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Literary Glance: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

June 5, 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje has a good thing going for a while.  It tells a decent story.  It is well-written. It had me interested.  I won’t do a synopsis because you can get that in every other review.  But a few pages into the story, the author threw in this paragraph that disrupted everything:

So we began a new life.  I did not quite believe it then.  And I am still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energized my life.  I was to lose the pattern and restraint of family habits during that time, and as a result, later on, there would be a hesitancy in me, as if I had too quickly exhausted my freedoms.  In any case, I am now at an age where I can talk about it, of how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers.  And it is like clarifying a fable, about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later.  I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this.  Someone is given a test to carry out.  No one knows who the truth bearer is.  People are not who we think they are.  And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.  I remember how my mother loved to speak of those ambivalent tasks given to loyal knights in Arthurian legends, and how she told those stories to us, sometimes setting them in a specific small village in the Balkans or in Italy, which she claimed she had been to and found for us on a map.

This is where some people claim that I’m too critical of books.  To me, the second half of this paragraph is overwritten a bit.  This explanation to the readers that there is going to be more to the story than what it might seem was silly to establish because this is literature and most stories are meant to not be exactly what they appear to be.  If a story is exactly what the reader expects it to be, then it might not be a very good story.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into this paragraph.  Anyway, I thought a bit of it was unnecessary.

What I just wrote might not make much sense without more context from Warlight, but there’s only so much that I can excerpt in a blog post.

To be fair, this author knows more about writing than I do.  Michael Ondatje also wrote The English Patient over 25 years ago  This might lead some critics to compare Warlight to it.  The English Patient won the Man Booker Award in 1992, but that doesn’t make as much news in the United States.  Most Americans will read a book from England and watch a movie from England, but most Americans don’t pay attention to awards in England.  The English Patient was a huge movie over 20 years ago, so huge that it won an Oscar, and that’s what Americans pay attention to.  Even more impressive, an episode of Seinfeld mocked the popularity of the movie.  Back in the 1990’s, I would have taken being mocked by Seinfeld over winning an Oscar, and The English Patient got both.

Now The English Patient is one of five Man Booker Award winners up for the Golden Man Booker award, which is kind of like the ULTIMATE MAN BOOKER AWARD!!!!  I don’t know if this was intentional on Ondaatje’s part, releasing a new novel while an older novel is being judged.  If Warlight approaches the quality or popularity of The English Patient, does it take away from the greatness of The English Patient?  If Warlight isn’t anywhere near the quality or popularity of The English Patient, does it hurt Ondaatje’s reputation as a writer and therefore affect how The English Patient is treated in the vote?

From what I’ve read so far, Warlight tells a good story, but The English Patient tells a great story.  That’s not an insult to Warlight or its author.  An author is lucky if he/she can get one great story told in a lifetime.  Most authors would be happy with one novel like The English Patient.  If I had written The English Patient, I’d brag about it.

“You know The English Patient?” I’d say to complete strangers.  “That was mine.  I wrote it.”

That might make some people hate my one great book, but it would still be tempting.

I wouldn’t be able to do that with Warlight.  Maybe it’s better than I think it is, but hardly anybody has read it yet.

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