isIn fact, we had an appointment in Berlin for September, but now Michael Ondaatje – famous all over the world since he wrote a novel called "The English Patient" – in his summer cottage in rural Ontario and wants to call rather. With him it is still early in the morning and loses some dreamy words on the river that flows through his summer resort.
And since Ondaatje is a poet – even and especially when he writes novels – the mention of the river is probably not a coincidence. Surely he is thinking of the River of Life, of Lethe, of the River of the Oblivion and of the Thames flowing through his new novel "Light of War", which is a river of adventures for his young hero Nathaniel immediately after the Second World War.
Because since parents left Nathaniel – presumably to work in Singapore; in fact, because they are in the secret service – the boy smuggles the greyhounds across the river for dog racing; like those men who have been entrusted with his care and who wear demimonde names like "the butterfly" or "the boxer". Those who are truly these men will only be experienced by adult Nathaniel. Michael Ondaatje wrote the novel of a young man who – like all young people? – is a mistake.
WORLD: The older you are, the more passionately you write about young people. Because?
Michael Ondaatje: When I started writing novels, I immersed myself in the life of adults, even though I was quite young. In the last two novels I wanted to find out how to write about his youth. How to invent a past. I want these last two books to seem autobiographical, but in reality they are not. Emotionally, of course, but the stories, the events I'm describing, are invented.
WORLD: If you read "Light of War", you have doubts about whether there is something like a childhood memory not invented.
Ondaatje: Exactly. As a young person you are always confused anyway! And I must add that at that time I was a sort of nomad: I was born in Sri Lanka, I arrived in England at the age of eleven and emigrated to Canada when I was 18 years old.
WORLD: His narrator Nathaniel is the son of a spy. As a child, he has no idea what's really going on around him. Later, it takes years to start rebuilding it. Does this apply to all of us, even if we are not the children of intelligence agents?
Ondaatje: There is always a gap between parents and children – the mother does not have to be in the secret service. Of course, there are very close families, which have traditions that unite them. A specific recipe. Some habits that are common to everyone. But as a child nomad, I did not have such a thing and this interested me. In the novel, Nathaniel is abandoned by his parents. But this abandonment is also a freedom. Enter the adult world on his own.
WORLD: "Your story," says the novel, "is only one, and perhaps not even the most important." The self is not the main thing. "This is perhaps the most important counsel Nathaniel receives in the novel.
Ondaatje: This passage goes back to a phrase by James Salter, from his memoirs "Burnt Days": "I had come to believe that one's own person was not the most important thing in life and had lived in this way for a long time", he writes, it's a wonderful and wonderfully complicated sentence. Because maybe you can not live like that, but it's still good advice. Know the values of others. Nathaniel is not a strong character in my book. He is not yet completely himself, he has no strong opinions. He looks. He gives his attention to others, not necessarily to himself.
WORLD: Does such quality make you the ideal writer in your eyes?
Ondaatje: I think so. A self-circulating writer lacks perspective.
WORLD: So do not you think a lot about the issues that are currently in fashion? Knausgård? Rachel Cusk?
Ondaatje: I did not read Knausgård very much. And it's not like I do not like that kind of thing. Memories are of great interest to me, but it is a different kind of memories that fascinates me. For example, I like "Act One" by Moss Hart – Hart was a famous Broadway playwright, and "Act One" is a fabulously entertaining book at work in the theater. I like it when a young person meets something very different from him. It is the perception of something I like.
WORLD: Perception is a good keyword. The central phrase on the self is not so important when the figures of the novel listen to the song of crickets. The whole novel is full of animals. Are the animals the last non-self?
Ondaatje: I was not aware of it when I wrote the book. But yes, it is the other world around us, this is important.
WORLD: Children dream of being an animal.
Ondaatje: Right. I wanted to be a rate for a long time.
WORLD: Why a rate?
Ondaatje: I think it was "The wind in the pastures". Probably Mr. Bagder, who was reading the paper in his cozy building, was to blame. Incidentally, it is very self-centered and not at all like me.
WORLD: What's behind this childish desire to become an animal? A knowledge that adults have lost?
Ondaatje: Animals give comfort – sometimes easier than humans. There was no dog in my childhood, Nathaniel once said.
WORLD: His most famous book is called "The English Patient" and yet "War Light" is his first novel, which almost exclusively sounds in England and among the English. Because?
Ondaatje: When I start a novel, I need to know when and where it sounds. I do not even need to know the people who will be involved, but time and place. And I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write some time between war and peace. So it was natural to go to London, where I lived as a child – not immediately after the war, but only ten years later. I knew London and its myth. And what I still did not know, the canals of the Thames, for example, I could know.
WORLD: What attracted you to this interim?
Ondaatje: The mood This transition from a disordered time to a new order. When I started, I did not even know what the mother was. I only knew it had something to do with the war.
WORLD: The new order established in these post-war years has proved to be very stable. In the West, we have benefited enormously from it for decades. Now, however, it is attacked from within. What is driving their opponents?
Ondaatje: That it was so stable may have been shocked by what had preceded it. Other peace agreements already brought the germ of the next war. What drives the adversaries – frankly, I do not know. Everything is mess now. Everything seems insecure.
WORLD: I know you are reluctant to answer political questions. But I can not ask a poor Canadian writer what he thinks of the political development next door in America.
Ondaatje: It's devastating, absolutely devastating. America is so powerful and so close. And nothing that happens is logical. That is the question
WORLD: Trump's election, the Brexit decision is in part a direct attack only on that cosmopolitan lifestyle you find yourself as an artist and as a human being.
Ondaatje: Some of the people who voted for Trump deliberately voted against their own economic interests. Behind it, it seems to me, a perseverance on its independence as in the 18th or 19th century.
WORLD: When we talked ten years ago, you quoted a poem I had to remember when Trump was elected …
Ondaatje: Oh, I know what you mean. William Carlos Williams: "The pure products of America go crazy" …
WORLD: "The pure products of America are going crazy." Hill tribe from Kentucky or the north end dotted with Jersey / with its secluded lakes and valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves / old names … "
Ondaatje: I thought only recently. This refusal to perceive something beyond one's limits. This fantasy of purity. Yes, it is. The pure products of America are crazy.
Michael Ondaatje: "war light", From the English of Anna Leube. Hanser, 320 p., 24 €.