The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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 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”.

Michael On­daatje

Rus­sian women’s bat­tal­ions, 1917

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