaks havoc on lives. Unlike in The English Patient, where the war happens in real time, here it is firmly in the backdrop. The novel is a masterfully crafted puzzle in which no character, however minor, is purposeless. (Look out for the young boy who comes with his band of brothers to mend a roof, suffers a fall and breaks his hip.) Ondaatje imbues the narrative with urgency, setting the tone with these opening lines: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” The novel’s gist is right there, and the author’s imaginative finesse ensures that the plot stays taut and the tempo is steady throughout the book.

The novel, set in two parts, is narrated by Nathaniel. In the first, he is a teenager whose parents have mysteriously disappeared, and in the second, set in 1958, he is a 28-year-old working in the war archives. The war is in the past, but not its impact.

Warlight; Michael Ondaatje; Penguin Random House/Jonathan Cape; Fiction; ₹1,278 (approx)


Reading Warlight is like picking up the shards of broken glass. The fragments can potentially fall into place, but what’s once broken cannot mend wholly. The novel abounds in stories that are cut short, giving us only glimpses of some lives.

Quite like Ondaatje’s earlier novel The Cat’s Table, where an 11-year-old boy comes of age on a ship in the company of strangers, Warlight too is a musing on growing up among strangers.Nathaniel and his sister Rachel would call the two men, who were airdropped into their lives as their parents disappeared, The Moth and The Darter. The men come with sparse backstory. Are they really their mother’s “guardian owls”? Or men who lead murky second lives? The children do not know, but the men and their many quaint friends steer the siblings through their teens.

Warlight is also a spy story. And Ondaatje picks different tropes to build a thriller; he brings in a narrator who mines his unusual childhood years later. His memory is a fickle ally, hence his narrative coloured. For a plot that hinges on disguises, nothing works better than a blurred past, hand-picked memories and swathes of silence. Nathaniel and Rachel live in a household where questions are rarely asked. “Omissions and silences have surrounded our growing up.”

Ondaatje has woven a wide world of deception where characters lead double lives and have more than one name. The names, some assumed officially, others given casually, aid the duality. “Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises.” The mother, known as Rose Williams to the protagonists, is Viola elsewhere; she refers to Nathaniel as Stitch and Rachel as Wren. When the family breaks down, it is those names that Rachel rebels against. She tells her brother, “Your name is Nathaniel, not Stitch. I’m not Wren. Wren and Stitch were abandoned. Choose your own life.” Rachel chooses hers by severing from the family, Nathaniel by sinking into it. The deception and caution that defined the parents’ relationship with the children eventually seep into the siblings’ lives. The heartbreak is subtle, but searing. Nathaniel mentions the note he received from Rachel years later, inviting him to watch a play she is in: “She said I should not feel it was really necessary to be there, but the work was playing for three nights in an old barrel-maker’s factory. I found her message heart-breaking in its cautiousness.” The silence extends to Nathaniel and his mother. They live together at the mother’s family home after she reappears in his life. But the boundaries between them remain intact. Ondaatje keeps up the intrigue with partial revelations and unasked questions. Back from work early one day, Nathaniel finds his mother in the kitchen, scrubbing a pot in her shirt sleeves. “She nearly always wore a blue cardigan. I thought it was used to hide her thinness. Now I saw a row of livid scars like those cut into the bark of a tree by some mechanical gardening tool… I was never to know how many scars there were on her, but here were these slate-red ones down the soft flesh of her arm, evidence from that missing time. It’s nothing she’d muttered. Just the street of the small dagger…”

Characters appear, disappear and reappear in Warlight, and each time they do, they arrive changed, clad in a different skin. Ondaatje creates a vast theatre and inhabits it with many a Janus. The only time the pace slackens is when Nathaniel joins the foreign office and begins to work at the archives. The listlessness is forgotten when Ondaatje delivers his final salvo.Warlight lights up slowly, but when it does, it is incandescent, baring the full picture as well as the cracks within.

Published on July 13, 2018

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