Book review: Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje PIC: Ian Rutherford
Michael Ondaatje PIC: Ian Rutherford
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Late in Michael Ondaatje’s remarkable new novel, the narrator, working in a department of an unnamed branch of the secret service, writes “In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.” Though Warlight is set mainly during the Second World War and in the years immediately following it, this observation makes it very much a novel of our confused and confusing time. Which of us can sensibly say what is the correct moral position to adopt with regard to Syria or indeed anything in this benighted world of crude, dishonest and violent politics?

Warlight is a novel which cries out to be made into a flickering Expressionist film shot, of course, in black-and white, directed by Fritz Lang or perhaps Orson Welles, neither of course now available to do so. Nathaniel, who is 14, and his sister, Rachel, a couple of years older, watch their mother packing a cabin-trunk. It is 1945 and she and their father will be going to the East – for how long who knows? The children will be left with a guardian, a mysterious man they call the Moth; they suspect that he and his associate, an ex-boxer known as the Pimlico Darter, are criminals. It’s a strange set-up, all the stranger when they discover the cabin-trunk hasn’t left the house.

They don’t hear from their parents, though various friends drop in, apparently to check that they are safe. Meanwhile, Nathaniel realises the truth of what one of these friends says: “Half the life of cities occurs at night. There’s a more uncertain morality then.” There are mysterious journeys with the Darter, collecting illegally imported greyhounds from boats on the river and transporting them to tracks, or travelling along forgotten waterways through parts of London never seen by day. The children bunk off from school, Nathaniel working in a dubious catering business masterminded by the Moth, and has his first sexual experiences with a girl he knows only as Agnes, their trysts taking place in houses that have escaped bomb damage and have “For Sale” signs on them. People come and go in the house left them by their parents, the purpose of their visits undisclosed. Rachel develops and nurses a resentment that will turn to hatred of the mother who has abandoned them. It is never quite clear what is happening, or how reliable Nathaniel’s narrative is, but it is wonderfully vivid, compelling and disturbing. This first section ends bloodily, even melodramatically.

The tone shifts in the second half of the book as Nathaniel, now employed by the secret service, where he works among the files,broods on his memory of post-war episodes with his now reclusive and guarded mother, and tries, for a long time vainly, to discover just what she was doing in the last year of the war when they were left with the Moth and the Darter, and then in the chaos of post-war Europe, where old ambitions were ruthlessly pursued and old scores brutally settled. There are gentle interludes in Suffolk and there is the puzzling question of his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was a boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house where he was working as a thatcher. There is more clarity here, but the mother remains enigmatic, the significance of her life hard to determine. The narrative remains murky, Nathaniel’s employment almost a parody of the secret organisations of spy fiction.

If this is a novel in which little is clear, in which one is invited to follow trails which are then lost, in which one takes imaginary journeys along these forgotten rivers and canals, it is also one which is compulsively and grippingly readable. In fact I read it first at a gallop, enthralled by the image of a city and a world distorted and all but destroyed by war, and then again slowly, determined to savour the details and extract as much as I could from it. Much remained puzzling on this second reading, but two things are clear: Michael Ondaatje is a marvellous writer, and Warlight is a novel which will continue to play in the reader’s imagination.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Cape, 287pp, £16.99