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Author Michael Ondaatje Returns To World War II Era With 'Warlight'


Michael Ondaatje's new novel is full of misdirections - stories within stories. As a reader, at first I wasn't quite sure where I was headed. And Ondaatje told me when he started writing this, he wasn't sure either.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I mean, I'm one of those writers who actually doesn't know what's going to happen when I begin a book. You know, I mean, some writers, you know, know exactly what the last line is. And I'm kind of begin with a situation and then gradually a story will form. I mean, there's a great line by Ornette Coleman - the thing you play at the beginning is a territory. What follows is the adventure.

SHAPIRO: This book is called "Warlight." Like Ondaatje's most famous novel, "The English Patient," it's set around World War II. In this case, the territory is London, where a 15-year-old boy and his sister have been left behind by their parents. There's smuggling. There are code words. Nearly every character has a nickname - The Moth, The Dart (ph), Stitch. The very first sentence gives you an idea of the tension that's about to come.

ONDAATJE: (Reading) In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens. And one morning, either our mother or our father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk. And they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either.

SHAPIRO: It surprises me to hear that when you wrote that first paragraph you didn't know where the book was going because just that paragraph sets up so many mysteries that the book solves in a really satisfying way. But are these men criminals? Are the parents going to Singapore? How long will they be away? What will befall these teenagers? These are all puzzles that get solved over the course of the book. You didn't know the solutions to the puzzles when you wrote that?

ONDAATJE: I didn't know the solutions. I didn't even know much about Rachel, the sister, at that time. And that first paragraph then will evolve because of certain things happening. In the progress of that book, I will go back and rewrite that first paragraph anyway. But I really did begin with that first sentence, you know, which is somewhat not apt and therefore dangerous, like the tone of a fairy tale. You know, and then we go on from there.

SHAPIRO: It is such a great first sentence - the care of two men who may have been criminals (laughter).

ONDAATJE: Yeah, I locked in on that one.

SHAPIRO: I wanted to ask you about that title, "Warlight." What do you mean by that?

ONDAATJE: Well, I think I sort of invented it, in a way, when I was writing the book to - describing the river during the war where it was very dark because of bombing raids by the Germans. And that kind of almost underground light, that very little reflection, and - well, it's difficult to describe this, but it was the kind of the echo of light, I guess, on the people in the story as a result of the war.

SHAPIRO: It does seem that so much in this book takes place one step removed from the violence, from the action. It's somebody exploring what that violence was, what that action was.

ONDAATJE: Right, and having to go back and open a door and find what is dark in the past. And as he says at one point, you have to light it.

SHAPIRO: There is a German word that comes up a lot in this book. A character uses it to describe the idea of danger. What is this word?

ONDAATJE: Sure. It's a musical term. It shows there's going to be a change in tension, in terms of danger - possible danger. And it's said casually, and then the two kids pick up this word and kind of mimic it quite often to each other as a kind of something that ominous may happen suddenly and the rhythm of the music will change. And in fact, that does happen about the end of the first part of the book. The mother returns, if I can say that.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it's up to you whether you want to say that or not (laughter).

ONDAATJE: Yeah. Yeah. I think I can say that much. And then that creates another plot and - of discovery and more danger in a way.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, this book thematically has so much in common with some of your other books, with themes of finding safety, creating home, defining family. Why do you think you keep coming back to these ideas again and again?

ONDAATJE: Well, I think I had - I lived a nomadic life. I was born in Sri Lanka, and my family broke up. And my mother moved to England, so I went to England. And later on I went to Canada, and so I've lived in Canada since then. So, I mean, this nomadic life sometimes forces you to kind of try and clarify what home is, what your own landscape is, you know?

I mean, even the way that I think in this book and in other books, too, the family is not just the family you're born into but the group of people you become a part of. And in this book, when the parents are not there, The Darter and The Moth and Olive Lawrence and all these other characters become really important and become a family, I suppose.

SHAPIRO: Michael Ondaatje, thank you so much for talking with us.

ONDAATJE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: The new book is called "Warlight."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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