Uncertainty and the Time of the Stranger: Michael Ondaatje's Warlight: This essay examines Michael Ondaatje's portrayal of uncertainty as a response to the stranger in Warlight. Arguing that uncertainty signifies respect for the stranger's opacity, it demonstrates that the narrator of this novel's "self-portrait" is an account of his openness to others, and therefore to the past and the future.

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Author: Mike Marais
Date: Mar. 2020
Publisher: University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,386 words

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The figure of the stranger, together with the related tropes of naming and mapping, pervades Michael Ondaatje's fiction and has often been commented on by critics. Hilde Staels, for instance, reads Anil's Ghost in the context of Julia Kristeva's theory of the stranger and her argument that "the experience of Das Unheimliche teaches us that uncanny strangeness dwells in our own unconscious mind and thus threatens our identity from within" (978). A further example would be Winfried Siemerling, who examines the relationship between self and other in Ondaatje's writing, in which encounters with the other evince both a fascination with the unknown and a desire to escape determination (106-72). And, in a related argument on Ondaatje's work, Milena Marinkova notes the ability of strangers to affect one another irrespective of the cultural inscription of difference.

Ondaatje's strangers ordinarily stimulate the desire to know and name, and thereby, as Siemerling puts it in an argument that invokes Emmanuel Levinas's conception of the relationship between same and other, "to bring the other into the horizon of the known, reduce it to more of the same, and thus to annihilate it as other" (110). Nevertheless, they sometimes also inspire uncertainty. Prior to the publication of Warlight, this ambivalent response to the strangeness of the stranger was perhaps most apparent in The English Patient, a novel in which the other characters constantly attempt to identify and place the novel's eponym, who it turns out is not English and is therefore misnamed by the title. Towards the end of the novel, Kirpal Singh, who has himself been renamed Kip by his English comrades-in-arms, trains his rifle on the patient and identifies him as an Englishman. Elsewhere, I argue that the point of this scene is that names establish difference and distance between namer and named, and that this detachment enables violence: only after Kirpal has created an identity for the patient is he able to consider killing him (109).

In this text, then, it would seem that to name the other person is to contain his or her otherness and so to master him or her. As I have intimated, though, naming coexists with the possibility of another relational mode, which is characterized by an acceptance of the other person's otherness. When Caravaggio arrives at the Villa San Girolamo, he realizes that Hana is no longer the person he once knew: "Years before, he had tried to imagine her as an adult but had invented someone with qualities moulded out of her community. Not this wonderful stranger he could love more deeply because she was made up of nothing he had provided" (Ondaatje, English 234-35). Importantly, in responding to Hana as a stranger, Caravaggio acknowledges the limits of the forms of understanding that inform his perception of her. His lack of certitude enables him to see not the person whom he once knew with the name Hana, but the person she has become, despite the propensity of names to impose stasis. Equally importantly, his acceptance...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A619093984