DAZ­ZLING ALCHEMY

Michael On­daatje once again bears wit­ness to the con­nec­tions be­tween in­di­vid­u­als and the wider world in his new novel, Warlight, writes Ash­ley Hay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Warlight By Michael On­daatje Jonathan Cape, 304pp, $29.99

When I pulled my proof copy of Michael On­daatje’s Warlight from its en­ve­lope, it had the warmth of a some­how liv­ing thing: low and smooth and com­fort­able, like lay­ing your hand on a dog. I pat­ted its plain white cover — gold ti­tle, black name; that name — feel­ing this warmth on my palm. There were other things I was sup­posed to be do­ing that day, but here it was. I held off for a minute or so. Then I dived into On­daatje’s new­est world.

I was in Britain at the end of World War II, in the as­ton­ish­ing tran­quil­lity of a post­war Lon­don summer gar­den. On­daatje’s set­tings have al­ways been shim­mer­ingly vi­brant. The open­ing of his first novel, Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter (1976), rolls out from one simple state­ment — “His ge­og­ra­phy” — into a breath­tak­ing prose-poem of place.

And the gar­den in this new novel shim­mers with beau­ti­ful light and air as a fa­ther ex­plains to his chil­dren — Nathaniel (14) and Rachel (16) — that he is be­ing trans­ferred to the East for his job with Unilever, and that he and their mother will be leav­ing. The chil­dren will not go with them; they will be left at board­ing schools. In their hol­i­days, they will re­turn to this fam­ily home in Lon­don to be over­seen by a guardian, cur­rently their lodger; a man nick­named “the Moth”.

The rush of this: I had a sense of be­ing pulled fast through a tun­nel to emerge in the soft greens and sun­shine-light of that Lon­don-time. The sheer and bru­tal force of these facts de­liv­ered with­out hes­i­ta­tion or ex­pla­na­tion: the par­ents’ with­drawal is set against the speed at which a plane will fly them round the world and the fa­ther’s de­light at his own pro­mo­tion.

And then On­daatje shows us the mother, lis­ten­ing, as the reader has, to the crazy facts her hus­band has laid out: … our mother, in a summer dress, just be­hind his shoul­der, watched how we re­sponded. Af­ter a while she took my sis­ter Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth … see­ing that I was con­fused, she came over to me and ran her fin­gers like a comb through my hair.

Rose Williams is this mother, although her name takes a while to come into the story. She watches her chil­dren ab­sorb the idea of her dis­ap­pear­ance. It’s Au­gust 1945. The war is sup­pos­edly “over” — its bombs, its raids, its camps, its sirens. Be­fore the month ends, their fa­ther has left, their mother un­ex­pect­edly able to stay un­til school starts. This tiny pocket of grace. “Then sud­denly she had to leave, for some rea­son sooner than ex­pected … it was as if our mother had ar­ranged things so there would be no tear­ful good­byes.” And she’s gone.

The sib­lings en­ter their schools, only to run away from them. The Moth re­ar­ranges all the ar­range­ments and brings them back to their Lon­don fam­ily home to live with him and the in­creas­ingly in­trigu­ing and op­por­tunis­tic cast of char­ac­ters with which he in­ter­sects. “The ar­range­ment ap­peared strange,” Nathaniel has noted as his fa­ther first lays out its par­tic­u­lars, “but life still was hap­haz­ard and con­fus­ing dur­ing that pe­riod af­ter the war, so what had been sug­gested did not feel un­usual. We ac­cepted the de­ci­sion, as chil­dren do.”

This is the past within arm’s reach — the past of our par­ents or grand­par­ents, if not our own. And part of On­daatje’s power has al­ways been in cre­at­ing whole and peo­pled worlds that we as read­ers not only trust and accept but also get to in­habit for a while. As he wrote in In the Skin of a Lion (1987), “the first sen­tence of ev­ery novel should be: ‘trust me, this will take time, but there is or­der here, very faint, very hu­man’.”

“I sup­pose there are tra­di­tions and tropes in sto­ries like this,” says Nathaniel as Warlight be­gins, as if of­fer­ing a glimpse into this book’s me­chan­ics. Here’s how this will play out … ex­cept it doesn’t. In its drama and its scope, this story — Nathaniel’s and Rachel’s, and Rose’s too — takes mag­nif­i­cent leaps into the un- ex­pected. In many ways, the stakes On­daatje gives these char­ac­ters to play for are higher than ever, not that the chil­dren know that. Warlight tran­scends the grandeur of The English Pa­tient (1992), the vis­ceral pre­ci­sion of Anil’s Ghost (2000), the foren­sic in­ti­macy of Divisadero (2007) as it in­ter­ro­gates the tur­bid­ity and con­se­quences of some things done in the name of war.

Be­tween Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero On­daatje pub­lished a book of con­ver­sa­tions with film editor Wal­ter Murch. In one ex­change, Murch talks about ac­tors choos­ing parts that rep­re­sent some emo­tional truth about them as an in­di­vid­ual “which pushes [them] some­where [they have] not gone be­fore”. “This is very pre­cisely what writ­ers do, or should do,” says On­daatje. And he does. Be­ing among Michael On­daatje’s sen­tences is one of my favourite places to be. He writes, as one study of his work puts it, with “a linguistic den­sity that evokes an al­most phys­i­cal re­sponse — writ­ing that can tin­gle the senses”. And then he slips away, dis­ap­pear­ing for the years it takes to make some­thing new. In some ways, he re­sem­bles this de­scrip­tion from The English Pa­tient: “one of those spare men from the desert who trav­els from oa­sis to oa­sis, trad­ing leg­ends as if it is the ex­change of seed, con­sum­ing ev­ery­thing with­out sus­pi­cion, piec­ing to­gether a mi­rage”.

In some ways, he re­sem­bles Cullis, the aban­doned lover in A Anil’s Ghost who “when he w wrote … slipped into the page as if it were wa­ter, and tum­bled on … if not, then a tin­ker, car­ry­ing a hun­dred pots and pans and bits of linoleum and wires and fal­coner’s hoods and pen­cils and … you car­ried them around for years and grad­u­ally fit them into a small, mod­est book”.

“Small” and “mod­est”, though, are not quite right. On­daatje has his own tools — struc­tural frag­ments; the great vis­tas and mo­ments he evokes from things only par­tially glimpsed; the shock of ex­ci­sions and eli­sions; the power of ap­par­ently small or

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