“We were used to partial stories” Nathaniel, the protagonist of Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel ‘Warlight’, tells us in the opening pages of this remarkable novel that is part spy novel in the low-key John Le Carre tradition, part coming-of-age story in the post war England. The narrative takes us through the lives Nathaniel, his sister Rachel and their mother, who in many ways is the real protagonist of the novel, just as Andy Dufresne is the protagonist of ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ even if the story is told through the eyes of Red. After tracing the path of the family through timelines that cut back and forth, from Rose, the mother’s childhood to Nathaniel’s stint with the secret service, the reader realizes that through this opening line, perhaps the author was also setting expectations. “We were used to partial stories” is an advance warning to the reader to expect an account of deeply felt emotions more than report of events, one where you seek closure instead of resolutions. And yet, nothing in the novel, from a boy who fell out of tree in Rose’s younger days to the man called Moth by Nathaniel and Rachel is a misdirection or unnecessary. The gaps, as they are left at the end tell us about how memory works and how we rebuild life, ours and those of others around us.
As teenagers, Nathaniel and Rachel are left in the care of an enigmatic man they call Moth, while their parents travel abroad, purportedly for the father’s business purpose. Nathaniel tells us “ours was a family with habit of nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises” so eventually when the children find out their mother never joined their father in Singapore, and that the multitude of adults calling on Moth at their family home, from a charismatic albeit brutal greyhound race fixer called Darter to enigmatic ethnographer (go figure!) Olive Lawrence, are not what they seemed to be, the reader is perhaps disturbed, but certainly not surprised. Nathaniel is sort of taken under the wing by Darter as the teenager helps him in what appears as greyhound smuggling and race-fixing operation. The siblings quietly and heartbreakingly drift in their separate directions, Rachel gravitating towards performing arts, while Nathaniel finds intimacy in the arms of a waitress he calls Agnes. The moments the young lovers spend in many empty houses (her brother is a realtor) are beautiful without being overly sweet. Although in the post war London, a city “that still felt wounded, uncertain of itself”, the sense of danger is always palpable, and soon after a kidnapping attempt, the traumatized siblings are re-united with their mother. Of course, nothing is as it was before and in Nathaniel’s words the children and Rose head to another life.
Cut to 1959, Nathaniel, now working with the secret service, and given responsibility of going through wartime communication received by its operatives through the world, starts to put some pieces together after Rose’s demise. Nathaniel sees the job as “a chance of discovering that missing sequence in her life. It was the possibility of an inheritance” and thus begins the most fascinating thread of the novel that takes us back to Rose’s childhood and to that boy named Marsh Felon who as a teenager once fell off roof and who grew up to be a man of many skills suited to that unique time in history. As Marsh pulls Rose into the world of intrigue and watchfulness with him, many of the pieces and clues left cleverly in the first half of the novel begin to fall in place. And yet Warlight is not so much about ‘what happened to Rose’ as it is about ‘what Nathaniel thought/found out about his mother’. “Memoir is the lost inheritance” Nathaniel tells us “In the resulting self-portrait, everything will rhyme, because everything has been reflected” and the real magic of the novel happens in that area where we see the portrait of Rose as a mother, a spy of considerable repute and as a war hero, rhyming, not because of her perfections, but because it has been reflected by her son. In doing so, the author plays this diverse symphony with the skills of a maestro, closing some of the loops while leaving others tantalizingly, almost agonizingly open for us to think about. Where a lesser author might have played safe by choosing a multiple point of view narrative, Ondaatje refuses to fill the gaps for Nathaniel (and indirectly for us), and tells us the story through Nathaniel’s eyes only. Even the chapters that took place before he was born, we are never in doubt we are reading the story as it might be written by him. The discoveries are his, the imagination substituting facts in some places are his. And that elevates even the mystery part about Rose’s death to a level of elegance beyond the reach of most spy thrillers.
In ‘Duma Keys’ Stephen King’s protagonist Edgar Freemantle tells us that if black is the absence of light then white is the absence of memory, it’s the colour of can’t remember. Carrying the same analogy here, I would argue that in Warlight, Ondaatje explores that opaque shade of grey where the past is constantly moving between absence of light and absence of memory to give just enough illumination for the characters.
Nathaniel’s investigation, which mainly takes place in the lanes of his own memories of childhood, may not close the mysteries of his life in the “here is what happened” fashion of crime television shows, but by the time he reaches the final page the reader knows he is ready to move on. He tells us in the closing pages “we lived through a time when events that appeared far flung were neighbours”. Perhaps, Warlight is about memory because no other human faculty is capable of piecing together such events.