As promised, here are some thoughts on Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight.
In short, it’s a masterpiece that should win the Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer his second Man Booker Prize. He took one home in 1992 for The English Patient. It’s a sly masterpiece, in a sense, because only its entirety reveals its brilliance. I recommend reading it in one or two sittings. It is a novel divided into two sections and I think reading Part One, up to page 118, having a brief pause and then reading the longer Part Two would be a good way to go.
I admit I was unsure about the novel in the first 100 pages or so. It is superbly written, poetic in its use of language, suggestive in its use of place, but the story, centred on two London teenagers, Nathaniel and Rachel, abandoned by their parents in the immediate aftermath of World War II, was not blowing my mind as The English Patient had and still does, with its intense focus on dangerous adult passion. It carried me along, all the same, and then came Part Two, in which Nathaniel is 28.
The final 150 pages or so are a masterpiece on their own. They also make every page that came before them mean so much more. I wanted to re-read the book immediately, Dunkirk, Dunkirk dh
The war has just ended but it is not over, especially for people who did their bit not on the frontlines but behind the scenes. As the novel unfolds, Ondaatje reveals what he has hidden. We find out about The Moth, The Darter and, the most intriguing of all, The Gatherer, who comes in later.
Are they criminals? Perhaps. Are they heroes?
We also find out about Nathaniel’s and Rachel’s parents. What have they sacrificed? Was it worth it? “What had our mother assumed would happen to us in her absence?” Nathaniel asks. “Did she really assume that the shell of our world would not crack?”
As the novelist Ashley Hay noted in her review of Warlight two weeks ago, Ondaatje’s novels talk to each other. His books are not standalone objects but part of a project. I think the same can be said for most writers.
So it is that there are moments and words in Warlight, fleeting, unimportant ones, that will remind readers of The English Patient and its 1987 predecessor, In the Skin of a Lion.
As always, Ondaatje’s fiction is deeply researched. I wonder if there is an autobiographical element as well. Ondaatje’s parents separated when he was an infant and he lived with relatives until he was 10, when he went to England to be reunited with his mother. He moved to Canada when he was 19.
“I loved the truth I learned from strangers,” Nathaniel says at one stage.
Then, later: “No one really understands another’s life or even death.’’
I discussed Warlight with Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh on a recent episode of ABC Radio National’s Bookshelf program. You can listen to it via podcast at www.abc.net.au/ radionational/programs/the-bookshelf/ Our main review today, of Pandora’s Box: A History of World War I, has put the near 1100-page hardback high on my to-read list.
Satisfyingly, the reason for the title is explained in the opening chapter. Some children are performing a play based on the Greek myth. Prometheus’s theft, Zeus’s rage, and Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus unwisely inviting a woman, Pandora, into his home. She carries a lidded golden box. When she lifts the lid a “swarm of evils rushed from it and spread in a flash over the whole earth”.
We learn that the children doing this play are Thomas Mann’s. And it goes from there. It’s a wonderful start to a terrible real story we have been reading about for a long time.
What strikes me most, on the flip-through reading, is the diverse and different collection of photographs. There are fewer trenches.
The close-up photos of soldiers, before, during and after the war, are a powerful reminder that no one knew what was coming. The Eton boys pictured on page 20, the two Prussian guards laughing like tourists, the head-shaven Russian women’s battalion, the British soldier having his face repaired.
“The conflict,’’ author Jorn Leonhard writes, “reached completely new quantitative and qualitative levels of violence, killing 10 million soldiers and nearly six million civilians; bringing about an unprecedented mobilisation of societies and mass media, economies and finances; and eliciting a plethora of explanations and justifications.”
Australians and the Anzacs are part of the story, of course. By the end of 1916, Leonard notes, in Britain, France and Germany, but also in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India, “there was scarcely one large family that did not number at least one casualty among its husbands, brothers, sons or grandsons”.
Russian women’s battalions, 1917