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Michael Ondaatje is at his forensic best in new novel Warlight

Michael Ondaatje. Photo/Alamy

Research and discovery delight Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. They imbue his novel about family desertion, memory and revelation with serendipity and magic.

There is a scene in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel where Nathaniel Williams is crouched over his desk, trying to pull together the threads of his fractured adolescence. “There are times these years later, as I write all this down,” he says, “when I feel as if I do so by candlelight. As if I cannot see what is taking place in the dark beyond the movement of this pencil. These feel like moments without context.”

Lying just beyond the reach of the candlelight are the events that overtook the lives of Nathaniel, then 14, and his older sister Rachel when, as we are told in the first, compelling sentence, “our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”.

Their father sails away to a new job in Singapore. Their mother, Rose, leaves a few weeks later, ostensibly to follow him. The children are left in the distracted care of the third-floor lodger they name The Moth and his ex-boxer colleague, the Pimlico Darter – “a slightly louche character”, says Ondaatje, trying to make money out of greyhounds. They bring with them an eccentric company of passers-through, including the dazzling presence of so-called ethnographer and unlikely girlfriend to The Darter, Olive Lawrence.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Who are these shadowy night-time characters? What do they have to do with their mother’s disappearance? As Nathaniel asks, “What kind of family were we a part of now … what had we become?”

But the obfuscating gloom surrounding these fragmented memories is also literal. This is London, 1945, a chiaroscuro landscape of street bonfires, firelight, sodium lights and “bombed out docklands”. Under the cover of darkness, mussel boats cut silently through the canals with their illicit cargo of greyhounds, trucks weave through silent backstreets with their loads of explosive nitroglycerine, young lovers meet in empty houses, and shadowy figures smash the light in an Underground lift. The atmosphere is heavy, Ondaatje’s descriptions rich with sensory detail.

“I have to begin with a physical location – if I don’t have a location and a time, I feel the book could drift off like a balloon,” he says over the phone from Minneapolis.

“It needs something very stable because I don’t really have a full plot in mind yet – I don’t have a plan or a structure. So the local colour becomes very important. I’ll begin with a tunnel, or a restaurant in New Orleans, and gradually the characters and plot start getting involved, but they all are reflections, they grow out of that location and that time period.”

As with many of Ondaatje’s books, those characters are shaped by the experience of being uprooted from, or deserted by, their families. He points to the chance confluences of characters thrown together in a dilapidated villa in northern Italy in The English Patient, the odd alliance of travellers on board the cruise ship Oronsay in The Cat’s Table, even the transitory crew of gamblers in Divisadero – all briefly but indelibly shifting the trajectory of the protagonist’s life.

In such cases, he says, the state of being family-less can be galvanising. “If you think of a book like [The History ofTom Jones, it is full of adventures for Tom. Certainly for Nathaniel, he is energised by The Darter and Olive Lawrence and these other people he meets. All those people teach him something. They might not be good things, but he and Rachel are being taught, they are being educated.”

That education is a far cry from the familiar childhood landscape of home and school. Under the distracted watch of The Moth, living in a temporal zone between war and peace, childhood and adulthood, Nathaniel finds his anchor, an unpredictable kind of stability, in the underworld activities of The Darter. Embedded in his adopted family, he enters a twilight world of suspected illegality, of smugglers, spies and thieves living their inscrutable lives of secrecy and surveillance.

A scene from The English Patient.

Like writers?

“Exactly like writers. Leonard Cohen talks about writers as a company of great thieves. [The presence of thieves] makes a book less safe. It nudges you to do something else – it is a suggestive thing, there’s a greater tension.”

In the second part of the novel, Nathaniel, now 28, is locked in the unresolved mysteries that surround his mother and the disparate gang that passed through his childhood home. Will all of those who remained incomplete and lost to me, he wonders, “become clear and evident when I look back?” But his ability to look back is hampered by his mother’s secrecy, war and post-war censorship, and the habit of those he knew to melt into the shadows.

