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290 pages, Paperback
First published May 8, 2018
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.When we are young we rely on the people who surround us to introduce us to the world, to explain the many elements of life that can be so confusing, overwhelming, or simply opaque to young eyes. Some of this knowledge can only come from first-hand experience, but it helps to have adults at hand, of a trustworthy sort, who can help us along the road of becoming. Nathaniel (aka Stitch) is fourteen. His sister, Rachel, (aka Wren) is sixteen when their parents depart for Singapore on mysterious government assignments after the war, leaving them in the care of the boarder they call “The Moth,” and a fluid cast of what can only be considered dodgy characters, reminiscent of Caravaggio from The English Patient, who was both a criminal and a spy.
The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow- moving opera singer.It is among these remarkable personalities that Nat and Rachel are introduced to the realities of a world that exists largely in shadows, the dim light redolent of wartime London, or warlight of the title. The first part of the story, Nat and Rachel’s adolescence, takes place in the immediate post-war period. The curtain between war and post-war being sometimes permeable, they are affected by events of a continuing shadow engagement, in which war-time battle driven by armored divisions, fleets of ships, and waves of aircraft was replaced by the dimly-lit conflict of combatants in street clothes, engaged in theatres where stealth and treachery defined the landscape.
We passed 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 and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.The focus is primarily on Nathaniel, with Rachel relegated to activities that are mostly reported rather seen first-hand. There is a strong element of coming of age here for Nat, whose experiences in the world of work, whether legal or not, and adventures with the opposite sex expose him to a broader vision of the world. With both parents away, he must look to the adults at hand for role models. It would help if he actually knew what they were really on about.
…There’s a photograph I have of my mother in which her features are barely revealed. I recognize her from just her stance, some gesture in her limbs, even though it was taken before I was born… I found it years later in the spare bedroom among the few remnants she had decided not to throw away. I have it with me still. This almost anonymous person, balanced awkwardly, holding on to her own safety. Already incognito.Nat’s search for the truth of his mother, Rose’s, life is, in a way, a stand-in for seeking the truth of his own. Telemachus wanting to learn of his mother’s odyssey. While the primary focus of the book is on Nathaniel, Rose comes in for the next-most attention. Her history is fascinating, and a delight to read.
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.In our look-back, Rose and others engage in mortally perilous missions. Some do battle on the homefront as well, although no less dangerously. Scarring is another feature Ondaatje returns to. The English Patient was surely a high point in the literature of skin miseries. But the experience that scarring suggests shows up here as well. An immigrant with whom Nat works as a teen sports noticeable facial scarring. A co-worker of his mother has less than beautiful hands from his scaling interest. Another has abdominal marks that were clearly nearly mortal and Rose has a decent dose of skin-told-tales as well.
There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight.The darkness extends to identification as well, given how many of the characters are known by their colorful noms du guerre rather than by what might appear on their birth certificates.
We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here. But who did I hurt to get here? Who guided me to something better? Or accepted the few small things I was competent at? Who taught me to laugh as I lied?...But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?As in most good novels, there are Easter-egg clues to the novelist’s craft.
a high perspective, as from a belfry or cloister roof, allows you to see over walls into usually hidden distances, as if into other lives and countries, to discover what might be occurring there, a lateral awareness allowed by height.This nicely reflects the author’s on-high ability to see past windows into the secrets of his/her characters’ lives. And another nugget.
Who made me move from just an interest in “characters” to what they would do to others?And just in case you were not aware, Ondaatje’s writing is poetical, exquisite, and moving. There are many passages in Warlight that call you to return, mull, and savor. A writer who is not fond of linear narrative, he jumps about without much warning, but attentive readers should have little difficulty knowing when they are in the narrative. While considerable attention is paid to the business of international intrigue, that seems more to provide a palette against which the characters can be displayed.
He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.July 18, 2018 - Warlight is long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Award for Fiction
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.
I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him—we used to call him “The Moth,” a name we had invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.
The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war; so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do, and The Moth, who had recently become our third-floor lodger, a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements, was to be the solution. Our parents must have assumed he was reliable. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.
We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river. I watched the welterweight boxer whom I had once perceived as harsh and antagonistic turn and look towards me, talking gently as he searched for the precise words about the ankles of Olive Lawrence, and about her knowledge of cyan charts and wind systems.
In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.One of these men is a lodger in their London house whom they call "The Moth." He is benevolent but distant, disappearing for days at a time to leave the 14-year-old narrator (Nathaniel, more generally known as "Stitch") and his older sister Rachel to their own devices. The other is a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter, who soon involves Stitch in activities of doubtful legality such as the smuggling of greyhounds upriver to race at the London tracks. Various other people come and go in the house, such as the "geographer and ethnographer" Olive Lawrence and the scholarly Arthur McCash, but it is The Darter who makes the biggest impression:
The music-loving Moth appeared blind to the evident anarchy in The Darter. Everything the ex-boxer did was at a precarious tilt, about to come loose. Worst were the crowded car rides when the two of them sat in front, while Rachel and I and sometimes three greyhounds squabbled in the back on the way to Whitechapel. We were not even certain that the dogs belonged to him.I am also reminded of Patrick Modiano, for his fascination with the hidden details of a great city, his excavation of memory, and his sense of a semi-criminal half-life with its roots in the War. But there are even closer echoes of Ondaatje himself. His masterpiece The English Patient is also concerned with the immediate aftermath of war, and the way in which it can make criminals into heroes. But my most immediate connection was with his 2011 novel The Cat's Table. That was the story of a voyage from Ceylon to London of a schoolboy named Michael who might to all intents and purposes have been the author; though fiction, it used (in the author's words) "the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography." In Warlight, the action has been moved back by a decade or so, but in other respects it might almost be a sequel, with the same character a year or so older, compiling a scrapbook of extraordinary experiences that would be the raw materials for his later career as an author. This sense of memoir was confirmed when I suddenly realized that Nathaniel's school is the same one that Ondaatje himself attended in London—Dulwich College:
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 to you. "A memoir is the lost inheritance," you realize, so 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 believe something in my mother must rhyme in me. She in her small hall of mirrors and I in mine.He goes about his task elliptically; only gradually do you realize the web of connections that tie him to the village where his mother had grown up. But there are gaps in that web, and Stitch, true to his nickname, slowly attempts to stitch them up. And he does so, no longer as a memoirist or biographer, but a full-blown novelist, inventing an inner truth from the few fragments of fact that he can unearth.
Facts, dates, my official and unofficial research fell away and were replaced by the gradual story, half dreamed, of my mother and Marsh Felon. How they eventually walked towards each other without their families, their brief moment as lovers and then their retreat, but still holding on to their unusual faithfulness to each other. I had barely a clue as to their cautious desire, of travels to and from dark airfields and harbours. All I had, in reality, was no more than a half-finished verse of an old ballad rather than evidence. But I was a son, parentless, with what was not known to a parentless son, and I could only step into fragments of the story. […] I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.Indeed he does!
We walked between the white-painted beehives and she produced from her apron pocket a wedge to raise the sodden ribs of wood so we could look into the lower level of the hive, the bees assaulted suddenly by sunlight.The story is, perhaps, his way of conveying that even the most scarred ones have to carry the infinite (and punishing) body of life on their backs and thus, the least the privileged ones can do is to pause and utter a word of gratitude instead of slurring spurts of venom.
„Nimeni nu știe cine este deținătorul adevărului. Oamenii nu sînt cine sau unde credem noi că sînt. Și mai e cineva care privește dintr-un loc necunoscut”.
So we began a new life. I did not quite believe it then. And I am still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energised 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, as if I had too quickly exhausted my freedoms. In any case I am now at an age where I can talk about it, of how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers. And it is like clarifying a fable, about our parents, about Rachel and myself and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later. I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.
Along with a handful of others, I sifted through the files and dossiers that still remained … in order to make recommendations as to what might need to be re-archived or now eradicated
We lived through a time when events that appeared far-flung were neighbours.
our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls who, having at one time, legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.
What he’d done after the war was a consequence of the peace
I began to realise that an unauthorised 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
Besides, hearing another version of the goat incident was a further layering in the world that I was entering. I felt I was like a caterpillar changing colour, precariously balanced, moving from one species of leaf to another.
The shade of his one large mulberry tree. We used to work mostly in vigorous sunlight, so now it’s the shade I think of not the tree. Just its symmetrical dark existence..
There are times these years later, as I write this all down when I feel as if I do so by candlelight. As if I cannot see what is taking place beyond the movement of this pencil.
He’d wake in the dark and … go down into the river valleys as night began dissolving already with birdsong. It was the hour with that tense new light …
We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river ….. We passed 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 only warlight
[she was drawing] me. Just a youth looking towards something or someone. As if this was what I really was, perhaps would become, someone not intent on knowing himself but preoccupied with others.
that familiar false modesty of the English which included absurd secrecy or the the cliché of an innocent boffin was somewhat like those carefully painted formal dioramas that hid the truth and closed the door on their private selves