2018 Man Booker review: Warlight

21st August 2018

Warlight: Michael Ondaatje

Jonathan Cape, London, 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

Michael Ondaatje’s eighth novel opens with possibly the finest first line of any of the novels in this year’s Booker long-list: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ With it, Ondaatje invites us into the story with something that may be code, or it may be a joke, or it may be a rebuke to presumption. Warlight is as intimate and particular as a joke, as mysterious and enigmatic as a code, and as puzzling and re-orienting as pointing out that we should presume nothing.

The novel is narrated by Nathaniel, abandoned in his own home and taken into the care of strangers who offer him a series of perplexing coordinates to explore who he is and where he belongs. These are concerns common to all Ondaatje’s novels: the relationship between the self and the world, identity both personal and national, the structures which tie us to time and place. Nathaniel and his sister Rachel, code names Stitch and Wren, are left in the care of the lodger The Moth, (half mother figure, half fly-by-night) who turns their home into a demi-monde peopled with an array of characters, any of whom may be criminals. Olive Lawrence, glamorous ethnographer, Esperanto-speaking Arthur McCash and maverick, greyhound smuggler The Pimlico Darter variously induct Nathaniel into their secret worlds. Nothing is stable, for memory, personality, culture and code constantly undo what might once have been clear. Even the things that are potentially verifiable are subject to ambiguity.

“There’s no trustworthy recording of ages when seen through the eyes of youth, and I suppose the war had further confused the way we read age or the hierarchies of class. The Moth felt the same age as my parents. The Darter a few years younger, but only because he seemed less controllable. Olive Lawrence younger still. She appeared that way, I think, because she was always glancing to see what she could go towards, what might capture her and change her life. She was open to alteration. Give her ten years and she could have a different sense of humour, whereas The Darter, though full of shadowed surprises, was clearly on a path he had beaten down and travelled along for years. He was incorrigible, that was his charm. That was the safety in him for us.”

As with codes, jokes and rebukes, recognition relies on relationship, timing, nuance. Safety is a thing of charm, in both its senses of luck and allure.

The narrative structure is episodic. It resists familiar modes of interpretation, allowing the subject, (chess, say, or flyfishing) to be itself, rather than allegorical. Things happen, but they happen in the dark, existing now in a beam of light, now disappearing. Capitalising on his ability to move between the abstract and the precisely observed, Ondaatje maps the unstable territories of time and place: street names, ground plans, blueprints– these are all means of charting the inaccessible and finding out where we might belong. What Warlight suggests is that wherever we find ourselves, that moment, that precise set of geographical coordinates, is what makes us: days and landscapes are not just incidental, they are cardinal. This is not an original idea, of course, but with the instinct of a poet, Ondaatje presses the insight further into offering up something secret: there is no need to find the way home for we are already here. Like Nathaniel, we are already present, right up until the moment when all the codes, jokes and rebukes dismantle the distinctions between risk and safety, and what we feared all along is brought to its conclusion. For all its fragmentation, the novel coalesces into something thorough and inevitable, taut and true. Amply serving its title, Warlight is thrillingly dark and brilliant.

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