The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘The English Patient’ re-affirmed its status amongst the supreme literary elite with its win in the ‘Golden Man Booker 50’ a couple of years ago; the award was an attempt to find the best Booker winner from 50 years of the prize and it beat out, among others, the hitherto perennial winner of these ‘Best of’ prizes so far, Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’. Of course, whether it truly deserves the epithet over the former is a matter purely of taste; there is no doubting the mastery of prose in both works. A beloved critical darling of a movie was made out of this book (it won nine Oscars) and further helped it attain more acclaim and a lasting presence in readers’ minds.

The story centers around four characters in the closing days of World War 2 who find themselves holed up one way or the other in an old, decaying and partially bombed out villa in the Italian countryside outside of Florence. The titular English patient, who may not even be English, is a burnt and partially disfigured man saved from the wreckage of a plane by desert tribes and who was being cared for by the doctors and nurses of the Allied forces when the villa was a makeshift army hospital. Hana, a young Canadian nurse who found her way there, was one of those ministering to him before realizing his injuries meant he probably could not be moved. A feeling of deep kinship and care, partly stoked by her recent feelings of loss, lead her to stay back with the patient when the rest of the unit move on from the villa. Their days are spent in quiet contemplation and companionship as Hana tries to fend for them in the isolated place with an ever-present danger of being ransacked by brigands. Soon, a figure from Hana’s past, Caravaggio, himself a victim (and propagator) of wartime machinations and violence, comes seeking her there and takes up residence with them. Caravaggio is intrigued by the disfigured patient and Hana’s dedication to him and sets about on a private agenda of figuring out the history behind the man who doesn’t seem to have specific memories related to himself. They are joined at their fractured abode by another soul sent adrift by the war; bomb disposal expert Kirpal Singh or Kip. His involvement in the war is caught up in the ambiguity of fighting for the colonial powers who his countrymen are fighting for freedom from but for Kip it is about doing a job he inadvertently became good at and helping to save the world one bomb at a time. Kip and Hana develop a tentative but intense romance, one which is manifested in its moments in an uncertain present without any real heed given to where it is headed to. For, both these characters are veritable aliens caught in an unfamiliar battle and in a place and time that they probably never expected to be in. Hana’s vague, yet intense, bond with the nameless (and faceless) English patient and Kip’s with the explosives he diffuses and the memories of the colleagues he loses while in the course of duty define their immediate future and there doesn’t appear to be space for the frivolous ponderings of love’s destiny there.

Yet, once the patient starts recounting his story with the help of some suitable inducements by Caravaggio, what we get is a sweeping tale of exploration, adventure and illicit romance set amongst the deserts of North Africa and the impending dark theatre of war. Desert expeditions in the time just leading up to the war turn deadly as the wife of one of the benefactors get involved with the protagonist and pre-war Cairo turns into a hotbed of intrigue and deceit. The story’s inevitably tragic ending burns (literally) a mark on those involved and even changes alliances during the ensuing battle.

It is around this central backstory that the book is constructed. While I suspect in the film version (which I haven’t yet had occasion to watch) the story of the doomed love affair of the patient took precedence, over here there is equal emphasis given to the others in the story, particularly Hana in the initial portions and, increasingly, Kip in the closing sections. While it may not have gone into his life pre-war with the sort of depth needed to understand his mental makeup and the land he came from, it was good to have a WWII story where one of the main characters is from a usually underrepresented background in such conflict tales. Hana, too is a representative of the mostly thankless role played by multitudes of nurses behind the frontlines.

Initially, surprisingly to me, I realized this book evoked quite a bit of polarizing reactions and was not the universally adored masterpiece among readers as I thought it was. There were obviously a sizable portion of literary enthusiasts who loved the dreamy, wistful nature of the poetic prose, one which relies mostly on creating a sensuous sense of place rather than trying to focus heavily on plot. For the same reason, it is understandable that there would be a lot of readers with whom this book may not sit well with. Quite simply, a lot of the time, nothing much really happens apart from the flashback story and even that is languid in its exposition for the most part. None of the characters stories have a clean arc in terms of where they start and where they end. Instead, it is mostly a potentially messy series of vignettes of four unlikely companions living out the end of a horrible event in human history in virtual solitude from the rest of the war machinery.

And yet, as far as I’m concerned, this style mostly worked. There is a dreamy quality to the writing which envelops the reader in a lusciously felt mood piece which, unfortunately, can also be sleep inducing depending on your perspective. But if it works, it gives a pleasing aftertaste that lingers in the mind despite the horror of its central theme.

The funny thing is, despite the lasting acclaim, this novel in fact shared the Booker back in 1994 with another brilliant book, ‘Sacred Hunger’, by Barry Unsworth. That book was primarily driven by the characterizations and plot of the time it was set in and I’m surprised it wasn’t the one which attained more popular and lasting acclaim, considering how difficult Ondaatje’s book can be for the regular reader. Once again, I suspect this is because of the acclaimed movie which was made out of this book just a couple of years after its publication. For me though, while I probably enjoyed Unsworth’s book more, ‘The English Patient’ is a justifiably lauded introduction to Ondaatje’s much heralded body of work, one which evokes the poet in all of us and finds genuine beauty amongst the ruins of war.

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