Time Stamp

In Warlight, Michael On­daatje re­turns to his sig­na­ture themes

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Dim­itri Nas­ral­lah

As an un­der­grad­u­ate cre­ative-writ­ing stu­dent at York Uni­ver­sity in the nineties, I had a lot of time to read. I com­muted three hours a day, nav­i­gat­ing Toronto’s end­less sub­urbs via a net­work of buses, and much of my time was spent wait­ing around be­tween classes on a cam­pus that was far from ev­ery­thing. I would often spend af­ter­noons at the Grad­u­ate Lounge or the Un­der­ground, drink­ing pints and ar­gu­ing with oth­ers about the writ­ers who were put be­fore us as ex­am­ples of lit­er­a­ture and craft. Michael On­daatje was one such au­thor. He lived in the city and taught at York. For a cre­ative-writ­ing ma­jor in those years, On­daatje was also short­hand for a po­etic, tan­gen­tial ap­proach to writ­ing. He was chal­leng­ing, un­abashedly lit­er­ary, alo­cal for­mal­ist who rav­ished some read­ers while re­pelling oth­ers. Read­ing On­daatje was — and still is — an act of trust; you ei­ther fall back­wards into his stylis­tic, sym­bol­i­cally charged nar­ra­tives or you don’t. His books, in­clud­ing In the Skin of a Lion and Com­ing through Slaugh­ter, were not only stud­ied as ex­em­plary texts of Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture but, be­cause of their mix of frag­ments, poetry, his­tory, and mi­gra­tion nar­ra­tives, they were also re­garded as unique post­mod­ern ex­per­i­ments and one of the few re­gional ex­am­ples of post­colo­nial fic­tion. Then with the re­lease of his 1992 novel, The English Pa­tient — a sweep­ing Sec­ond World War epic about an am­ne­siac sol­dier burned be­yond recog­ni­tion — On­daatje be­came a world­wide cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. That story turned him into the first Cana­dian to win the Booker Prize, and the novel’s 1996 film adap­ta­tion won nine Os­cars. It was even the sub­ject of a Seinfeld episode. To­day, Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture courses have changed — and so has the cul­ture. Pro­fes­sors have be­gun teach­ing more con­tem­po­rary of­fer­ings by In­dige­nous, fe­male, LGBTQ, and multi-eth­nic voices from around the world. More often than not, my stu­dents have not read On­daatje, nor are they aware of the heights he once scaled. And, as other writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion now spend half their wak­ing hours on Twit­ter,

ea­ger to “en­gage” with read­ers, On­daatje re­mains a pri­vate per­son. These days, he seems to emerge only once ev­ery six or seven years, on the oc­ca­sion of a new book. On­daatje’s sev­enth novel, Warlight, which is set in the United King­dom fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, is not a war novel so much as a novel that uses the af­ter­math of con­flict as its theatri­cal back­drop. It is sim­i­lar in tone and ap­proach to his pre­vi­ous book, 2011’s The Cat’s Ta­ble — which told the story of a child named Michael who is sail­ing from Sri Lanka to Eng­land in 1954 to meet his long-es­tranged mother — even though it sur­faces in a dras­ti­cally an­grier world. In­deed, as our cul­ture has grav­i­tated to­ward writ­ing that tries to make sense of cur­rent iden­tity strug­gles and global in­sta­bil­ity, On­daatje’s nov­els, al­ways re­luc­tant to use such ap­proaches, have re­ceded ever fur­ther into his­tor­i­cal set pieces, priz­ing art­ful­ness and aes­thet­ics over anal­y­sis. This is both the en­dear­ing and mad­den­ing as­pect of read­ing On­daatje: though the world around us is chang­ing, his books are not.

