You grew up thinking you’re the star of the show while groping in the dark. There’s a war going on. Your father is an air-raid warden. There are Blackouts. Whispers behind closed doors. Meetings every other Tuesday in the next room with vehemence leaking thru the wall. Pamphlets are left. Maybe you aren’t the star of the show after all. Money is hardly spent. Your mother gets a bargain from the butcher. She's elated when the grocer forgets to charge her for the cottage cheese. Suddenly there’s a new radio-phonograph console. It has speakers with an Art-Deco design you memorize listening to Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.
These are a few dark corners of my childhood lit by Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, Warlight. It is a book of memory, and discovery; fragments which made no sense to the fourteen-year old boy in London just after the war in 1945. He was virtually orphaned, his parents having left him and his sister in the care of some shadowy figures. Love has many shapes.
In a sense we are all abandoned. We move into the world alone. We feel we are different. Our family is like no other. My father worked very long hours. He was largely absent. My mother had a temperament not mine. She yelled a lot. Cursed the gods. She had a mouth and I grew silent. I moped, ill-equipped for the combat needed to survive this world. I orphaned myself.
Ondaatje’s young man, Nathaniel, has adventures and small anarchies. His Mississippi is the Thames sailing at night with a mysterious man who is up to no good but in a benign way. His initiation into the adult world. His education is not at school. The war which has ended has not ended. His mother has abandoned him in order to protect him. She is a hunted woman.
Nathaniel finds a walled garden imagining seeds buried like unknown pieces yet to sprout. This becomes his place with borders he can live within.
I scoured apartment house basements. My time for small anarchies. I stole broomsticks for stickball bats. I collected baseball drawings by an illustrator named Pap. His drawings were only in the New York Sun, a dying newspaper. I would make my way into stacks of discarded paper looking for the sketches. I knew the smell of cellars. I studied college football teams. Every week I picked my winners. I didn’t know what was important from what was more important.
In a strange way the football predictions became very important. When I prognosticated 18 out of 20 my name became the headline of the sports section……..but the newspaper was the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party. My name ended up in the F.B.I. files. Seven years later I was befriended by Fred Keavy, a man I’m now convinced was an informer for the Bureau. I liked the guy for his marginal ways. In a convoluted story, ten years after that, his wife, the niece of Bob Hope, was instrumental in getting my deaf daughter admitted to the program of the John Tracy Clinic where she learned how to speak. But that could be another book.
Warlight is a labyrinthine tale. It throws light on war’s aftermath; ripples stretch for decades. Skirmishes between Partisan groups and collaborators, between rival ethnic factions as in Trieste, didn’t get settled until 1947. Revenge lasted another generation.
The book has historical weight along with that other dimension which speaks to our life-long bafflement of how we got here from there. Childhood is war enough. Our parents may return to us as new characters in the cast. Life doesn’t rhyme but as we look back and re-witness ourselves in refracted light, it almost does. We are just players in a larger narrative yet also the star of our own movie.