Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is like watching a Wes Anderson film through a telescope

Clues, maps and unlikely disguises: all narrated in majestic Ondaatjean style.

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If you’re interested in literary events and affairs – though why anyone is, frankly, is a complete mystery, since literary events and affairs have about as much to do with literature as do the football pools with
football – you’ll perhaps be aware that recently, after a public vote, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) won what was dubbed by the organisers the “Golden Man Booker”, “the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the Man Booker Prize”. Deservedly so: The English Patient is a great book.

Ondaatje has written other novels – perhaps most notably Anil’s Ghost (2000), a dark, profound, experimental work about the civil war in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje’s birthplace – and he’s also published more than his fair share of poetry, some literary criticism, and written plays and scripts for films. Now in his 70s, he has been quietly, consistently prolific for more than 50 years. Warlight is his first novel since 2011 and it’s been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker. I suppose the obvious question is this: were the judges just being polite? Is Warlight only on the longlist because of the golden glow of The English Patient?

No. Not at all. Emphatically not. From the very first sentence you’re desperate to find out what happens next: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Who are these children? Why did their parents go away? Were the two men in fact criminals? All is slowly, tantalisingly revealed, in flashbacks, fragments, digressions and stories within stories, narrated in majestic Ondaatjean style as Warlight sways its way through almost 300 pages towards its self-referencing conclusion. “We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.”

The book’s narrator is a young man named Nathaniel who, we eventually discover, is working in some capacity for the British secret service. His sister is called Rachel. Their parents, it is hinted, may have been spies during and after the Second World War. The two men who were charged with looking after Nathaniel and Rachel as children, and who are known only as the Moth and the Pimlico Darter, may indeed have been criminals, or bodyguards, or both. Nathaniel’s job is to censor and correct wartime records: he uses the opportunity to find out the truth about his parents and his childhood.

Ondaatje proceeds by both tiny little glimpses and grand mises en scènes. It is like watching a Wes Anderson film through an old scratched telescope. There are clues, maps, unlikely disguises, characters whose true role and purpose is revealed only much later – the personal turns out to be political, the past is another country, history is a farce, etc – and there is a huge supporting cast of mysterious ethnographers, fire-watchers and amorous waitresses.

The set-pieces are show-stoppingly magnificent: Nathaniel and The Pimlico Darter going up and down the Thames on a barge, smuggling greyhounds; scenes set in the subterranean world below the
Criterion on Piccadilly; Nathaniel making love to his girlfriend Agnes in empty houses, dogs scampering wildly around them; the attempted kidnapping of Nathaniel and Rachel, complete with chloroform; an epileptic fit in a cinema; a mild-mannered naturalist with a radio show who is not what he seems; the mysterious disappearance of Nathaniel’s mother. The list could go on and on – the book, like life, a succession of strange, disturbing and partial stories.

Occasionally perhaps there is a worldly-wise summing-up too many: “Nothing lasts. Not even literary or artistic fame protects worldly things around us. The pond that Constable painted dried up and was buried by Hampstead Heath… The ancient Tyburn disappeared and was lost, even to geographers and historians.” And elsewhere: “Is this how we discover the truth, evolve? By gathering together such unconfirmed fragments?”

But then there’s another bravura passage about doping dogs, or kestrels, or thatching, and all is forgiven. There’s a short description of how to open locks on a filing cabinet using only anaesthetic and a Steinmann Pin – usually used for fixing fractures in surgery – that is worth the awarding of the Man Booker Prize alone. Even the little literary flourishes are superb. “We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.” Golden? Adamantine.

Warlight
Michael Ondaatje
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad