Thursday 9 May 2019

Ondaatje, Michael "Warlight"

Ondaatje, Michael "Warlight" - 2018

"In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals."

That's how the novel starts. At the beginning, I had no idea whether I would like it at all and how I would feel about it, there is another quote that I think goes with the feeling I had:

"Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning difficult. Heavy."

I think this was the intention of the author, he wanted us to be just as confused as the protagonists.

So, these two teenagers, Nathaniel and Rachel, are left in the care of a stranger, someone who lived in their house as a lodger for a short while. Their parents are going to Asia. But it's all a little weird, they don't trust the guy, they don't trust the people he brings into his house, they have a strange feeling.

The author manages to convey this strange feeling onto the reader which in itself is a good achievement. And his writing is superb.

Over the next hundred pages, you start to like the protagonist as well as the other characters and get more and more interested in what is going on.

In the end, everything is revealed and it is a highly interesting story. An extraordinary book.

I read "Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje several years ago. Very different story, just as great a book. And I still haven't read "The English Patient".

One more quote from the book which I have to comment on:
"He spoke French, as well as other languages, though he never referred to this ability.
Perhaps he assumed he would be mocked. There was even a rumour, or was it a joke, that he knew Esperanto, the supposed universal language, which no one spoke."

First, why would anybody mock someone for speaking several languages. I have always only encountered admiration for that.

Second, even before and during the Second World War, there was a huge number of people who spoke Esperanto. Both Stalin and Hitler did not like that very much as it enables more people to talk to foreigners. They not only forbid it but several of the speakers ended up in concentration camps and/or were killed. That led to a decrease of speakers after the war but in the meantime, numbers have grown again. I know thousands of people who speak it, including myself. But, of course, there are probably still people around who believe that nobody knows it and it's not good for anything whereas, in reality, it is a great language to know which enables you to communicate with people all over the world, now more than ever.

From the back cover:

"In a story as shadowed and luminous as memory itself, Warlight sets the careless freedom of adolescence against the turmoil of post-war England.  It is 1945, and London is recovering from the years of war.  Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, unexpectedly abandoned by their parents, are left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth.  They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, who seem determined to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways), Nathaniel and Rachel.  But are they really what and who they claim to be?

Caught up in the escapades of youth and first love, Nathaniel ignores the uncertain signs of danger.  A dozen years later, he sets out to piece together - as much through recollection and imagining as through the truths he uncovers - all he didn’t know or understand in that times: a journey that will draw him in to a morally ambivalent, secret world."


  1. I liked this one too though I loved the first part and only liked the second. Can't fault his writing though. Your comments on languages are so interesting.

    1. Interesting, I had a bit of a problem at the beginning because somehow, I had no idea where this was leading. That's probably the reason why I liked the second part better.

      And thanks for your remark about my comments about languages. I often hear people saying something about multi-lingualism that just doesn't ring true. I have lived in different countries where different languages where spoken and I have always found admiration for my polyglotism. Everywhere. And I raised two fully bilingual sons who have made the same expieriences.

  2. What an enticing beginning! I've heard of The English Patient but haven't had any experience with this author.

    1. I can only recommend him. He's different, his approach to writing is ... well, I would call it demanding or challenging but that's not the correct word because that could suggest heavy reading. In any case, it's remarkable.