Michael Ondaatje and the magical art of the opening sentence

Warlight, the author’s latest novel, is about two teenagers being abandoned into the shadowy underworld of post-war London

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight is an elusive, elegiac novel which will enchant some readers and enrage others. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight is an elusive, elegiac novel which will enchant some readers and enrage others. Photograph: Getty Images

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Michael Ondaatje likes to begin his novels with a cinematic opening image. In Divisadero it’s a teenage girl on horseback; in The Cat’s Table, a boy looking out the back window of a car. In The English Patient, rain begins to fall as Hana surveys her devastated domain. His new book, Warlight, is set in the shadowy underworld of postwar London – and it has one of the most irresistible opening sentences you’re likely to read all year. “In 1945,” it begins, “our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

Nathaniel and Rachel, aged 14 and 16, have been brought into the garden of their suburban London home. Their father, they are blithely told, has been promoted; he is about to fly off to his company’s Asian office. Their mother will join him as soon as she has packed the children off to their new boarding schools. The teenagers are to be left in the care of the family’s third-floor lodger, The Moth, and his friend, an ex-boxer who goes by the name of the Pimlico Darter.

It’s a great start for the reader. But where, I ask the author, did the book start for him? With a character? A panning shot? Or that masterful opening sentence?

“I wish the first sentence had been the first sentence,” Ondaatje says, somewhat ruefully, “but it came a bit later on. I’m not sure what it was. I’m not even sure why I was writing this book, to be honest, at the beginning. I didn’t really have one central moment, as I do in other books.

“There’s actually very little there to start with. Two teenagers being abandoned, essentially. But in some ways that was a kind of celebration as well as a tragedy. When the parents disappeared, those two characters found themselves – in a different way.”

It’s a common enough trope in children’s fiction; with the parents safely out of the way, the young folks can get up to all sorts. What follows in this case, however, is a dark adult fairy tale where nothing is as it seems.

Shifting morality

Ondaatje has always been interested in “alternative” families – he even, arguably, rewrote his own family history in the 1982 memoir Running in the Family – and anything resembling a normal domestic life swiftly disappears from Nathaniel and Rachel’s horizon, to be replaced by a world where wacky characters stroll casually on and off stage and morality shifts and flows, as deceptive and treacherous as the tides of the River Thames itself.

Some characters arrive trailing a tantalising whiff of order and discipline in their wake – the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence, for example, or the bespectacled but strangely muscular Arthur McCash – only to drift away again, beyond the reach of children and reader alike.

Because of the way it’s constructed, Warlight is a hard book to talk about without giving too much away. Ondaatje, though, seems totally unfazed by the prospect of spoilers. “Perhaps the readers will forget what you told them and then they’ll discover it again,” he offers.

“But for me, as a writer, usually what happens in a novel is there’s a kind of archaeology that goes on. A kind of unearthing – you know, a possible path I can go along, so that something then connects up with what has happened before. So it’s not that I’m keeping things away from the reader, but that I haven’t found those things yet. It sounds illogical, but it’s a way I can keep the drama of a book going. And of course, when you’re writing and rewriting numerous times, you can clean up all the wrong alleyways and so forth.”

This lengthy process of excavation partly explains why it has been seven years since the publication of Ondaatje’s last novel, The Cat’s Table. It’s a poetic, intuitive approach to fiction – but then, Ondaatje has published 11 volumes of poetry as against seven novels. Presumably, being a poet, he invented the word which gives the book its evocative title. Or did he?

“Warlight was a word I put together at one point to describe the feel of the river at night,” he says. “But since then, I’ve seen it written down as a way of describing the look of those very muted landscapes during the second World War, a time of curfews and blackouts. It’s a reflection of something that Nathaniel was not a part of, but that influenced him. I remember reading a wonderful book called The Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklos Banffy, which describes the light from a village being reflected in the clouds of that village – and it’s very much that kind of echo, or bounce, of another time and another place.”

Smuggling greyhounds

Warlight isn’t a war novel as such: rather, it examines the bruises war leaves on society, and in particular those created by the dark arts of espionage.

As the adult Nathaniel casts his mind back, trying to solve the mysteries of his childhood – especially the mystery of what happened to his mother – the book’s murky, multi-layered milieu is, at times, reminiscent of John le Carré. With its weird and wonderful cast of Londoners it also gives a nod to the novels of Dickens, and the lengthy section of the book in which Nathaniel recalls his nights of smuggling greyhounds along the Thames and its obscure network of canals is beautifully realised.

“I did a lot of research,” Ondaatje says. “I remember discovering that in the 18th century there were something like 700 different professions working on the Thames, so that opened the whole thing up for me. I met people who live and work on barges and boats and so forth, and spent a long time with them going up some of those canals.”

He didn’t, needless to say, go so far as to smuggle greyhounds. “I don’t have greyhounds, sadly. I just love them. I’ve always loved greyhounds – and a friend of mine who has greyhounds had a great line. She says greyhounds are like silent movie stars. That’s exactly what they are. They’re regal.”

A two-dimensional, sideways-on sort of dog, the greyhound is a particularly apt creature to find in a book where everyone seems to operate at the edge of something. Warlight is packed with facts, but wacky facts, some of them a direct result of Ondaatje’s discoveries as he wandered the waterways of southeast England. “Before I did all this river stuff I had no idea of the existence of Waltham Abbey, which had made munitions for hundreds of years,” he says.

“But then I wandered around the buildings that I describe in the book, and discovered that the ‘miracle pool’ which one of my characters dives into was, in fact, a place where they tested underwater explosives for the bouncing bomb.”

Were there things he discovered, which he couldn’t fit into the book? “Oh, god. Hundreds. When I’m writing, I’m gathering stuff. I actually made a list. There was all the research I did in Suffolk in that very, very flat area called the Saints. I was always getting lost there – it’s an almost anonymous landscape.”

There was more about some of the characters, too. “I began to have a great affection for Mr Malakite. There was more about his past – but the pace of the book had to keep going at a certain clip, so that had to go.”

Warlight is an elusive, elegiac novel which will enchant some readers and enrage others. Ultimately, however, intangibility is built into the book’s DNA. “Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one,” Olive Lawrence tells the 14-year-old Nathaniel, as they listen to crickets singing on Streatham Common in the dark. “The self is not the principal thing.” For the reader who can happily accept that, Ondaatje’s magical mystery tour makes for an exceptionally entertaining literary journey.

Warlight is published by Jonathan Cape at £16.99. Michael Ondaatje will be in converstion with Anne Enright at Liberty Hall, Dublin on June 16th as part of ILF Dublin. He will also be at the Dalkey Book Festival on June 17th. ilfdublin.com dalkeybookfestival.org

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