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Steve’s 2018 Booker 4. Michael Ondaatje. 'Warlight'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 8 Aug 2018, 20:14

Steve’s 2018 Booker Longlist Readings

4.      Michael Ondaatje. Warlight London, Jonathan Cape.

This year I’ve decided not to set out to read all of the longlist but just those of which I had not acquired some prejudice (I’m not going to justify it as other than that).

After the author won the second long-term Booker, I realised I had to at last to fill one of my many gaps in contemporary novel writing and was about to take up The English Patient (blush in shame) for the first time when Warlight came onto the 2018 Booker longlist. Hence this is my first Ondaatje and that may have given me the wrong idea about the author. Do other people find it typical of his writing? Or does he surprise each time?

This book is superbly written, intensely and innovatively imagined and structured. It verges sometimes on thriller, spy novel, bildungsroman and fantasy tale as well as allegoric fable – centred on the Enclosed Garden literary trope without being easily classifiable in any of these ways[1]. It does amazing things with the ‘enclosed garden’ trope, owing something to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden as well as The Song of Solomon and Paradise Lost.  The main theme is, after all, concealed or hidden love – emotions so repressed, it is difficult to ‘name’ them.

And then, naming is a theme too in this highly wrought novel about novels and what they contain – characters and plots – or not. In fact what 'plot', if any, we are reading at each moment? Does any named (or renamed – Viola cum Rose) person constitutes a character? These questions seem to be humorously 'riffed' – as if we might enjoy this novel best whilst reading E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and seeing it as literary critical satire. Flat and rounded or both or neither, the persons in this novel even often escape certainty about their names as if in an espionage game played by children and sometimes with no more solidity in their ‘plots’. Is ‘Agnes Street’ a person, a place or a convenient role, for instance? Sometimes very delightful games are played with names and their relationship to roles – the cleverest of which are the games played on the narrator’s nom-de-plume (a concept first raised in relation the enigmatic figure Olive) Stitch.

Stitching together a narrative which plays havoc with notions of fact, fiction, story or document, the narrator shows us why we read novels that thrill us or cause suspense – why we enjoy mystery or not (as when Stitch tires of Mystery Hour on the radio (p.47)– whilst not being overly concerned with manufacturing the effect in the reader. Hence everyone plays at least a double role – duplicitous by intention or circumstance claiming status that could be ethical, unethical or pragmatic. This is especially the case with family roles.

The keyword of this novel in my view, and partly because it is a pastiche of the espionage novel, is the word ‘safe’, which rings very many changes within this complex novel. After all – we enjoy spy or murder thrillers because we like to feel, within certain parameters, ‘unsafe’. This novel revels in the ambiguous feelings located in both safety and its opposite – instability and danger. Hence the idea of psychological attachment is at the novel’s centre: asking constantly, like Bowlby in the same imagined period; ‘what is a ‘secure place’?;  what is the nature of our attachment to it? Hence a novel about family and ‘faux’ family, about the dangers of war and peace where security is in neither or more in war than in the peace, as should be the case, about defence strategies aimed at national, family or personal ‘security’, including subterfuges and ‘lies’ of different sorts.

Once aware, you thrill at the percipience of some of the discussions of what constitutes ‘safety’. Try this for instance, about the deeper role of the sinister character of Walter or the character-type of The Moth (p. 258):

“He died protecting you that night at the Bark. The way he protected you when you were small, that time you ran away, after your father killed your cat.”

“Why were we not told he was protecting us?”

“Your sister realised. … (My omission) I suppose he was the true father to her. And he loved her.”

“Do you mean he was in love with her?”

“No. … He wanted you safe.”

“I didn’t feel safe. Did you know that?”

She shook her head. “I think Rachel felt safe with him. I know you felt safe with him as a small boy …”

I stood up. “But why weren’t we told he was protecting us?”

“Roman history, Nathaniel. You need to read it. It is full of emperors who cannot even tell their children what catastrophe is about to occur, so that they might defend themselves. Sometimes there is a necessity for silence.”

“I grew up with your silence …”

This kind of dialogue is very characteristic. It is brilliant and shines with conceptual and thematic complexity – ever deepening a nuanced take on issues of what it means to feel secure. But equally to me it has a kind of ‘dryness’ (I can’t find another word) that feels to me to have more of the psychologist’s intellect in spotting the relevant in a case-study than of emotional and immediate life. But that dryness (a kind of reserve and defensiveness) is after all one of the themes of the novel too and another strategy people use to keep themselves safe – impenetrable within the (semi-secret) walled gardens of their privacy. And if we really take in the significance of this theme, then it is probably the most psychologically chilling novel I have read. Mother's clothes, those she wore next to her flesh when alive, are exposed in the narrator's own inherited enclosed garden and pressed with iron by her secretive son: ‘The shirt had never witnessed this heat or pressure before”.

I’m not sure whether this is one of the best novels I have ever read or a ‘novelist’s novel’ – one written to ‘encourage the others’ about the limits of the kind of game allowed to the classic English novel, without any recourse to modernist fragmentation or post-modern deconstruction.


[1]  The walled garden continues to blossom with meanings. A thin view of the variety in relation to themes of love and forbidden or highly secreted relationship can be found here. (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GardenOfLove). 

The Guardian’s ten best ‘walled gardens in literature is also instructive: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/29/ten-best-walled-gardens-literature

Academics might reflect on this research project from Swansea: http://www.swansea.ac.uk/riah/research-projects/the-enclosed-garden/

There are other usages in computer language that fit with the pre-computer security-systems and the internalised secret culture they necessitate in this novel here: 


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