Ondaatje’s Long War

In a scathing review of The English Patient, Hilary Mantel called Michael Ondaatje’s most feted work “uneven, unresolved, unsatisfactory.” Her criticism has since become a regular complaint about the ...

In a scathing review of The English Patient, Hilary Mantel called Michael Ondaatje’s most feted work “uneven, unresolved, unsatisfactory.” Her criticism has since become a regular complaint about the form of Ondaatje’s fiction: it is fitful, unsystematic, desultory, and therefore structurally unsound.1 Frequently, reviewers follow such remarks with exhortations to tolerate the disjointedness so that readers can revel in the imagery and prose. His latest novel may well receive a similar appraisal.

Warlight begins in 1945, the year The English Patient ends, and relates a boy’s adolescence in postwar London. Nathaniel, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, lives amid an eclectic circle of men and women who secretly participated in the recent conflict and continue to do so after its official end. Characteristically, Ondaatje’s multiple plots emerge episodically and unpredictably. But in this novel the idiosyncratic narration compels us to consider how lives, individual and collective, are recorded, interpreted, and then told. It thus invites us to reconsider Mantel’s judgment. Warlight asks, can novels that abandon linear plots in favor of narrative untidiness be coherent and powerful rather than deficient?

Warlight begins as a bildungsroman. The novel’s seductive first sentence—“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”—launches the narrative of Nathaniel’s wide-ranging education. In part 1, an adult Nathaniel recounts the intoxicating new worlds he enters in the year between his parent’s mysterious departure and his mother’s sudden, equally mystifying, return. He gains access to these worlds, and the assortment of characters that populate them, through his two peculiar guardians—men known to him and his sister Rachel as The Moth and The Darter.

The Moth, a stolid man who disapproves of capitalism but spends his evenings reading Country Life magazine, initiates Nathaniel into the underbelly of West London hotels. Here, among “the mostly immigrant staff,” Nathaniel discovers the pains and pleasures of labor—laundering, dishwashing, lift operating. Ondaatje excels here, as he always does, at describing the rhythms of manual work:

Mr. Nkoma and I returned to the large sinks, thrust fragile glasses into the rotating bristles, and tossed them a half-second later into boiling water so the person drying would pluck them free as they bounced back up and stack them. We could do over a hundred glasses in fifteen minutes.

Ondaatje exults in the peculiarities of different jobs, yet he does not romanticize work (be it barbering in Coming Through Slaughter, construction in In the Skin of a Lion, bomb disposal in The English Patient, or gem mining in Anil’s Ghost). As in his earlier fiction, he is again careful to describe the physical effects of labor on the body—the shoulder and leg pain from working in the hotel laundry, puckered flesh from washing dishes, exhaustion from it all.

But Nathaniel’s most sustained apprenticeship begins when The Darter, an ex-welterweight with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Thames, offers him a job on board a boat. Under The Darter’s comprehensive tutelage, Nathaniel quickly learns about the water: tidal information, dock names, “declensions” of the river, named and unnamed canals, hidden locations along the Thames. In his delicate, sensual prose Ondaatje conveys the teenager’s delight in this newly discovered world:

I knew nothing about boats, but I immediately loved the landless smells, the oil on the water, brine, fumes sputtering out of the stern, and I came to love the thousand and one sounds of the river around us, that let us be silent as if in a suddenly thoughtful universe within this rushing world.

The Darter invites Nathaniel on board because he needs help “importing a dubious population of unregistered foreign dogs” into England. Consequently, Nathaniel also enters the thrilling universe of illegal greyhound racing (betting, doping, forgery). He spends a captivating summer in the company of these creatures as they are secreted to various tracks around London.

One of the joys of reading Ondaatje’s fiction is that his characters inhabit forgotten universes. Nathaniel’s introduction to the river is also ours. Aided by meticulous research, Ondaatje recreates the atmosphere of mid-century London, still in pieces from the Blitz but slowly coming back to order. He does this partially by bringing the overlooked to life, not just immigrant staff and immigrant dogs but also working-class men and working women. In doing so, he presents a revisionist history of postwar London—one that focuses on the daily work of the masses. By highlighting the commitment and expertise it requires, he bestows a rare dignity to this work, be it quotidian, illegal, or both.

