Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: December 1993
Number of Pages: 302
Genre: Historiographic metafiction
With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.
The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of this labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions – and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.
I first came across Michael Ondaatje’s Man Booker Prize winning masterpiece, The English Patient, through its movie adaptation. I barely had any iota that it was based on a book, and an award-winning one at that. I only learned of this when I started doing list challenges for must read books. Imagine the pleasant surprise I found myself in when I encountered the book which carries the same title as the movie I have encountered years before. P.S. I never got to watch the movie because of my aversion to watching movies.
The thought of purchasing the book, to be honest, never crossed my mind; there were a lot of books from the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die that I was more interested in although I intend to read them all. However, last February 2018, Big Bad Wolf hosted a book sale here in the Philippines for the first time. One of the books that I encountered was Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Because it was rare chance, and because the impulsive buyer in me got the best of me, I purchased the book, which I then included in my September 2018 Man Booker Prize Month. Here are my thoughts.
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Set after the Second World War, the titular “English” patient refers to a burned man who was being nursed to health by Hana in a secluded Italian villa, Villa San Girolamo. But it wasn’t only Hana and the English patient who were staying in the villa. In their company are Caravaggio, a former thief whose hands were maimed, and Kip, a former bomb sapper. The English patient, burnt beyond recognition, was a big mystery to the three other denizens of the villa. Other than an annotated copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, there is nothing in his person to identify who he is. Who is he and how is his story going to impact the three other characters?
The English Patient is a collection of stories of four people who were haunted by the paradox of love and war. The novel echoed nearly similar elements as the the two prior Man Booker Prize-winning works, Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Coetzee’s Disgrace, I have read in September. Although a majority of the story is dedicated to the war, it extensively dealt on the depth of human nature. The primary characters are damaged souls who were heavily influenced and shaped by the war that has passed.
The exploration of human nature was depicted through the four denizens of the villa. Just like the English patient’s copy of The Histories, the narrative was stitched from a web of memories and a collection of flashbacks. Several flashbacks were incorporated in the story, most of which try to establish the connection between the “English Patient” of the present and the “Count” of the past. There are several sublots as each character has a cross to bear, each one trying to pick up the pieces and move on after sustaining scars from the war.
“He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Although the novel explored a whole array of themes on human nature, it is the character’s search for their identity that is highlighted. It is filled with discoveries and understanding of one’s self. After all, these are individuals whose lives were blasted by the war and who are trying to go with the bigger shift in paradigm as the world around them tries to recover as well. The three other characters are mystified by the English Patient because they themselves are not sure of who they are anymore.
Containing undertones of romance, the novel is filled with romanticist ideals, apart from its exploration of the depths of human nature. This can be gleaned from the lyrical words Ondaatje used to convey the elucidations that the narrative was filled with. There was something very poignant in the way he described the events and the mystery that are wrapped around the English Patient. This mix of the romantic, the mysterious and the bleak gave the story a different texture and complexion.
But the English Patient is more than just the centrifugal character in the novel. Lest anyone not notice, he is the catalyst for the other characters who are still trying to uncover their inner selves. It is in this discovery that the richness of the text reveals itself because as the story slowly unfurls, the personal and spiritual identities of the characters slowly rises up to the surface. The parallels between how the characters behave and their longings are subtly portrayed in the novel such as the way Hana took care of her patient. The novel provided parallels between our goals and ourselves.
If there was something I rue about the novel, it was its tangential display; rarely did the narrative follow a straight line. There is something deliberate and disruptive about Ondaatje’s storytelling which could hamper one from appreciating the narrative. For the most part of the narrative, the reader was kept at arm’s length. There was a slight disconnect between the author and the characters; most of the interactions were very dry and the dialogues very contrived. However, if one was patient enough to sift through the tumult, one can begin to understand and appreciate the beauty of the narrative.
“She had grown older. And he loved her more now than he had loved her when he understood her better, when she was the product of her parents. What she was now was what she herself had decided to become.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
I didn’t regret picking up the book. It is a gem of a book, one that explores human nature. I guess if you decide to read Man Booker Prize winners then expect a lot of themes on human nature. Nevertheless, this exploration was never overbearing but rather a thing of beauty. It is in these complex subjects that one can understand the way an author’s mind brilliantly works. The novel was never meant to be read quickly; it is to be consumed as slowly as the narrative and characters grow to become part of the transformation of the characters.
Recommended for readers who like non-linear and nonconformist writing styles, those who like stories exploring human nature, war and history, those who want to grow and transform with the characters, and those who prefer deliberately slow narratives.
Not recommended for readers who dislike bleak stories, those who dislike nonconformist storying telling, those who dislike reading with a pall hovering above them while reading, and those who dislike stories about war.
About the Author
(Photo by British Council) Michael Ondaatje was born on September 12, 1943 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
He attended S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia in Colombo before joining his mother in England in 1954. He attended Dulwich College for his secondary education before emigrating to Montreal, Canada in 1962 where he studied in Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec for three years. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Toronto in 1965. Two years later, he received a Master of Arts from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.
Ondaatje began his literary career in 1967 with the publication of The Dainty Monsters, a collection of poetry. His second book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) was critically acclaimed. In 1976, his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, was published. However, it was his 1992 award-winning novel, The English Patient, that has gained Ondaatje national and international recognition. It won the 1992 Man Booker Prize and in 2018, it earned the Golden Man Booker Prize. Anil’s Ghost (2000) was another success as it won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Medicis. His latest novel is Warlight which was published in 2018.
Michael Ondaatje currently resides in Ontario, Canada.