Book review: The English Patient
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Recommended.
In this poetic novel by poet Michael Ondaatje, the author explores the past and present (the closing days of World War II) lives of young Canadian nurse Hana, her English patient, her family friend and accomplished thief David Caravaggio, and Indian sapper Kirpal Singh (nicknamed Kip).
Hana, who has lost her father and her lover during the war, has been desensitised and traumatized — only 19, she has held cigarettes to the lips of armless boys and moved patients only to find that they are already being consumed by worms. When the Italian villa-turned-hospital where she works is abandoned toward the end of the conflict, she insists on remaining behind with the one patient who cannot be moved — an enigmatic English patient whose skin is burned black from a plane crash in North Africa and who does not seem to remember who he is. The only clue he carries is The Histories of Herodotus, which he uses as a commonplace book.
Caravaggio, thief turned intelligence agent, has lost the practical use of his hands when he is caught stealing by the Italians and loses his thumbs as a physically and emotionally brutal punishment. A morphine addict, Caravaggio cannot rest until he knows all the secrets — those of Hana’s heart but especially those of the mysterious Englishman.
Like the others, Kip belongs nowhere to no one. Estranged from his family by his nontraditional beliefs and pursuits, he is also a man without a country — an Indian sapper in an English army that does not welcome foreigners, especially Indians. A loner by nature and by circumstances, Kip finds respite if not meaning in Hana’s arms.
For a professed amnesiac, the English patient remembers great detail, from his post-accident discovery in the desert by Bedouins and their subsequent treatment of his injuries to his earlier life as a member of a 1930s group of explorers seeking to answer such riddles as how Cambyses and his army could attempt to cross a desert — unless there were a Zerzura to be found. Of equal or greater importance to his exploration reminiscences are his memories of his hot affair with a fellow explorer’s wife that burns itself out in tragedy.
The long passages in which the English patient slowly unravels (but never admits to) the mystery of his identity and past are intriguing, spellbinding, revealing, and poetic. Those with any curiosity will find themselves wanting to read more about not only 1930s European expeditions into the desert, but about the desert itself — where dozens of different types of winds inspire the Bedouins to don them with dozens of beautiful names descriptive of their moods.
On the other hand, Caravaggio, who feels safest revealing nothing, pieces together his own knowledge with the clues dropped by the English patient to come up with a plausible theory about his identity, actions, and movements during the war — but not his motivations. Even as his name and his past are gradually unveiled, his character remains elusive — perhaps explaining why Hana is in love with the living remains of a dead man.
Hana and Kip, and their relationship, are the least interesting elements of the novel. Hana’s character functions as the center around which the others meet. As a sapper, Kip’s duty of disarming bombs becomes virtually his sole focus in life. When he learns of the ultimate bomb, the ultimate weapon that even he cannot disarm, and who it is used against, he in his ignorance confronts the English patient — a moment of irony. The villa, an island surrounded by a sea of turmoil and change, is not so remote that the “death of civilisation” cannot reach it.
The best of The English Patient reminded me at times of Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War) in tone and evocations. While not a great novel, it is certainly an interesting, thought-provoking, and worthwhile diversion.
21 May 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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