Friday, 10 April 2009

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Read: September 2007

The Second World War is drawing to a close and a patient lies mortally burned in an abandoned Italian villa, cared for by Hana, a young nurse who has all but given up living. The patient is burned beyond recognition and appears to have forgotten who he really is: the only clue to his identity lies in the battered copy of ‘Histories’ by Heroditus which he has been using as a scrap book. In each other these two misfits have found comfort after the horrors of war, but when two allied sappers arrive to dismantle the many mines which riddle the Italian hills they begin to be drawn back into the outside world, a world which seems hell bent on destroying itself one way or another.

From page one when the reader is confronted by the intimate frailty of the nurse-patient relationship – “She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a seahorse, the thin, tight hips. Hipbones of Christ she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky” – to the Sikh sappers anguish over the dropping of Nuclear weapons on Asia – “Smell it. Listen to the radio and smell the celebration in it. In my country, when a father breaks justice in two, you kill the father.” – this is a book of sparse, poetic prose, intimate and dilapidated like the characters themselves.

The English Patient
is a novel about discovery and freedom and artistic beauty and a stark reminder that it is these qualities which are tragically threatened in war. Through Ondaatje’s fragmented snapshots of the characters lives one is caught up in the mysterious war in the desert, the unseen spies and the quest to uncover the identity of the cagey English Patient who, now stripped of his identity can be anything anyone wishes to imagine him as.

But in the end it is the authors confessed inability to understand the complexity of Hana’s young life which resonates loudest. She is a character cloaked in her own darkness, silent and incongruous, a creation who would not look out of place in the works of Ishiguro or Pasternak.

Perhaps the discordant snapshot prose is not for everybody: it is difficult to get close to the emotional heart of the story and at times the languidness of the various happenings feels drawn out and over-complex. Indeed it is easy to picture the dilapidated Italian villa while reading this book, for each is illuminated by faltering torchlight and can only be glimpsed intermittently, leaving the rest to be filled in by imagination. This is how I like my novels, but it is not for everyone. The God of Small Things is a good bench test: if you liked that the chances are you will like this.

The English Patient is one of those rare creations, a genuine achievement as both a novel and a film. Read it, but read it fast, in a couple of days. It is a book to devour like a hungry tiger. If you do so you are in for a treat.

7 out of 10

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