Warlight opens in 1945, in a Lon­don tran­si­tion­ing from war back to peace, in an era when there was a clear de­mar­ca­tion be­tween the two. It is a place and time where es­pi­onage and op­por­tunists can op­er­ate in lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive shad­ows. The novel’s pro­tag­o­nist is a four­teen-year-old boy named Nathaniel. His par­ents have just an­nounced that they must leave for Sin­ga­pore for a year, and though he and his sis­ter, Rachel, don’t seem to miss their fa­ther’s pres­ence, they feel aban­doned by their mother. The sib­lings aren’t quite alone, though. They live in their gloomy house with an ac­quain­tance of their par­ents called The Moth, who had moved in as a boarder. The man may or may not be in­volved in criminal ac­tiv­i­ties, and soon he brings a carousel of vaudevil­lian char­ac­ters into their home, in­clud­ing an ar­gu­men­ta­tive Rus­sian, an ethno­g­ra­pher and ge­og­ra­pher named Olive Lawrence, and a man known as The Darter. Not long af­ter their par­ents leave, Nathaniel and Rachel dis­cover their mother’s packed trunk in the base­ment, and The Moth in­forms them that she hasn’t boarded a boat to Sin­ga­pore af­ter all. Where is his mother, Nathaniel won­ders. More im­por­tantly, who is she, and why would she leave her chil­dren be­hind with a cast of mys­te­ri­ous strangers? All the peo­ple flit­ting in and out of the home seem to har­bour se­crets, ul­te­rior mo­tives, and other lives. Warlight is a novel about spies, though it is not a spy novel. It wears the outer husk of an Alan Furst or John le Carré book but has no in­ter­est in the geopo­lit­i­cal plot em­bel­lish­ments of Cold War in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing. In On­daatje’s world of covert in­tel­li­gence, mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties are an act of psy­chic de­con­struc­tion, not a por­tal for ter­ri­to­rial in­trigue. His ver­sion of spy­ing is an in­ward gaze, a tragic aware­ness of life’s ever-chang­ing frame that comes with grow­ing up. Who is any­one, On­daatje re­ally wants to ask, once we fac­tor in the per­sonas we con­sciously present to the world, to fam­ily, and to our­selves? As such, Warlight is pre­sented as Nathaniel’s mem­oir of his sud­den ex­pul­sion from child­hood. But it is one writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of the pro­tag­o­nist as an old man, the novel’s tragic con­ceit; Nathaniel can­not grasp why his mother aban­doned him or dis­cover who she re­ally was be­cause his ear­li­est mem­o­ries are blurred at best, lend­ing them­selves to metafic­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion. “I am now at an age where I can talk about it,” he con­fesses early on, “of how we grew up pro­tected by the arms of strangers.” Mean­while, the novel’s time­line is prone to hop­scotch through the past, as one’s thoughts do be­fore one falls asleep. “There are times these years later, as I write all this down,” Nathaniel states, “when I feel as if I do so by can­dle­light... to ad­mit the al­ter­ing move­ment of shad­ows.” The hazi­ness of mem­ory is an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, meant to cast light and shade on the past, im­bu­ing some mem­o­ries with al­ter­na­tive mean­ings while dark­en­ing oth­ers. In some places, that dark­ness col­lapses into a de­feat: “I don’t know. I don’t know,” Nathaniel ad­mits when try­ing to de­ter­mine the na­ture of a re­la­tion­ship be­tween The Darter and Olive Lawrence. The novel’s ti­tle is a symp­tom of this dark­ness, “a time cap­sule of the war years when black­outs and cur­fews had been in ef­fect.” On­daatje ap­pears mes­mer­ized by this mo­ment in his­tory, when peace has damp­ened the chaos of war, no new nat­u­ral or­der has set­tled, and a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity has opened for those who want change their lives. Nathaniel does just that when he grows up and joins the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence ser­vice. With ac­cess to na­tional-se­cu­rity files, he fi­nally learns that spies were watch­ing over his en­tire child­hood and try­ing to pro­tect him and his in­no­cence. “You re­turn to that ear­lier time armed with the present and no mat­ter how dark that world was, you do not leave it un­lit,” he writes. “You take your adult self with you. It is not are­liv­ing, but a re­wit­ness­ing.”

His­tor­i­cal fic­tion, which is tech­ni­cally what On­daatje has been writ­ing for four decades, tends to serve a dou­ble func­tion. It typ­i­cally sheds light on its cho­sen era while cast­ing an eye upon any par­al­lels with the reader’s world. The most res­o­nant of On­daatje’s nov­els re­late some­thing of their au­thor’s ide­o­log­i­cal un­der­pin­nings, ei­ther through de­tails of his per­sonal his­tory or a deep un­der­stand­ing of im­mi­gra­tion’s du­al­i­ties. His mat­u­ra­tion as a nov­el­ist took shape with the pub­li­ca­tion of his 1982 mem­oir, Run­ning in the Fam­ily. A semi-fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of his own fam­ily’s his­tory, the book was writ­ten af­ter On­daatje re­turned to Sri Lanka, the coun­try he had left as a child. Through force­ful po­et­ics and magic real­ism, we en­counter his al­co­holic fa­ther, Mervyn; his ab­sent mother, Doris; and his ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Lalla. On­daatje wrote in that mem­oir, “In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thou­sand facts,” and it’s a modus operandi he car­ried for­ward into 1987’s In the Skin of a Lion. He ap­plied this idea — that re­al­ity is a truth un­der­ly­ing sto­ries, not the facts that make up the sur­face—to his new home, draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the gen­er­a­tions of im­mi­grants whose sweat built Toronto in the 1920s and thir­ties. The skin of a lion, he in­fers, is some­thing to be worn and shed, like the cho­sen iden­ti­ties of the im­mi­grant.