Ondaatje stresses a similarity between national archives and personal recollections: both are fragmentary, disfigured, imperfect.

The labor the novel is perhaps most invested in recovering is the peripheral but essential wartime work carried out in secret by countless anonymous people. The Darter, it turns out, is an adept dog smuggler because he transported nitroglycerine through the rivers and roads of London under the cover of darkness. Olive, who introduces herself as an ethnographer and geographer, used meteorology to help determine the best day for the D-Day invasion. The Moth works in hotels because the roof of the Grosvenor was “the best location for clear transmission of radio broadcasts to Allied troops behind enemy lines in Europe.” And Rose, the mother who abandons Nathaniel and Rachel, intercepted German radio messages alongside The Moth.

As in all first-person bildungsromans, Nathaniel constructs the story through memories; but his past emerges without a clear chronology, discursively instead of systematically. He is not telling the story of an understood life, but rather telling it in order to understand. Even as he recalls incidents and people, Nathaniel presents his memory as incomplete, repressed, flawed, exaggerated, biased. Uncertainty thus permeates the novel:

Is this how we discover the truth, evolve? By gathering together such unconfirmed fragments? Not only of my mother, but of Agnes, Rachel, Mr. Nkoma (and where is he now?). Will all of them who have remained incomplete and lost to me become clear and evident when I look back?

Nathaniel’s doubt about both the veracity and the significance of his memories is underscored by a syntax and vocabulary of conjecture—many unanswered questions, recurring adjectives formed with negative prefixes (unconfirmed, incomplete, unknown) and adverbs that emphasize ambiguity (maybe, perhaps). How, then, the novel asks, can a life be accurately recounted given the fallibility of memory? How much is true, how much imagined, how much is missing?

Nathaniel gains some clarity when he begins to work for the government “review[ing] various files in the archives covering the war and post-war years.” Here, the novel affirms ways that national archives can augment impaired recollections. Through careful research, Nathaniel assigns meaning to previously bewildering memories and slowly makes sense of his past: “You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit.” Historical research—both Nathaniel’s and Ondaatje’s—reveals the truth about the jobs performed by men like The Darter and The Moth and women like Olive and Rose during the war, and affords a perspective memory alone cannot.

Many of Nathaniel’s realizations are incidental, hard to connect. He accepts the job working in the archives (fortuitously offered to him; all Ondaatje novels require some suspension of disbelief) mostly because he thinks it will be “a way of discovering what my mother had been doing during the period she left us under the guardianship of The Moth.” As all historians will understand, his investigation yields some answers but not others. He learns that his mother was recruited into secret political service by the enigmatic Marsh Felon, a man who is alternately her childhood friend, teacher, superior, and lover, and who maintains his cover by hosting a BBC radio show called The Naturalist’s Hour.


The Art of (Not Forgetting) War

By Andrew Lanham

What to make of such a discovery? A few bare facts are all Nathaniel can glean from the files. Ondaatje thus stresses a similarity between national archives and personal recollections: like memory, the historical record is fragmentary, disfigured, imperfect. Faced with this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, Ondaatje, via Nathaniel, proceeds to tell Rose’s story anyway, supplementing facts with imagination. At this point, limited retrospective first-person narration gives way to third-person, occasionally present tense, omniscience. It is an experimental, initially disorienting, section of the novel—a self-aware attempt to tell stories when both memory and the archive fail. When evidence is missing, the novel suggests, imagination is our only resource and fiction our only avenue.

Nathaniel’s determined, if partially unsuccessful, search for his mother’s story also uncovers a dark historical truth:

I began to realize that an unauthorized and still violent war had continued after the armistice, a time when the rules and negotiations were still half lit and acts of war continued beyond public hearing. … The retaliations and acts of revenge back and forth devastated small villages, leaving further grief in their wake. They were committed by as many sides as there were ethnic groups across the newly liberated map of Europe.

