A Family of Disguises
by Michael Ondaatje
Published May, 2018
In September last year, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas celebrated its acquisition of Michael Ondaatje’s archives by releasing a short video showcasing Ondaatje’s notebooks for The English Patient.
To the strains of bouncy music the hands of an unidentified person flick through a series of four hardback notebooks, sumptuously bound in richly elegant paper, revealing page upon page of handwritten words, interspersed with cards and pictures and photographs.
Even – perhaps especially – in a world in which most writing and research takes place in the domain of the virtual, I suspect most writers employ techniques that parallel the process the video captures. Most novels are created from fragments, their outlines emerging gradually. Still, it is difficult not to feel Ondaatje’s notebooks capture something essential about the work of their author. Not just its beauty, the deep sensuality of the prose, nor even its structural and narrative daring, its temporal leaps and use of techniques drawn from film, but the way it privileges incompleteness and the provisionality of the self, the ways in which we are made and unmade over and over again.
Simultaneously though, the almost casual gorgeousness of Ondaatje’s prose can divert our attention from the deeply political dimension of his work, the degree to which these interests inform his fascination with the lives of outsiders. Oftentimes those outsiders are separated from the world they move through by experience and inclination, operating in the netherworld of criminality, like In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient’s thief turned spy, Caravaggio, or the titular outlaw of his still-electric verse novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. But more often their separation has more to do with their refusal to inhabit the roles society demands of them.
Sometimes that refusal is foregrounded, as it is in Coming Through Slaughter’s erotic fictional reimagining of the life of New Orleans jazzman, Buddy Bolden, a portrait that dances and skitters to the rhythms of Bolden’s music and, just as importantly, his unravelling mind. But it is also apparent in his empathy for female characters such as The English Patient’s Hana, Divisadero’s ‘person formerly known as Anna’, and the forensic anthropologst Anil in Anil’s Ghost. This attraction is embedded in a larger awareness of the ways in which historical forces have shaped these character’s lives, in particular the complex legacies of colonialism.
Ondaatje’s own life has been shaped by those same forces. Born in 1943 in what was then Ceylon to a family of mixed Sinhalese, Dutch and Tamil ancestry, he was raised by relatives until 1954, when he travelled to England to attend school, before finally emigrating to Canada in the early 1960s to attend university. This trajectory has been refracted in various ways through the novels that have defined the latter half of his career. This is perhaps most obvious in Anil’s Ghost’s portrait of the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war, but it also lies at the heart of his most famous and successful novel, The English Patient, underpinning not just the story of the patient himself and his assumption of the codes and language of Empire, but also the story of the Sikh sapper, Kip, and is explored explicitly in The Cat’s Table.
At first blush Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight, which is set in immediately after the second world war, and is driven by the shadowy legacies of intelligence work and clandestine operations, might suggest a late return to the territory Ondaatje explored to such effect in The English Patient. Both novels share an interest in the aftermath of war and the duplicity of power, as well as a preoccupation with the idea of Englishness. Yet like Ondaatje’s last novel, The Cat’s Table, which presents a semi-autobiographical account of its author’s journey from Colombo to London as an unaccompanied 11-year-old, Warlight is formed by its narrator’s relationship to his youth, and the long shadow cast by his failure to grasp the complexities of their experiences at the time. The novel’s marvellously evocative title refers to the shrouded illuminations of the war years, intended as protection against air raids.
Warlight opens a few weeks after the end of the second world war. After breakfast one morning the narrator, 14-year-old Nathaniel, and his 16-year-old sister, Rachel, are summoned to the garden by their parents. They are told that their father has accepted a job in Singapore for a year, that their mother will be accompanying him, that Nathaniel and Rachel will not. Instead, in their parents’ absence, the two of them are to be in the care of the family’s lodger, the man Nathaniel and his sister call the Moth whom they suspect is involved in illicit activities of some sort. Or, as the opening line delightfully declares, ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ It is a curious arrangement, but one the children accept because ‘life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war, so what had been suggested did not feel unusual’.
The Moth – whose real name is Walter – is an enigmatic figure. Large, humble, oddly shy, he often seems more like a slightly distracted uncle (at one point Nathaniel hears Henry James read, and is reminded of the Moth’s circumlocutory sonorousness). Like many of Ondaatje’s characters – The English Patient’s Kip defusing bombs to the sounds of swing bands – he loves music, his secret enjoyment of it in his third-floor room merely one of the many mysteries that surround him. None of this signifies a lack of purpose: the Moth is also possessed of a commanding decisiveness. And he has a shared history with Nathaniel and Rachel’s mother, Rose, with whom he worked during the war.
