Sunday, February 6, 2011

“The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatjie

Year of first publication: 1992
Genre: novel
Country: Canada/Sri Lanka (even though the novel is set in Italy and North Africa)

You might have seen the movie adaptation of this novel, because it was very successful and won many Academy Awards (as if that was a guarantee of good quality). Well, forget that movie, because the novel is nothing like it. “The English Patient” was in fact considered unfilmable (is that even a word?) for quite some time, before Anthony Minghella decided to shoot it. The reason for this is that it goes back and forth a lot, and it it is an exceptionally fragmentary novel which jumps from a quotation from the great Greek historian Herodotus’ writings to a character musings on the precarious life he is leading. But don’t take me wrong, it is not a bad novel. If you can overcome these hurdles you’ll be rewarded. The author explores different layers of his characters' history and personality with the use of exceptionally-detailed short snapshots.
Ondaatje’s novel is set in an abandoned villa in Tuscany, at the end of the Second World War. Four characters take shelters in the villa: a nurse named Hana and her patient, horribly burned after a plane crash, David Caravaggio, who’s a thief turned intelligence agent, and Kip, the Indian sapper who’s trying to dispose of bombs and mines scattered in the countryside around the villa San Girolamo. In a sense they’re all outsiders: they fought this war not for their people but for somebody else and their lives have been shattered by the war. Hana and Caravaggio are in fact Canadian (they also appear in a previous novel by Ondaatje called “The Skin of a Lion”), while the patient doesn’t remember (or doesn’t want to remember) where he’s from. Together with the Sikh sapper, they form an unlikely quartet: they bond because they can find ways to feel similar. A can of condensed milk, for instance, is the object through which Kip and the man who’s slowly dying and can’t move from his bed become friends. On the background the reader learns the story of the English patient, through his scrapbook, a copy of Herodotus’ histories with a lot of marginalia, photos and papers glued into it. He experienced quite an adventurous life in North Africa and lived a love story that has nothing to envy from Rick and Ilsa of “Casablanca”. Ondaatje’s background as a poet is evident in his use of language: it is often said that prose is different from poetry because in the latter you are choosing you words very carefully, while in the former you can let it go a little a write more freely. In the case of this novel, however, the language is carefully chosen even though it is prose. While I liked some of the themes in the novel and the author’s poetic imagination, I found Ondaatje’s style a bit too dry for my taste, resulting in characters I could not get into, like Caravaggio. I remember, though, that I read a section of one of his poetry books (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) and I was struck by its originality.

About the author:
Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka in 1943. His family is of Colombo Chetty and Burgher origin (which means he has mixed South Asian and Dutch ancestry). He moved with his mother to the UK when he was eleven and he relocated to Canada in 1962. Although he is known as a novelist, he is also a poet, having published thirteen volumes of poetry to date. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) is his most famous work in this genre. So far he has also written five novels and a memoir, Running in the Family (1982). The English Patient won him the Booker Prize and it is his most-important book to date.


  1. i have read/heard similar concerns about this book. however, i like the way you broke the whole thing down. This is on a list of books i have to read though not a challenge unto myself.

  2. Thanks. I have tried to be honest.

  3. Aw! Stefania, this is completely an honest novel. I have read the novel and I would agree with you esp. on the point of poetry and novel. But the issue is that, I loved the slow poetic flow within the novel and how every word seemed to have been thought over and over again before writing. You can also check up my review on my blog. Thanks.

  4. @Geosi: Yes, I think that the main difference between poetry and prose is the attention you put in words in the former, versus the . Ondaatje challenged this assumption and allowed himself a "slow poetic flow", as you say.