Chosen by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje is the author of The English Patient, named last year the best Booker Prize winner in the award’s 50-year history. As his acclaimed 2018 novel, Warlight, arrives in paperback, he recommends six other visions of war.
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (1932). One of the 20th century’s great historical novels, The Radetzky March follows three generations of an Austrian family caught up in military campaigns, but it is much more intimate than military, and it captures three eras brilliantly.
A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980). Two men, emotionally damaged, return to a small English town after the First World War. The central character is hired to restore a church mural, and as the plot unfolds and the ancient mural becomes visible, the two men’s stories become profoundly interconnected.
The Incomplete Thombu by T. Shanaathanan (2011). The Tamil dictionary defines a thombu as a public register of lands, and this book records properties and lands taken from Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking people between 1983 and 2009. Informal drawings of what the occupants remember of the property—a well, a fence, a palmyra tree, an office—accompany their devastating statements of how their property was lost.
Memorial by Alice Oswald (2011). Heartbreaking and unforgiving, this long poem takes the deaths of more than 200 random and mostly unknown soldiers, who were barely given more than a few lines in the Iliad, and gives them life. And when we come finally to a “notable” death, that of Hector, we see him reduced—just another victim, no different from the unremembered others.
The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982). This book is so full of incident, weather, humor, good and bad behavior, and remarkable people—all offstage, so you gather them in as if you were reading a great 20th-century novel. Warner’s letters deal with cats, storms, love affairs, gardens, great cities in the distance, and war. The book is full of life and surprising opinions.
The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis (1941). This is one of those wartime masterpieces that somehow remained a secret for years. Lewis, after reading of a 16th-century legal incident, imagines the story of a teenager whose husband leaves her and who becomes suspicious when a soldier claiming to be the same man returns to her home some years later. The novella is intimate, complex, and heartbreaking. ■