At first the Moth’s responsibility for the two siblings is limited: under the arrangement agreed with their mother Nathaniel and Rachel are enrolled as boarders at their schools, meaning their contact with the Moth will be confined to school holidays. The children’s schools are never directly identified, but a reference to Shackleton and P.G. Wodehouse as ‘great men at the school’ suggests that Nathaniel’s school is Dulwich College, where Ondaatje himself spent several unhappy years in the 1950s. Like his creator, Nathaniel is miserable at Dulwich, especially after an unfortunate incident in which the headmaster catches him relieving himself into a sink in the boarding house, and despite the fact ‘decades of urine had worn a clear path in the … enamel basin’, gives ‘an outraged speech about the despicable act he had stumbled upon, going on to claim that even during four years of school he had never witnessed anything so obscene’.
Like his frankness about sex and desire, openness about bodily processes has long been a feature of Ondaatje’s writing; think of Coming Through Slaughter’s unforgettable explanation of the pleasures of what one character dubs ‘the tail of shit’: ‘if you don’t eat you … finally stop shitting, naturally. And then about two weeks after that you have this fantastic shit … like somebody removing a poker that’s been up your arse all your life’. Yet the point of the scene is less the pissing than the headmaster’s hypocrisy, and by extension the codes of silence and unseeing that shape English society. As Nathaniel points out, the ‘shocked silence’ that greets the headmaster’s speech is not disgust for the act but disbelief he could be unaware of a tradition that had existed for generations.
Unable to bear life as boarders any longer, Nathaniel and Rachel arrange to flee their respective schools, slipping away with the day students one Wednesday afternoon. But when they arrive home they find the Moth in the company of a man he identifies as Norman Marshall, or the Pimlico Darter, formerly ‘the best welterweight north of the river’. As he mildly suggests, ‘You may have heard of him?’
The Moth is singularly unfazed by their unexpected appearance at the house. Instead of disciplining them he releases them to the relative freedom of life as day students. And so Nathaniel and Rachel fall quickly into a curious new life, largely unconstrained by rules or adult supervision. Although they continue to live at home with the Moth, they take their meals at local street barrows, eating alongside female opera singers and ‘local tailors and upholsterers with tools still attached to their belts,’ and mixing by night with the curious assortment of acquaintances who orbit the Moth.
Perhaps inevitably, the moment of release from boarding school marks an ending as well as a beginning. For while they eat together and continue to cohabitate their parents’ home, the siblings drift apart. Rachel continues to attend school but Nathaniel falls under the spell of the Darter and the Moth.
The characters who orbit the Moth and the Darter are an assortment of characteristically Ondaatje-esque experts and adventurers. There is a beekeeper with a sideline in anaesthetics picked up during the Italian campaign, a former haberdasher turned spy, who has somehow ‘eased himself back into being a couturier for minor members of the royal family’, and later, the Darter’s girlfriend, Olive Lawrence, a geographer and ethnographer and a specialist on the distance cultures of North Africa (an echo of The English Patient’s explorers and archaeologists). As Nathaniel puts it, ‘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’.
Just as The English Patient successfully used its cast of four isolates as a prism through which to make comprehensible the vast machine of the war, its immense violence and disruption and indifference to individual lives, the improbable membership of Warlight’s night zoo captures how that same disruption dissolved old hierarchies and allowed some people to flourish as they never could have in peacetime. For people like the Moth and the Darter, the return to peace, even the uneasy peace of the post-war years, represented a sort of loss, what Nathaniel describes as a feeling that having ‘legally crossed some boundary during the war’ they have been ‘suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace’.
As Nathaniel observes, he and Rachel belong to ‘a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises’. That observation might equally apply to the night zoo as a group, all of whom are in disguise, so much so that life with the Moth sometimes seems like being part of ‘an amateur theatre company’. Rachel will eventually become an actual actress, even though it is Nathaniel who is initiated into the world of subterfuge and misdirection inhabited by the Moth and the Darter and their associates.
Nathaniel’s route into this world is via the Darter’s involvement in the illegal movement of greyhounds in and out of England along the canals of London and its hinterlands,:
a confabulist pattern that drew together barge smugglers, veterinarians, forgers, and dog tracks in the Home Counties. Bribed veterinarians provided distemper shots to these aliens. Sometimes we needed temporary boarding kennels. Forgers typed up canine birth certificates to provide evidence of owners in Gloucestershire and Dorset, where the dogs had supposedly been whelped.
These sequences are among the book’s best, evoking a city suspended between the end of one war and the beginning of another. Gradually Nathaniel learns by heart ‘the declensions of the river’, memorizing the names of the docks and towns, ‘Barking … Caspian Wharf, Erith Reach, the Tilbury Cut, Lower Hope Reach, Blyth Sands, the Isle of Grain, the estuary, and then the sea’, as well as tide charts and ‘the intricate causeways, old tollhouses, draw-docks … building sites and gathering places’ that line the river. They are also intensely suggestive, summoning the ghosts of other imaginings of the life of the river, in particular Dickens’ magnificent Our Mutual Friend.
As Nathaniel is learning the mysteries of the city from the Darter, he is also in the midst of another education. This begins with a trip to the banquet halls of the Criterion Hotel, where the Moth oversees operations, a trip that results, by half term, in him taking a holiday job in the Criterion’s cavernous basement, where he is assigned a place working the laundry tubs, later graduating to a string of odd jobs – lift jockey, bathroom attendant, dishwasher. In one particularly striking passage Nathaniel finds himself assisting with the nocturnal transfer of a cache of artwork secreted in a hotel basement for safekeeping during the war, descending into a vast network of tunnels that extends outward, under Piccadilly Circus, and bearing forth a long line of statues of saints and heroes and goddesses, ready for transport to various museums.
Nathaniel’s fellow labourers in the laundries and kitchens are mostly immigrants, men and women drawn in from the outer reaches of the Empire. Their invisibility to the city above is a reminder of the degree to which the imperial project was always one of subjugation and exploitation. Yet their diversity also suggests that process was never entirely one-sided: as Nathaniel quickly comes to see, his fellow labourers are possessed of individuality and agency, and while their lives are precarious, they are also filled with secret passions and delight. Likewise their movement toward England and London, is both a recognition of the economic and cultural gravity of the imperial centre and a sign that the structures that once delineated and controlled the movement of people through the Empire are crumbling.
These experiences are given added urgency by Nathaniel’s affair with Agnes, who also works at the Criterion. Although she is one an elusive character Agnes is also one of the most affecting characters in Warlight, her affection for Nathaniel intimately bound up in her desire to escape her working class origins via the demimonde the Darter has revealed.
Despite the Moth’s warnings that he and his sister need not to give way to the seductions of the world, that they must be sure to be prepared for those moments when things are, in the Moth’s words, schwer, or heavy, difficult, Nathaniel is unable to resist the nocturnal world of the rivers and borderline criminality. ‘I skated over and ignored what might be heavy or indigestible. The illegal world felt more magical than dangerous to me.’
Cocooned in the oblivion of youth Nathaniel fails to understand much of what surrounds him. There is the mystery of his parents’ whereabouts – although they are supposed to have gone to Singapore, they seem to have simply disappeared. Then there is Rachel’s growing attachment to the Moth. And there are also the questions thrown up by his own past, perhaps most importantly those that surround his father, and the reliability of Nathaniel’s memories of him. Early on he describes visiting his father’s offices with him one Sunday afternoon and wandering through the ‘abandoned world of the twelfth floor,’ a place where the walls are bare, the wastepaper baskets are empty and the desk drawers are all locked, and in a very real sense Nathaniel’s father, who remains a disturbingly unresolved absence throughout the novel, is like the office, a mysterious and oddly blank presence. And, perhaps most importantly, there is the question of his mother’s war service and the silence that surrounds it. What precisely did she do? What is the nature of her relationship to the Moth? And why has she disappeared?
These questions come to a head in the final pages of the book’s first part, when Nathaniel and Rachel are kidnapped, and after a fatal struggle, awake to find Rose has returned to take the two of them away to safety outside the city. ‘Where were we going?’ Nathaniel asks, only to answer his own question. ‘Into another life.’
The book’s second part begins fourteen years later. Nathaniel, now an adult, seeks to understand the events of those months, and by extension, the mystery of his mother’s life and eventual death. Now an officer in the intelligence services, albeit a relatively lowly one, he has been assigned the task of reviewing various files relating to the wartime activities of the men and women who operated out of sight, on ‘the periphery of war’.
Nathaniel understands what he is doing is drudge work. Yet he also sees it offers him the possibility of understanding what his mother was doing during the war, and more particularly, in the period after the war when she and his father left him and Rachel in the care of the Moth.
In this the novel’s method echoes that of The Cat’s Table, in which the adult Michael seeks to sense of the things his younger self did not see or failed to understand. Yet in Warlight this process is darker, given weight by Nathaniel’s emotional arrest and growing awareness of the wreckage of his youth. Two of the novel’s most painful sequences involve an encounter with the adult Rachel, whose anger with Rose and the cost of her decisions has disfigured her life and estranged her from Nathaniel, and an unhappy encounter with the Darter that also inadvertently answers the question of what became of Agnes. (The ways the people who shape our youth tend to be lost to us has long been a constant theme in Ondaatje’s work).
Warlight’s exploration of the forces that shape our understanding of the past is given explicit form in Nathaniel’s work, which involves reading ‘mounds of files’ about covert programs and operations and making recommendations what information in the reports requires ‘correction’, and what should be destroyed. The files have been ‘corrected’ before, often as part of a process of wholescale destruction, but even in their current state they make clear:
an unauthorized 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. On the continent guerrilla groups and Partisan fighters had emerged from hiding, refusing defeat. Fascist and German supporters were being hunted down by people who had suffered for five or more years. The retaliations and acts of revenge back and forth devastated small villages, leaving further grief in their wake. They were committed by as many sides as there were ethnic groups across the newly liberated map of Europe.
