Michael Ondaatje’s early books had such evocative titles, one had to pick them up and hold them for a while.
“The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” (1970) is a black-powder mix of poetry and prose, history and myth. His novel “Coming Through Slaughter” (1976) — for my money, Ondaatje’s masterpiece — is a surround-sound tour of the troubled New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden’s life. His 1979 book of collected poems is called “There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning to Do.”
As Ondaatje’s titles have settled — recent ones include “Anil’s Ghost” and “Divisadero” — his prose has settled as well. By now we know what we are going to get from an Ondaatje novel: A moody, murky, lightly pretentious and mostly nonlinear investigation of lives and stories that harbor tantalizing gaps.
There will be disquisitions on arcane topics including, frequently, mapmaking. Wartime and/or criminality will feature in the foreground or background. The nature of storytelling will be weighed and found fascinating. The spine of the plot, unlike the spine of a steamed fish, will be nearly impossible to remove whole.
Ondaatje, who is from Canada by way of Sri Lanka, is best known for “The English Patient” (1992), which won the Booker Prize. The novel’s story was tidied up considerably by the director Anthony Minghella, whose film version won the 1997 Academy Award for best picture.
Ondaatje’s new novel, “Warlight,” is his best since “The English Patient.” That sounds like a publicist’s dream quote, but perhaps it isn’t exactly. I was among that sodality of readers who didn’t cotton to “The English Patient,” finding it merely moody, murky and lightly pretentious, a tone poem in search of a whetstone.
“Warlight” reads, at its not-infrequent best, like a late-career John le Carré novel. It hooks you in ways that make its quiet storm of bombast (“He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures”) almost possible to bear.
The novel commences in bombed-out London, directly in the wake of World War II. Cans of beans are heated on gas rings. The parents of two teenagers break a bit of bad news: For a year the parents are leaving the children, Nathaniel and Rachel, behind to live in Singapore, where the father has been promoted to run a Unilever office.
This book’s resonant first sentence puts the situation this way: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
One of these two men is Walter, whom the kids nickname “The Moth” because he is said to be “moth-like in his shy movements,” a description I never entirely understood. (He flies into candles?) He has a large nose, keeps curious hours and knows disreputable characters.
The other man, Norman, is nicknamed the Pimlico Darter. He uses a mussel boat to smuggle greyhounds at night into London for racing, and Nathaniel becomes a willing accomplice. These men’s friends begin appearing in the house as well, all of them eccentric and accomplished in unpredictable ways, like a houseful of Ricky Jays.
“The house felt more like a night zoo,” Nathaniel says, “with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.”
Nathaniel relishes his time with this Dickensian band of misfits. The Moth and the Darter are rough-hewn father figures to him. Rachel, however, is bereft. She will never forgive her parents for abandoning her.
When the teenagers find that Rose, their mother, has left her steamer trunk behind — she had ostentatiously packed it in front of them — they become suspicious about her whereabouts.
It slowly leaks out that she’s not in Singapore but apparently doing dangerous postwar intelligence work. The men in the house are men she trusts, having worked beside them during the war.
The teenagers’ lives may be in danger. There’s a kidnapping scene. People will try to kill Rose as well. Later in life, Nathaniel will work in intelligence himself, in part to try to tease out Rose’s many wartime secrets, what he calls “the obscure rigging of our mother’s life.”
“Warlight” moves at a clip that, in Ondaatje terms, can be said to be breakneck. He writes well about all sorts of things, from British private schools to river navigation to how large restaurants operate. He’s a devotee of curious detail.
This story is, however, told at a distance — from Nathaniel’s perspective, years after the action. About almost everything, there is more telling than showing.
There’s an unpleasant sense that Ondaatje is regaling us rather than simply putting across a story. In his overweening interest in secrets and tall tales, in his relish for how stories are told, he’s taken the Salman Rushdie exit off the Paul Auster turnpike.
Novels about storytelling are nearly always the ones to avoid, the way that one learns to steer clear of Martin Scorsese movies (“Hugo”) that are more or less explicitly paeans to the movies.
Everything in this novel seems to be lit by amber light, rather than the flat light of sober observation. Humor is scarce. The disreputable characters invariably have hearts of gold. Words like “magical” and “wondrous” and “sacred” pop up more often than you wish they would.
People utter things like “You have a quiet heart” and “There are always miracles here” and “He knew the real and urgent world was the sea.” It is as if your oysters have arrived not with lemon quarters but with a squeezable bear of honey.
Ondaatje loves people who are incorrigible, who know how to live slightly outside the law and who have, in Lester Bangs’s phrase, some Looney Tunes in their souls.
Yet his burnished, lukewarm sentences don’t snap to life like the people he enjoys. Reading him on these scruffy men and women is like listening to someone try to play “Long Tall Sally” on solo cello. It’s not awful, but it’s weird.
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