Michael Ondaatje crafts a superb wartime mystery
"I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth." These words come late in "Warlight," the superb seventh novel by the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. They're spoken by Nathaniel Williams, the book's tactful, tentative narrator, and he knows of what he speaks. By this point in the novel, Nathaniel works for British intelligence, reviewing files about covert operations undertaken during World War II and immediately thereafter, attempting to construct a narrative of what happened to whom and why from the scraps he finds in the archives.
Nathaniel's childhood provided good training. In 1945, when he was 14, his parents left him and his older sister, Rachel, behind in London, supposedly going to Singapore for a year for reasons related to their father's work. Nathaniel and Rachel remained under the care of a series of strangers whose nicknames and physical eccentricities are positively Dickensian. There's a tall, "cheerfully incomprehensible" man they call The Moth, "a private man who loved classical music" and who has, in one of Ondaatje's many lovely and condensed bits of portraiture, a "large and friendly stomach"; there's another man called The Darter, a former boxer and current smuggler of greyhounds, a quick-eyed, dodgy fellow who displays, in another perfect description, "a furtive walk, as if he were saving energy for a later moment."
As the two siblings discover midway through the novel, their parents didn't leave for the reasons they stated. They actually left because of their mother's work, not their father's, and these related to the foreign intelligence operations that Nathaniel will sift through as an adult. The older Nathaniel muses upon the effects of such a period of unmooring: "I am still uncertain whether the period of time that followed disfigured or energized my life. I was to lose the pattern and restraint of family habits during that time, and as a result, later on, there would be a hesitancy in me." Nathaniel is left to try and piece things together, to create some faltering meaning out of this experience of familial fragmentation.
Turning fragments into story, knowing that the story is imperfect but knowing that it must be told anyway, is Nathaniel's job. It's also an activity that runs throughout Ondaatje's work, from his 1976 debut, "Coming Through Slaughter," to his 1992 Booker Prize-winning "The English Patient" to the present. Ondaatje's is an aesthetic of the fragment. His novels are constructed, with intricate beauty, from images and scenes that don't so much flow together as cling together in vibrating, tensile fashion. They're poetic novels, not in the sense that they're lyrical (though they are) but in that they're built more from juxtaposition and apposition than from clean narrative progression.
Ondaatje is also interested in an ethics of the fragment. If the stories we tell — about ourselves, about history — always remain uncertain, shouldn't we resist the urge to tell them? Isn't there something wrong about imposing order upon that which is inherently fluid? Perhaps. But we're story-telling animals, through and through. As Ondaatje writes in "Warlight," "We order our lives with such barely held stories. As if we have been lost for generations in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken . . . sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete." To exist is to dwell in the fragments, but to live is to turn those fragments into incomplete, fragile order.
Maps recur throughout "Warlight": Nathaniel draws them obsessively as a child ("I thought that what I could not see or record would cease to exist"); among his mother's possessions, he finds tucked into a book a mysterious hand-drawn map "with no place-names on it. A fragment that probably meant nothing." The fragment ends up meaning a great deal, as fragments are wont to do in Ondaatje's fiction. "Warlight" dramatizes Nathaniel's attempt to map his own history alongside that of British intelligence. To describe that map in detail, to show how the fragments of the story and his mother's character fit together, is to lessen the real delights on offer.
The term "warlight" describes the low-lighted atmosphere of London during the Blitz, and it's a perfect phrase for the crepuscular feel, both aesthetic and cognitive, of Ondaatje's novels. In them, things aren't clear until they are, and what remains are the precise yet illusive images, fragments of a larger, ungraspable whole. We're left like Nathaniel and The Darter, "pass[ing] industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight." In Ondaatje's fiction, it's always a time of warlight.
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95
The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of "Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.''