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"Don’t Listen to the Critics"
(The TLS, June 2018)  

 
 
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Don’t Listen to the Critics: Michael Ondaatje: bestselling author, scolded by ghosts
The TLS, June 2018 
By Hirsh Sawhney 

Michael Ondaatje has explained in interviews that he avoids being “self-conscious” when starting a new book: he avoids thinking about his previous work, and he avoids thinking about his audience. He doesn’t begin with a plan or much research, just with a couple of obscure ideas. The vague image of an aeroplane crashing into the desert eventually evolved into The English Patient, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1992. Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka and is a Canadian citizen, can spend several years “discovering the story”, as he did with Anil’s Ghost (2000), a novel set during the Sri Lankan civil war. He spends more years shaping this same material, drawing on what he has learned from film editing to keep his work “complicated and subtle and private”, but also a “public thing”. These processes have yielded an expansive and groundbreaking body of work, consisting of eleven books of poetry and nine volumes of prose. Ondaatje’s novels explore the ways in which political and domestic violence make people feel alienated and disillusioned. They depict the impact of violence without glorifying brutality. His traumatized characters tend to retreat into cloisters of art or work, and Ondaatje brings to life this work – the labour of playing jazz, playing poker, nursing a soldier, or defusing a bomb – with meticulous detail. Some of his novels contain a-linear plots and are told in a multitude of voices, and one novel, Divisadero (2007), is composed of disparate fragments which aren’t connected to one another in any obvious way. His books employ imagery that is at once baroque and abstract to paint vivid physical details and evoke a complex sense of emotion.

Ondaatje’s stylistic and thematic choices have made him a bestselling author, while also earning him the ire of literary critics. Reviewers have complained that the disparate parts of Ondaatje’s novels are jarringly disjointed. They have highlighted his “strange vestigial clauses” and “extraneous phrases”, which make it seem “as though Ondaatje thinks the reader is an idiot who cannot be trusted”. Harry Mount, writing in the Telegraph, called on the ghosts of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin to scold Ondaatje for his meandering sense of language and structure. His playful allusion to these dead honoured scribes might help explain the existence of an entire cottage industry dedicated to spewing highbrow bile on Ondaatje. Indeed, the author might elicit so much scorn precisely because he forsakes the laconic and ironic masculine aesthetics of British writers like Larkin and Amis.

But it is more than the pearly syntax or asymmetrical structures of Ondaatje’s novels that make readers indignant. Critics seem to take exception to the politics and ethics of his books. In the London Review of Books, a reviewer declared that Ondaatje’s “high stylistic” and “moral seriousness asks to be taken down a peg or two”. The journal N+1 declaimed Ondaatje’s “sinuous capacity to suggest a political mind without betraying a real one”. Hilary Mantel, writing in the New York Review of Books, began her review of The English Patient by blasting various craft issues in the novel. Its characters, she claimed, were “wraiths” that are “freighted with abstraction” and “weighted with portent”. Ultimately, however, her essay took issue with the politics of the book, which she described as a “crude polemic”. Mantel wrote, “It is fashionable to pretend not to know why certain wars were fought: Does this incomprehension now stretch to World War II? Is there no truth that jumps out of its skin – white, brown, burnt – to embrace the postwar generation?” Her exasperated words, though somewhat hazy, bespeak an indignation with Ondaatje’s questioning of Allied ethics, and they make one wonder: Is it Ondaatje’s prose style that is really eliciting such vituperative responses, or is something else going on? Perhaps what truly angers people is that this Sri Lankanborn Canadian writer has, on occasion, undermined historical tropes and myths that are existentially vital to Anglo-American society.

Much storytelling about the Second World War reaffirms the righteousness of the Allies and privileges the heroism and anguish of white European and American men. In The English Patient, however, Ondaatje gives voice to the bravery and trauma of a woman who worked close to the front lines as a nurse. His other war hero, Kip, is a gifted Punjabi sapper born in colonial India, one of the millions of imperial subjects who were indispensable in the Allied victory and who have been largely ignored by Anglo-American film and literature. That this white nurse and brown officer have intelligent conversation and good sex with one another is another significant transgression of aesthetic and cultural norms. The novel’s biggest provocation, however, comes at its conclusion, when Kip, the sapper, prompts readers to consider the racism and hypocrisy that underpinned the Allied decision to drop nuclear bombs on Asians. (It is notable that some reviewers at the time believed it to be implausible for an Indian-born officer to articulate such a cogent critique of empire and war.)

