Writers & Company

In Warlight, Michael Ondaatje explores family secrets and betrayal

The celebrated Canadian author's new historical novel delves into the personal questions left behind by the Second World War.
Michael Ondaatje spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about his latest novel, Warlight. (Julia Pohl-Miranda)

Michael Ondaatje is a Canadian literary icon. His novels and poetry have earned international acclaim, and he was the first Canadian ever to win the Man Booker Prize — in 1992, for the wartime story The English Patient. Now Ondaatje's new novel, Warlight, is being hailed as a masterpiece. Set in England after the Second World War, it's a compelling story of abandonment, family and memory, following a young man's journey to discover the truth about his parents. 

Born in Sri Lanka and educated in England, Ondaatje moved to Canada when he was 18 to attend university. Following the success of The English Patient, he went on to win the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and France's prestigious Prix Medicis for his novel Anil's Ghost. Ondaatje began his writing career in 1967 as a poet, winning two Governor General's Awards for poetry before turning to fiction. 

Writing mysteries

"I wasn't quite sure where Warlight was going to begin. I knew I was interested in the last stages of the Second World War and how it moved from war to peace because that's a very interesting time for everyone — not just countries, but for individuals and families. Men come back from the war and they have to renegotiate their marriage and people who were used to a certain panache abroad were suddenly average citizens. I was interested in all these people who seemed innocent but now did not have a purpose — these various careers that had been active in the war and were no longer active. I was really interested in what would happen to the people such as The Moth and how a 14-year-old boy, Nathaniel, and his sister, Rachel, who was almost 16, were having to cope with being abandoned. When you are writing, you're sort of gathering stuff that would perhaps build to something more. The characters turned up bit by bit."

Navigating stories

"Nathaniel is unaware that what he needs is some kind of order or safety. He keeps drawing his neighborhood because he's quite sure it's going to be damaged. He's a boy that came out of the war — he's already seen bombed buildings and things that been damaged. Nathaniel gets very involved with that whole process of a landscape that is disappearing, as he says, the way mothers and fathers do. I just love looking at maps. The visual beauty of them fascinates me. And I know many artists do drawings on top of maps which are always beautiful. They are ordered, but they're also beautiful. 

"If you write a novel with a huge plan and know exactly where you're going, then that's not a big problem. But if you begin with this one sentence at the beginning of the novel, which sounds like the beginning of a fairytale, where do you go from here? Even halfway through, you're not sure of the way out."

Familiar structures

"'Why am I writing this book?' I kept asking myself. Then I thought, perhaps it's because I wanted to write an English novel, but not from an English point of view. Warlight isn't the kind of 19th-century novel where we're going to go safely in a hansom carriage to the end. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps me interested in the possibility of what could happen to these two young, innocent children. 

"When my parents broke up, the nuclear family wasn't a father, a mother and two or three children, but uncles and aunts. In something like In the Skin of a Lion or even The English Patient, the real families are people who are strangers to you. The real family in my fiction is someone you meet at the age of 20 or 30, not the one you're born into. I think we find our home and our family later in life."

Michael Ondaatje talked to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Rialto Theatre in Montreal. Ondaatje's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: First Sorrow composed by Robert Schumann, performed by Joseph Nagy.