Nathaniel pieces together a picture of his mother’s life, and of the reasons for her disappearance and later death. But as becomes clear, her story is inextricably bound up with that of the man known as Marsh Felon.
Like Caravaggio in The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion, or indeed Divisadero’s Rafael, Felon is one of the self-created outsiders who so fascinate Ondaatje. Born into a family of thatchers in rural Suffolk, he spends much of his boyhood on rooves, gazing over the countryside. A fall from the roof of Rose’s parents’ house leads to a broken hip and a period confined to a bed in the kitchen of the house from which he fell.
This unexpected interregnum alters Felon’s life by bringing him into contact with the eight year-old Rose, and through her, books. Within a few years – and with the support of Rose’s family, who glimpse his intelligence and potential – Felon has transformed himself, shedding his origins to become a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. At Trinity he discovers the hidden world of roofclimbers, stegophilists who spend their nights clambering up and across the spires and steeples of the colleges (the book Felon later reads, Winthrop Young’s The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity, is one of several real volumes devoted to this arcane pastime). He he is recruited by a young woman working for the Intelligence services, who rightly observes he is what she calls ‘a secretive’. Once again Felon transforms himself, taking on the role of naturalist and radio presenter, as he disappears into the murky intelligence world.
When war breaks out Felon joins the Special Operations Executive, the secret organisation responsible for coordinating the activities of resistance movements in the occupied territories of Europe, becoming what is known as a ‘Gatherer’. In this capacity he recruits Rose, who – in a nod to Twelfth Night and its theatrical transformations and disguises – takes the code name Viola and works alongside Felon as a radio operator. But he also recruits others, ‘finding talent in the semi-criminal worlds or among specialists’, some of whom go on to become the guardians appointed to watch over Nathaniel and Rachel.
For a time their work, much of which involves the brutal internecine struggles in Italy and Yugoslavia, is highly successful. But things come unstuck when – in another echo of The English Patient – Felon is captured by one of the groups who have found themselves on the wrong side of the fight. Rose, determined to protect her children, severs her connections with Felon and the intelligence services.
Despite the intense and often deeply sensual charge of the language, the novel’s depiction of the relationship between Felon and Rose is characterised less by what is known or uncovered by the adult Nathaniel than by that which is omitted or remains hidden. Even their moments of greatest closeness – a brief interlude in a hotel in Paris, the long, fogbound drive back from the funeral of Rose’s parents – are framed by their separateness, the ways in which they remain unknown to each other.
Yet Rose and Felon’s story is indistinguishable from the larger story of the SOE’s war work, or the outline of it that emerges from Nathaniel’s enquiries. As with most of the book’s engagement with the historical record the details of these conflicts are rarely explicit, but their tangential references offer a chilling reminder of the brutal aftermath of the war’s end in Italy and the Balkans, and of the preparedness of the British and their Allies to abandon many who had fought the Nazis alongside them to their enemies and rivals.
This fury at the violence and savagery of nations is written deep into Ondaatje’s work: recall Kip’s despairing, aching rage at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final pages of The English Patient, his certainty ‘They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation’. Like The English Patient, Warlight illustrates the degree to which Englishness is merely another kind of disguise, a lie designed to obscure the violence of the imperial project. Rose tells Nathaniel that her assassin, when he comes, ‘will be like an Englishman’.
This preoccupation with the secret histories woven through the pages of official histories is signalled by the novel’s unattributed epigraph, ‘most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps’. It’s an extension of Ondaatje’s larger preoccupation with the question of how we understand and imagine ourselves into being, or more specifically, the ways in which that process is always provisional, subject to change and able to be shed, sometimes more than once. As Olive Lawrence tells Nathaniel and Rachel, ‘your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing’.
This awareness is made manifest in the structure of Ondaatje’s novels, their fascination with the long arcs of lives and the disjunctions and ruptures that send them veering off on new and unexpected paths, shifting viewpoints and often tangential digressions. It is its own author’s method we see reflected when The English Patient paraphrases Stendhal to describe a novel as ‘a mirror walking down a road’, just as one hears Ondaatje speaking through the pages when In the Skin of a Lion declares that, ‘the first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human’.
In Warlight the stories Nathaniel seeks remain always just out of reach, occluded by the passage of time and the work of those, like himself, charged with erasing the truth that is written into the bodies of those that were there. Or, as he reflects in the book’s final pages, ‘We order our lives with such barely held stories. As if we have been lost for generations in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken … sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete.’