Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. ‘Schwer,’ he’d say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we’d mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other—“schwer.”
Nothing is safe, and no one can be trusted.
The war is over, but not for everyone. Those who had been working in the shadows during WW2 are now being asked to transition to a new war that would eventually be referred to as The Cold War. Some, like Rachel and Nathaniel’s mother and father, want to walk away from their clandestine work, but with the powerful enemies they have made, that is proving impossible. They either know too much or they have thwarted too many insidious plans.
Of course, we can only speculate because Rose Williams does not talk about her life during the war. To her children, her life is an enigma that can only be unraveled with truth serum. She is not an ideal mother. She is distant when they want her to be warm. She gives cryptic advice when they need her reassurances.
Rose admits: ”My sins are various,” which is still an obscuring statement, but about as close to a personal admission as Nathaniel will ever get from her.
And then their father and mother disappear.
Rachel has just turned 16, and Nathaniel is 14. They are left in the hands of a man they call The Moth and another more dynamic personality called The Darter. The family makes a habit of assigning people nicknames; Rachel is Wren, and Nathaniel is Stitch. We can call them nicknames, but knowing the background of their parents, we can’t help but think of them as codenames. Names to call someone that won’t reveal them for who they really are.
The Moth and The Darter are an odd pairing, but then these are unusual circumstances that require people who can protect them rather than be the surrogate parents they wish for. The interesting friends and associates, especially of Darter, who Stitch and Wren come into contact with provide a view of alternative lifestyles that are sometimes disconcerting, but whether they know it or not, those brief contacts with those people are expanding their definitions of what a normal life looks like. The contact is brief indeed. Just when they start to know someone, they disappear, never to be seen again, which each time is like losing their parents all over again.
One woman, in particular, proves memorable, especially for Stitch. She is Olive Lawrence, an ethnographer with way too much class to be the girlfriend of a barge rat like The Darter, but there is something about him that fascinates her. ”There was something in these professional women that suggested it was not a case of The Darter’s selecting them but of the women’s choosing him; as if Olive Lawrence, a specialist in distant cultures, had stumbled suddenly on a man who reminded her of an almost extinct medieval species, a person still unaware of any of the principal courtesies introduced in the past hundred years.”
School becomes a secondary concern for Stitch as he starts to help The Darter with his rather clandestine midnight activities. He might be ferrying greyhounds from other countries to be used in one of the numerous illegal betting tracks, or it might be something much more dangerous. Stitch is a natural at covert activities.
(view spoiler)[And then his mother returns.
Later after college, he is recruited by some branch of British Intelligence, and he uses that time and the things he learned from The Darter to “liberate” files from certain locked cabinets to learn more about his parents, especially his mom. His mother remains a nebulous creature, impossible to hold, impossible to know. He is lost in ”the maze of his mother’s life.”
Will he ever know the truth?
I’ve noticed some readers have thought this tale meanders or that the circumstances are implausible, but I must say that, for me, the meandering makes it feel more like real life (life is rarely linear), and whatever might have been thought of as implausible is actually very plausible for me. I read a lot of history, and it is rife with so many events that defy believability that I must contend that anything that anyone can think of has been done by someone somewhere. The circumstances of this novel do not come even close to stretching the imagination. I don’t even like the word implausible. It is a word of limitation that closes the mind. Nothing in my world is implausible, not even that gray area between fiction and reality.
This was a wonderful, evocative reading experience that certainly is still haunting this reader. It reminded me that there are so many unknown heroes, not just from our wars but also from the nebulous times in between conflicts, when wars are extinguished before they start, when our secrets are kept safe, and when lives are snuffed in the shadows.
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