When Ondaatje is on form, then, he upends patriarchal and imperial ideas about storytelling, ideas that are existentially important to people of varying political persuasions in the US and UK, and yet his work is not without its flaws. His unravelling of politics and character sometimes relies too heavily on dialogue, and his plotting can be too deliberate. His depictions of those who are foreign, brown, or poor occasionally contain whiffs of exoticism, and this flair for the exotic is most apparent in Ondaatje’s well-received memoir Running in the Family (1982), which revels with too much glee in the foibles of his mixed-race Sri Lankan relatives. Indeed, when Ondaatje draws explicitly on autobiography, as he did in his last novel, The Cat’s Table (2011), his writing loses its appealing sense of dynamism and experimentation. In Warlight, the author’s latest creation, he seems to have once again taken inspiration from personal experience, albeit less directly. The novel’s narrator, Nathaniel Williams, is a teenager in post-war England, as Ondaatje himself once was. He goes to a posh English public school, sometimes as a boarder and sometimes as a day pupil, just as Ondaatje did. Warlight takes the form of a memoir written by Nathaniel, and in the first lines of the book he explains that in 1945, his parents abandoned him and his older sister in London because his father’s employer, Unilever, had allegedly stationed him in Singapore. The children are left under the care of a man they dub The Moth, who arranges work for Nathaniel at a banquet hall, where he meets immigrant workers and begins a romance with a waitress named Agnes. The Moth introduces the siblings to his ragtag cohort of leftist intellectuals and petty criminals, which includes The Darter, a former boxer who indoctrinates William into the shadowy world of smuggling greyhounds for racing. The Darter is gruff and seemingly irresponsible, but he cares tenderly for Nathaniel’s sister when she has an epileptic 

seizure and poses as Nathaniel’s father before Agnes and her working-class parents.

Strange things begin to happen to Nathaniel. Though his mother, Rose, is supposed to be in Asia, he glimpses her staring at him while he’s out dancing. Later, two men attack him in a lift Though this may sound like a thriller-plot, Warlight is a slow-paced book with a few quiet pleasures. Ondaatje sketches an acute portrait of post-war London, a place with “streets of rubble, now and then a bonfire”, and his imagery is notably restrained here. He describes rain as “suggestive clicks” and elsewhere deploys just two adjectives – “light-filled” and “open” – to conjure up the English countryside. And yet his first-person narrator, Nathaniel, makes the first half of this book cumbersome. Nathaniel, who is telling the story of his youth from his position as an adult, admits that he has a tendency to repress experience and emotion, and his repressiveness denies readers access to the tormented mindset of his fourteen-year-old self as well as any worthwhile adult wisdom.

In the second part, which is set in the 1950s, Nathaniel reveals that as an adult he works as an intelligence officer, and the details of his job make for provocative reading. He is charged with purging official government records of evidence of British imperial and wartime policy that “history might consider untoward”, and he explains that when the British fled their former colonies, they had “burning officers” who did work similar to his own, “destroying all compromising records, setting fire to them night and day”. Thanks to his proximity to the world of government secrecy, Nathaniel is able to piece together the life story of his mother, Rose, a high-level spy who was involved in murky acts of espionage that put her children in jeopardy. This second part of Warlight is more gratifying because Ondaatje shifts Nathaniel’s gaze away from his own experiences and focuses it on the stories and psyches of others. Nathaniel imagines Rose’s growing doubts about the justness of her wartime work. He dreams himself into the intense professional and romantic relationship between Rose and Marsh Felon, a formidable intelligence officer, evoking their awkward but tender intimacy.

Late in the novel, Nathaniel’s superiors ask him to translate a recorded interrogation of Marsh conducted by a group who were attempting to extract information about Rose. The female interrogator blames Rose for her role in “bloody autumn”, when the Allies’ shifting alliances caused innocent Croats, Serbs, Hungarians and Italians to be categorized as Fascists. Thanks to “a shift of wind in London”, says the voice on the tape, entire villages were razed, and innocents were labelled war criminals and “lined up in front of common graves, bound with wire so they couldn’t run”. The interrogator’s voice serves to complicate the certainty and righteousness that often plague Anglo-American perspectives on twentieth-century history. But such existential tracts often fall short because the novel is ultimately tethered to Nathaniel’s laconic and singular consciousness. One can’t help but wonder if Ondaatje has become the self-conscious writer he has sought not to be by paying too much attention to his critics. He has stripped this novel of the multifaceted sense of story, voice and language that many have unfairly derided, and, as a result, Warlight fails to live up to the promise of his best work.

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