Michael Ondaatje, Warlight: A Novel.
Immersed in the bewildering atmosphere of post-WWII London, Michael Ondaatje's Warlight introduces the narrator, Nathaniel, a fourteen-year-old English boy, and his sister Rachel at the moment when they learn that their parents will abandon them to take up work in Singapore for an undisclosed amount of time. The parents leave the children in the care of guardians, a cast of shadowy figures whose names suggest espionage codenames (The Moth, The Darter, Olive, and McCash) and who have obscure connections to their mother's equally sketchy wartime activities. The children gradually acquire information about their mother, who operates as an occluded presence around which the events of the novel circulate. At the age of twenty-nine, Nathaniel tries to make sense of these bizarre events, imbuing the narrative with the character of both a memoir and an investigation, the outcome of which promises a fuller picture of his own past as well as the true identities of his parents and their associates. Indeed, Ondaatje's Warlight, which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is not only what Hermione Lee has called a "novel of chiaroscuro," which thematizes light and darkness in manifold ways, but also a narrative experiment that tests the availability of historical memory when one has only flickering candlelight by which to illuminate and interpret the materials of the past.
The most defining feature of Warlight is the overwhelming feeling of darkness that modulates across a range of registers. The title itself refers to the unlit atmosphere of the Blitz, a tense period when London (among other British cities) had to institute blackouts and curfews in order to protect itself from the sight of German bomber planes. Ondaatje heightens the sense that there was only the ghostly presence of warlight, which names the dim illumination that emanated from small orange lights on the bridges along the Thames during the darkness of the Blitz. Much of the novel labors to describe the metaphorical nature of this warlight, which seems to also penetrate the shrouded environment to reveal merely the silhouettes of the characters. As Nathaniel explains: "It was a time of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been. The city felt wounded, uncertain of itself." Amid the dark setting of bombarded houses live the "war ghosts," a descriptor that seems to apply to each character in the novel--and even to Nathaniel's sister, about whom we do not know much because, as Nathaniel admits, "we have separate memories." We learn more about the clandestine activities of The Darter, a welterweight boxer and friend of The Moth, whom Nathaniel assists in the trafficking of illegally imported race dogs along the narrow canals of the Thames. Agnes, with whom Nathaniel carries on his first love affair, also helps with the importation of illegal cargo. In a memorable moment of the novel, Agnes and Nathaniel break into an unlit three-story building in Mill Hill with a pack of greyhounds, and they sleep entangled on the floor. Nathaniel awakes to a paw on his face, and he asks the greyhound, "Where are you from? ... What country? Will you tell me?" Unable to answer these questions for himself or those of others around him, Nathaniel later feels an unlikely kinship with the illegitimate race dogs. It is this basic line of questioning--requests for only the most elemental information--that drives the narrative. Deeper questions do not find traction. In many ways, Ondaatje crafts a novel that frustrates the reader's attempts to dig beneath the surface; we are left feeling our way along the dark pages with our fingers outstretched, flailing in the absence of coherent meaning.
Indeed, the careful orchestration of this feeling-through-darkness marks the masterful achievement of Warlight. Just as Nathaniel feels lost amid his unlit memories, we read with a taut feeling of suspense that Ondaatje never relieves; like Nathaniel, we too feel unable to cohere the narrative events and make sense of them. This quality of suspense is of course a familiar feature of modernist war literature. But more specifically Ondaatje's novel revitalizes the genre of postwar novels of the 1940s that sought to mediate the boundless experience of war on the home front. The affective experience of wartime as a kind of darkness that disorients and constricts the human sensorium particularly distinguished novels about the Blitz. For example, the Irish novelist James Hanley conveys in No Directions (1943) the otherworldly nature of wartime London through the isolation that accompanies the threat of aerial bombardment on a block of flats in Chelsea. Fearing the impending destruction that lurks outside, the tenants retreat and are confined to the inside of the building for much of the novel; a painter continues to work on his enormous canvas during the blackouts, in much the same way that Nathaniel writes his memoir under metaphorical candlelight. Even though the characters yearn for the separation of inside and outside, Hanley disrupts this epistemological boundary such that the characters cannot come to grips with the material world. Through tropes of disorientation that short-circuit the nervous system, Blitz novels, such as No Directions and, I would argue, Warlight, intensify the question of mediation, as they contemplate the ways in which the experience of war forecloses the reliable formation of memory. How do you form a memory of a past to which you do not have access? What does it mean to know something when that process of knowing has been impaired?