While others move on with their lives, Nathaniel begins to piece together his mother’s activities in the months following the end of the war, tracing her connection to a bombing in Jerusalem, a massacre in Yugoslavia, a clandestine operation in Italy and the movements of the evocatively named Marsh Felon, the thatcher’s son who fell off the roof of Rose’s childhood home and never really left her life. It is a patchy trail, signposted by code names, fragmented accounts of torture and revenge exhumed from notes in a secret notebook, official memos, and the maps held in the British Foreign Office where Nathaniel works reviewing secret service files and dossiers.

This is Ondaatje at his forensic best, rifling through official histories to find those stories deliberately hidden from inquiring eyes. In The English Patient – one of five books shortlisted for the one-off Golden Man Booker Prize for the best work of fiction over the past 50 years – clues to the identity of the burnt patient, Count Almásy, are found in the notes and observations inserted into his copy of Herodotus’ The Histories. In Anil’s Ghost, anthropologist Anil Tissera, in Sri Lanka to find evidence of government involvement in nearly two decades of political killings, seeks the truth in secret burial plots and recent writings chiselled into rock. In Warlight, Nathaniel trawls the archives to find the buried clues to explain his mother’s disappearance, the scars on her arm, and the roles of The Moth, The Darter and the enigmatic Olive Lawrence in their childhood lives.

“I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth,” Nathaniel says towards the close of Warlight.

“I am a bit obsessed with that,” Ondaatje says. “I love the lost piece of paper, the clue in the map or the evidence in the file that can only be broken open with a thin, thin blade. For a writer, it is a kind of archaeology of trying to find out who was right, who was wrong, who was there – I find all books are archaeological.”

Ondaatje is as surprised as anyone at the findings. Working in what he described to the late John Berger as somewhere “excessively private” – a standalone office in the Toronto home he shares with his wife, writer and editor Linda Spalding – he finds characters gatecrashing or abandoning his novels with incontestable authority.

In The English Patient, the Sikh bomb defuser, Kip, arrives at the Italian villa at night. The young nurse, Hana, makes him a sandwich – so he stays in the book.

“It was such a relief,” recalls Ondaatje. “I had all these bombs all over the building; someone had to deal with them, but I had no idea it was going to be Kip. In most of my books someone sort of takes over halfway through. I am not sure who it is.

 “I have total respect for people who have a whole plan for novels and then they write them. But for me, I am so curious when I am writing: who is Nathaniel? Who is Olive Lawrence? I can write 10 pages about Olive Lawrence and keep discovering more and more interesting things about her.”

Other characters simply walk away. In The Cat’s Table, Mr Mazappa suddenly leaves the ship and the life of young protagonist Michael.

“I was disappointed,” says Ondaatje. “I found him interesting, and then suddenly, just beyond the halfway point, he disappears. But in a way it is a natural thing to happen – people disappear in our lives.”

Ondaatje is a curious tourist in his own work, traversing through his chosen landscape with no guidebook, taking a traveller’s delight in the unexpected and the serendipitous. In researching Warlight, he came across the nocturnal climbers of the dangerous roofs and spires of Cambridge, a wartime sport made famous in an anonymous book.

He found the pool in which Nathaniel’s girlfriend, Agnes, dives from the barge is the same pool where Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb was tested for the World War II “Dambusters” raid. In following the waterways used by The Darter, he came across the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, an important site for the manufacture of munitions and the production of nitroglycerine.

“In an abbey! I had no idea Waltham Abbey existed. That is when I found out about the nitroglycerine trucks being driven secretly through London. That kind of research that leads to discovery – it is more magical because I hadn’t planned it.”

Now that particular line of research is complete, Ondaatje has no immediate plans for a new book. He will read, write poetry and consider learning the piano: “I always said I would learn to play the piano when I’ve finished a book; I have never done it. But I’m glad I have nothing planned; it feels very good. I’m not feeling so fraught. I always say when I have finished a book, that is it, so who knows what will happen? You need to get your head out of those thousands of sentences for a while.”

WARLIGHT, by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape, $35)

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.