Of these, the novel highlights the “foibe massacres” in Trieste, perpetrated by Yugoslav Partisans against the local Italian population. The novel’s personal and political narratives converge in the figure of Rose: in a thrilling interrogation scene, she is implicated in these secret killings. In Nathaniel’s imagination and ours, new evidence transforms his mother from noble war heroine to immoral culprit.

Like his mother, Nathaniel also participates in a secret government project: ostensibly hired by the Foreign Office, he is not merely reviewing files but identifying documents that “history might consider untoward,” so that his superiors can decide if they should be destroyed. Even as his personal life is dominated by a desire to uncover evidence, his professional life demands that he participate in the large-scale censorship of compromising evidence. This work is part of what Nathaniel’s colleagues call “The Silent Correction” and, disturbingly, it is the second round of suppression:

I discovered that during the closing stages of the war and with the arrival of peace, a determined, almost apocalyptic censorship had taken place. There had been, after all, myriad operations it was wiser the public never know about, and so the most compromising evidence was, as far as possible, swiftly destroyed. … Such deliberate conflagrations would be worldwide. When the British eventually departed Delhi, “burning officers,” as they called themselves, took on the job of incinerating all compromising records, setting fire to them night and day in the central square of the Red Fort.

Ondaatje, like Hilary Mantel and others, upends the romantic nationalism that once defined historical novels, from Walter Scott onward. Rather than reiterate a narrative of progress, he casts a shadow over the legacy of the country that presented itself as the world’s moral guardian.

Warlight presents war and its aftermath as messy and inglorious. More radically—especially if you’ve been watching the propaganda winning awards in Hollywood again of late—Ondaatje’s Britain is not Christopher Nolan’s or Joe Wright’s. Instead, the country is complicit in the bloody conflicts that rage on after the war. Supported by research, Ondaatje turns history on its head: the unremembered roar to life; villains metamorphose into victims, war heroines into criminals. It is a magnanimous rewriting.

Yet Mantel’s most damning criticism of Ondaatje’s fiction is not about its structure, language, or characterization—although she denounces each in turn—but about its ethics. In her view, Ondaatje “sneaks from responsibility” and “cleaves always to what is private, hidden, ambiguous,” showing himself ultimately ambivalent about larger political issues. And, as she insists, “sometimes ambivalence is immoral.” The accusation is unjustified. Ondaatje’s ambivalence is in the service of broad-mindedness. It helps us see that history is not fixed but mutable, subjective, still partly unknown and therefore rewritable. What Mantel denigrates as equivocation might instead be lauded as a committed impartiality—a skepticism of received positions that allows new truths to emerge.

Mantel’s objection fails to recognize what drives Ondaatje’s fiction: a desire to interrogate the imperfections of the historical record. There are many gaps; some inadvertent, others deliberate. When records are willfully destroyed, the wish to fully know the past is fated to failure. In Ondaatje, history is a melancholy activity; faced with this, he turns to narrative. When the archive can only offer fragments, Warlight demonstrates that fiction can furnish the details necessary to recover, even if only in vivid, visionary glimpses, the forgotten or erased.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. Even the most ardent admirers of Ondaatje’s novels, of which there are many, often acknowledge that their structure is a drawback. Carolyn Kizer calls In the Skin of the Lion “episodic, fragmentary, structurally loose and shifty”; Claire Messud argues that Ondaatje is “ultimately a lyric writer,” who employs a “loose and fairly fragmentary form”; Janet Maslin describes his style as “willfully elliptical”; Erica Wagner writes that Divisadero is a novel of “looping intersection,” and warns that the “brokenness of Ondaatje’s tale can be frustrating”; in a reverential review of the same novel, Pico Iyer justifies the frequent shifts in perspective and “remarkable narrative leaps” by explaining that Ondaatje is “impatient with the conventions of storytelling.”
Featured image: View along the River Thames toward smoke rising from the London docks after an air raid during the Blitz, September 7, 1940. Photograph courtesy of US Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons