Guiding Lights

Guiding Lights

Tue 26 Jun

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. London, Jonathan Cape, 2018

Childhood: a state we remember dimly yet long to return to, to reorder, to understand. Or so Freud would have us believe. Michael Ondaatje, most famous for his crisped-up English Patient immortalized by Ralph Fiennes in Anthony Minghella’s masterful adaptation, offers up another return through the dizzying kaleidoscope of memory in his latest novel Warlight. Warlight, we are told, is “one dimmed orange light on bridges to mark the working arch for water traffic, a quiet signal in the midst of the bombing, and the barges ablaze and the shrapnel frapping across the water [...]” (265). A guiding light in the midst of chaos and destruction, warlight acts as the metaphor for the journey through the murky waterways of childhood and adolescence, adequate to see by but never enough to fully enlighten.

Nathaniel begins his narrative journey as a fourteen year old boy in 1945 post-war London. He and his sister Rachel have been left in the care of a shadowy figure referred to principally as The Moth, a man Nathaniel suspects of criminal leanings and a host of other characters flying under suspicious pseudonyms such as The Darter. Nathaniel’s recollection of his adolescence is as confusing as trying to find one’s way in a city that no longer resembles its official topography: “But now the munitions factories had been dismantled and the unused canals were silting up, becoming narrower between their overgrown banks” (96). Indeed, topographies - both official and unofficial - dominate the early stages of the novel as Nathaniel spends his time either drawing literal maps of the city itself, working in a series of restaurants that defy directions, or discovering the unknown terrain of the female body in the form of his teenage girlfriend Agnes, with whom he has assignations in empty houses managed by her estate agent brother. But the maps, so meticulously studied by his absent father and The Darter’s erstwhile girlfriend Olive Lawrence, don’t work. Signs lead to nowhere: their mother packs a trunk in front of them ostensibly before her long voyage East only to leave it in the basement of their house, Nathaniel thinks he sees his mother in a jazz club in Bromley only for her to disappear almost as soon as he recognizes her. Rachel, presumably suffering from a surfeit of faulty signs, erupts into violent epileptic seizures that render her world ever more distorted. Even names - the ultimate signifiers - are unstable, pseudonyms that run amok into riddles: Moth, Darter, Stitch, Wren, Viola. Looking for clues as to what is happening to them, the physical city can offer up no answers: “Yet although I was full of curiosity for answers to what was happening in our lives, there were no fog-filled streets or back alleys where I might find clues as to my mother’s whereabouts, or what Arthur McCash was doing in our house” (104).

Part Two floats eastward towards the coastal marshlands and waterways of Suffolk, landscape of his mother’s childhood, for further clues. Now twenty-eight, Nathaniel has bought a cottage with a walled garden close to his mother’s childhood home, a house aptly named White Paint, where any insight into his mother has been conveniently whitewashed from view. In long sequences detailing the age-old rural practices of the largely silent Suffolk locals, buildings become increasingly important symbols, strange vectors of verticality that offer unreliable narratives of their owners. Marsh Felon, a Suffolk thatcher turned good by his Cambridge education appears almost out of the land itself as Nathaniel’s narrative recedes into a fragmented vision of Marsh and Rose’s love affair played out in the theatre of World War Two espionage. Summoned to work for the government in archival research by a mysterious figure presumably known to his mother, Nathaniel realizes that official histories must undergo “The Silent Correction” (132) in order to mute the harsh realities of the “unauthorized and still violent war” (132) that had continued to be waged long after the armistice. Now a man in his own right ensconced high up in the official labyrinths of information, Nathaniel can make scarcely more headway with his past than he had as a teenager: “Much of the war work in which my mother and others participated was carried out, it is now clear, with a similar invisibility, the real motives camouflaged, the way childhood is” (138). All dissolves into “omissions and silences” (212), mere fragments that he can only step into, voices he can only discern across a grainy recording in a language that is not his own.

Warlight is preoccupied with a variety of recoveries: the recovery of a childhood however imperfect, the recovery of a public history however unpalatable and perhaps even the recovery of modes of representation themselves, ways of telling stories of personal origin as they intersect with the cataclysms of twentieth century history. The novel’s attempt to bring together these public and private pasts is sophisticated in so much as it underlines the failure of its own project to do so in any clear narrative chronology, mere “barely held stories” (284) as Nathaniel muses upon in the closing pages of the novel. If the reader feels a sense of frustration, or indeed disappointment, in the prosaic way the story ends, it might be seen as a text about its own mediation: its seams are meant to show. The guiding light of memory is but warlight, a torch across the water of memory.

Review by Dr Arabella Byrne.

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The White Cliffs of


1 year ago

Clear and useful review. Thank you.