It seeks peace; it creates wars.
And you can’t escape it. Some comment, some fight, some flee. A few have names; a headline, a picture, a medal hanging on the wall or tucked beneath neatly folded clothes. Others are silhouettes, the ghosts of war, not to be identified. They are the breeze and the wind, only their actions cause a rustle marking their existence.
‘Warlight’ sees Nathaniel pursue the identity of his parents, particularly his mother as they lie and abandon them in the hands of curious caretakers. Michael Ondaatje’s story places each foot on two taught ropes; one - a secret loyalty to one’s country in wartime, and the other - a presence for one’s family. The distance only widens and the characters make a choice.
But the choice they make, inevitably and apparently isn’t only for them. They risk and give in to being misunderstood and even hated by the ones they belong to. Forgoing all expectations of a normal life, as they carry on their clandestine operations, the line between right and wrong is blurred in the attempt to follow orders. Few children will understand and respect the almost impenetrable fortress built around them for their safety, if their parents themselves are not in it with them; often a convincing look or nod or the warmth of a hand held in assurance is safety enough for a child. Or just being there.
The outcome is a failed distorted childhood, robbing Nathaniel and his sister of the ability to trust, to value as they live around personalities that walk in and out of their lives, characters that are flesh and blood yet about whom they know very little and have little inclination to find about. When everything seems to be a farce, one tends to give up trying to understand not just the bigger picture but the presence and absence of the distinctive roles others tend to play in their small lives. Living in the moment then becomes the truth and aimlessly is the direction it takes.
I wonder if it was also Ondaatje’s scheme to subtly question the depth of loyalty against individualism or was it just me. Is it the strong craving in a few for adventure, an endeavor to find purpose in chaos, a fetish for self-flagellation in reclusion, that weighs more and disguises itself in the name of patriotism. Will they ever be able to cope with what is termed the la la land of a normal life when they get one? And does it make any difference at all if the end justifies the means? There are no ends really, only justifications and they don’t really mean anything; they are forgiven or forgotten, and in most cases not.
I simply loved the second part of the book where Rose (for those who aren’t aware a Viola exists), Nathaniel’s mother expresses herself and lets us in on her journey, thoughts and feelings. Poetry, sheer poetry in the lines of Ondaatje depicting a sacrificial tenderness and intimacy between Rose and her distanced lover, The Gatherer - Marsh Felon who has selfishly chosen her for living a dual life.
Is the memory of that one kiss, that particular touch, the yearning for more, the reassuring warmth of that one night enough to live a lifetime? It is, for some. Memories. Acceptance.
Michael Ondaatje ushers us effortlessly in a dimmed warlight to discover secrecy, pain, longing, strength and devotion and you feel more than see in the dark labyrinths of his words. How much can one stoically accept and endure?
Nathaniel: “What did you do that was so terrible?”
Rose: “My sins are various.”
My rating – 8/10
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