One won­ders if there’s any equiv­a­lent rev­e­la­tion un­der­ly­ing Warlight. Be­yond its struc­tural ar­gu­ment re­gard­ing the na­ture of mem­ory, the book does lit­tle to elu­ci­date its time pe­riod or to par­al­lel an un­der­cur­rent of our times. On­daatje’s time cap­sule is shut too firmly. On­daatje has noted be­fore that each of his nov­els “is a re-writ­ing of what you didn’t quite get to in the pre­vi­ous book,” and those who pick up Warlight will find that to be an ac­cu­rate as­sess­ment. For long-time read­ers, the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with this novel comes in the de­tec­tive work of watch­ing how the au­thor re­casts his re­cur­ring in­ter­ests and well-trod­den de­tails from his past. The sud­den ex­pul­sion from child­hood in­no­cence, the boat jour­ney half­way around the world, the ef­fects of a mother’s ab­sence, adolescence and its sponge of aware­ness, the af­ter­math of the Sec­ond World War — these are all piv­otal el­e­ments in both his per­sonal his­tory and in his grand fic­tional ex­per­i­ments. On­daatje, now seventy-four, writes nov­els that are crys­talline and com­plex con­struc­tions, but in­creas­ingly, they can also read like co­coons — thought ex­per­i­ments cast in a pri­vate lan­guage for one. His is a cast of pup­pets — another im­age that re­curs, as if to deepen this self-aware­ness. The reader can ad­mire their mo­tions but not al­ways em­pathize with their mo­ti­va­tions. Some faith­ful read­ers may glimpse an evo­lu­tion of ideas that have been at work in On­daatje’s writ­ing for decades, but what of younger gen­er­a­tions? Is there any­thing there, apart from craft, for them to grasp in this deeply in­te­rior novel? In her later years, Mar­garet At­wood has grown only more spec­u­la­tive, lever­ag­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence to por­tend the larger ques­tions that be­devil us. Leonard Co­hen looked deep into the spir­i­tual void in his fi­nal act. Alice Munro gave us stark ex­am­i­na­tions of hu­man flaws right up to her re­tire­ment. These risks haven’t al­ways suc­ceeded, but at least they arose out of lit­er­a­ture’s pri­mor­dial de­sire to en­gage. I can’t help but read Warlight and see an el­der states­man ac­tively dis­en­gag­ing with his times. There is some­thing down­right strange about see­ing a writer of colour — a gi­ant of Cana­dian mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, no less — de­liver a story that seems to have a com­pletely white cast and not have it be a com­ment of some sort. This cen­tury so far, with its fo­cus on power im­bal­ances and wars on terror, has been such a piv­otal one for two gen­er­a­tions of brown writ­ers, such as Rawi Hage and Mohsin Hamid. These au­thors have done the hard work of ar­gu­ing how they ought to be seen in the world. Have the mis­con­cep­tions and stereo­types that have shaped so many of us af­fected On­daatje at all? What could this mas­ter of nar­ra­tive struc­ture make of a world that has changed so swiftly? It would be a shame if we never got the op­por­tu­nity to find out. There’s no deny­ing that Warlight aims to be time­less, but as­pects of it also feel deeply out of step with the times. Read­ers can ad­mire its gor­geous sen­tences, the po­et­ics of its mo­tion, and the in­ge­nu­ity of its struc­ture, but we can­not in­ter­act with its cor­doned-off world; we can nei­ther see our­selves in its char­ac­ters nor learn from it. Warlight of­fers a be­guil­ing es­cape into On­daatje’s favourite sub­jects, but it’s a jour­ney that we’ve made many times be­fore. dim­itri nas­ral­lah has writ­ten for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. His third novel, The Bleeds, was re­leased in Fe­bru­ary.

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