By creating a character who desperately seeks to remember, Ondaatje insists on the unknowability of a life that is yoked to war. Although Warlight begins in 1945, after the ostensible conclusion of WWII, the most intimate events of the novel are wholly determined by the ongoing effects of the war. As the novel progresses, warlight seems to capture the ways in which the intensity of a totalizing event like war will continue to incandesce; war becomes the essential light source by which we read the world and understand ourselves. Part Two of Warlight, which jumps forward fifteen years to 1959, positions Nathaniel as the investigator of his own life, searching for partial answers to the ungraspable questions that have loomed over the novel, the most important being the identity of his mother and her relation to the war. The Foreign Office offers Nathaniel a job to review the archives from the war and postwar years. While at first Nathaniel sees the job as an opportunity to uncover details about his mother, who we have learned worked in some capacity for British intelligence during the war, he eventually recognizes "that an unauthorized and still violent war had continued after the armistice, a time when the rules and negotiations were still half lit and acts of war continued beyond public hearing." Nathaniel participates in what he calls "The Silent Correction," a censorship campaign waged on both sides of the war to destroy unsavory documents that might incriminate a country and thus pave the way so that "revisionist histories could begin." While his colleagues work to reinvent the narrative of the war, Nathaniel carries out his own revisionist project to discover the more accurate history of his own and his mother's lives. Ondaatje maintains over and again the irresolvable tension between life and war--that as a result of its boundlessness, war invades and determines all aspects of life. Nathaniel's act of self-discovery, which is tied as much to the war as to his mother, serves as a proxy for the comprehension of the war; just as the story of a life is fraught with silences and elisions, so is the epistemology of war and its effects.
By destabilizing the "post" in postwar through folding in the immediate aftermath with its lingering effects, Ondaatje provides a novelistic exemplar of what Paul Saint-Amour has theorized as the "perpetual interwar," which describes the condition in late modernity of "the real-time experience of remembering a past war while awaiting and theorizing a future one." Saint-Amour draws our attention to the historical analysis of "expectation, anxiety, prophecy, and anticipatory mourning" such that we might avoid "the wartime-versus-peacetime binarism [and] the too simple rejoinder that now all time is wartime." Ondaatje certainly can be said to participate in the post-1945 genre of contemporary historical novels about WWII that understand war as continuous and pervasive. But the temporalities of Warlight also attest to the affective experience of being suspended between the war's closure and its reanimation. This is why Nathaniel seems to remain in arrested development despite his arduous yearning for futurity, for filling in and overcoming the silences of his life. Even though by the novel's conclusion Nathaniel ascertains much about his mother's life, as well as the actual identities of the guardians who raised him, his comprehension remains partial, testifying to the impossibility of memoir, which he had early on acknowledged as not "a reliving, but a rewitnessing." The idea of re witnessing suggests that one does not so much inhabit the past as simply acknowledge it as always received through degrees of mediation. In the final pages of the novel, Nathaniel further develops this idea by declaring, "We order our lives with barely held stories." The act of barely holding something evokes the sense of tenuousness that Nathaniel cannot dispel when trying to comprehend his life in the midst of war's ongoingness. If Ondaatje means to provide a denouement to the bildungsroman of Nathaniel's life, then it is nothing more than this affirmation of incompleteness.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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