Monthly Archives: August 2018

Pondering Life During The Summer Months | Review of “Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje (2018)McClelland & Stewart

warlight

It has been a while since I posted on here. The summer so far has been long and lethargic. Like many people, the heat has forced me to reflect and ponder my existence on this mudball circling the too-bright orange ball in the expanse of space. And the plot of Michael Ondaatje’s latest coming-of-age novel – called Warlight – proved to be the right meditative device for my mind to reflect upon.

Pages 6 Part One – A Table Full of Strangers

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in the absence. I remember our father was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron garden chairs as he broke the news, while 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.

Ondaatje is the master wordsmith who knows his craft and this book proves his skill. The story deals with Nathaniel and the time of when he comes-of-age of  awareness of himself and the world around him. Set in post-war London, England, Nathaniel and his sister are abandon by their parents and left under the care of a shady character by the name of “The Moth.” Ondaatje divides the plot of the book into two sections: the first where Nathaniel tells the story of he and his sister growing up while dealing with “The Moth” then the second part where Nathaniel – older and we assume wiser – tries to understand and comes to terms with that era of his life.

Pages 31-32 Hellfire

My sister didn’t return until late that night, long past midnight. She appeared unconcerned, barely spoke to us. The Moth did not argue with her about her absence, only asked if she had been drinking. She shrugged. She looked exhausted, her arms and her legs were filthy. After this night The Moth would intentionally grow close to her. But it felt to me that she had crossed a river and was now further from me, elsewhere. She had after all been the one to discover the trunk which our mother had simply “forgotten” when she’d boarded the plane for the two-and-a-half-day journey to Singapore. Now shawl, no cannister, no calf-length dress she could swirl in on some dance floor during a tea dance with our father, or whoever she was with, wherever she was. But Rachel refused to talk about it.

Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning “difficult.” “Heavy.” We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. “‘Schwer,'” he’d say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we’d mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other –  “schwer.”

In a nutshell – and like many writers who document coming-of-age stories well -Ondaatje has given us readers a context in which to compare our own upbringings with. It is an important element of the human condition and reading stories about other people’s childhood helps in coming to terms with our own. And Ondaatje’s well-thought out prose aids in keeping the story alive in our minds as we ponder our days of youth.

Page 135 The Saints

When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually towards you. “A memoir is the lost inheritance,” you realize, so that during this time you must learn how and where to look. In the resulting self-portrait everything will rhyme, because everything has been reflected. If a gesture was flung away in the past, you now see it in the possession of another. So I believed something in my mother must rhyme in me. She in her small hall of mirrors and I in mine.

Gifted writer Michael Ondaatje has once again crafted a brilliant work of literature which deals with important elements of the human condition with his latest work Warlight. It is a perfect read to ponder over during lethargic summer days.

*****

Link to Penguin – Random House Canada’s website for Warlight