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Michael Ondaatje: "I didn't want to go back to 'The English Patient' "

It’s tempting to approach Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, “Warlight,” as a return to familiar terrain. Once again, the writer has set a story in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and once again, he has populated a book with characters whose pasts and identities are so clouded with mystery you may find yourself reaching for a spyglass while turning the pages. It’s tempting, as well, to compare “Warlight” to “The English Patient,” still Ondaatje’s most famous novel thanks to an Oscar-winning film adaptation and the awarding of the 1992 Man Booker Prize. It’s tempting to think all these similarities, all these complementary tableaux, are intentional. A conversation with the author suggests otherwise.

During a recent phone interview from his home in Toronto, Ondaatje says “Warlight” began as little more than an idea about a teenage boy who had been abandoned by his parents “suddenly, with no explanation.” That boy became Nathaniel, the novel’s narrator and chief investigator into his parents’ whereabouts and, particularly in the case of his mother, their personal histories.

“That’s what I began with,” says Ondaatje, who will appear May 17 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. “It was just him. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what was the cause of all this or who was going to appear on Page 7 or Page 20. So there was kind of a process of discovery not just by Nathaniel, but by myself as we went along.”

The setting, Ondaatje maintains, came later. “I didn’t want to write about the war. I didn’t want to go back to ‘The English Patient’ or anything like that,” he says. “It was much more of a personal, domestic novel about a family, or a splintered family. That’s what interested me. But certainly, that time period, 1945-1955 or whatever it is, is an interesting time, the postwar time when everything seems to be off and we don’t know which way it’s going.”

Where “Warlight” goes is best left to the reader to discover, but the novel’s lambent, elegiac tone takes hold on the first page, beginning with its arresting opening sentence: “In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Ondaatje, 74, reveals the identities and purposes of these men with his usual deliberation, even as Nathaniel and his more independent older sister, Rachel, work hard to define them. No character in the novel can be easily outlined or pegged. Nathaniel’s parents and surprise guardians aren’t the only dissemblers here, and much of Ondaatje’s concern throughout the book involves the flickering specter of memory and the inherent unreliability of storytelling. “We order our lives with … barely held stories,” Nathaniel admits near the book’s end. The statement is not a joyous one.

As the plot of “Warlight” revealed itself to Ondaatje in the writing of the novel, so did, he says, opportunities to immerse himself in research in areas of arcane interest, a hallmark of his work. No reader left “The English Patient” without knowing more about sappers, or mine-disposal military engineers, than they ever would have imagined, or completed “In the Skin of a Lion” without an intimate knowledge of bridge-building. In “Warlight,” Ondaatje delves into the “jubilantly illegal profession” of midcentury greyhound racing and nighttime river work, legal and otherwise.

In the past, Ondaatje has dismissed the research he conducts for his novels as being at a “very amateur level,” but the writer laughs when told that his novels often belie such modesty.

“It doesn’t begin with much big, formal research into bomb disposal or something like that,” he says. “It’s usually me being curious about it and having some image in my head and then having a sapper like Kip [from ‘The English Patient’]. So all those things begin almost randomly and casually, but once I get into it, then I have to be very specific about the fusers and traps of bomb disposal or bridge-building or whatever it is. Greyhound racing in this one. So it becomes more and more detailed and specific as the research goes on.”

Ondaatje’s principal interest in “Warlight,” of course, is Nathaniel, whose years-long attempt to unravel the mystery of his mother’s life threatens to keep him from experiencing his own. As such, Nathaniel ranks among Ondaatje’s great tragic figures, though the author is careful to note that his character’s story is left unresolved.

“There is some hope toward the end,” Ondaatje says. “It’s almost as if he’s gone in the wrong direction in his life. But I think he’s still an evolving person, so it doesn’t end with him locked into it. It seems like he is, but perhaps he’s not. It’s slightly ambivalent at the end, where exactly he is.”

Michael Ondaatje will appear in conversation with novelist Ana Menendez 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at Books and Books in Coral Gables. Admission costs $32.64 and includes tickets for two and a copy of “Warlight.” Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.

jcline@southflorida.com, Twitter.com/jakeflorida, Facebook.com/jakecline, 954-356-4941

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