The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
(Bloomsbury Publishing, London: 1992)

This edition published 2004.

READ: February 2007

In my last year of high school, I was expressing my discontent about what I had read recently (I don't remember what it was now) to one of my English teachers (I was taking 3 different English classes that year), and he recommended I read some poetry by a Canadian poet and author called Michael Ondaatje, as well as Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion. Well, there's been no turning back. Michael Ondaatje, without a doubt, has been my favourite author, bar none, ever since then.

I'm never quite sure which I like better, The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion. I think The English Patient edges out ahead, but then I re-read the other and remember how excellent it is.*

The English Patient has some of the same characters as the other book, but you don't need to have read In the Skin of a Lion to appreciate this one. Hana is a young Canadian girl who is in Italy working as a nurse in the last days of World War Two. She has stayed behind in an old Italian villa to nurse a dying patient who suffered extensive burns to most of his body a few years earlier, does not remember who he is (or so he claims), and is not expected to recover. The story unfolds parts of the English patient's past in a wonderful, sometimes dream-like, narrative. There is also a romance between Hana and a young Indian sapper who has come to defuse mines in the area, as well as the reintroduction of Caravaggio into Hana's life, an old friend of her father's (who was killed in the war) who worked as a spy for the Allies through the war and has now come to join Hana in her isolation. But the focus of the story is the English patient and the strange circumstances that led him to the villa where he now lays dying.

I was so excited, though trepidatious, when plans for a movie were announced. Well, the movie was awful. Elements of the story were changed, apparently at random, that made the story lose so much of its powerful magic for me. If you've only seen the movie, don't hold it against the book. Please.

People seem to either really like Ondaatje or really don't. I personally am addicted to his fluid prose, so poetic and often dreamy. Others find him wordy and inaccessible. While I generally tend to agree with the posit "why say in 25 words what you could say in 10", I don't think that always works so well in fiction. I remember, in university, in 4th-year poetry class, being irritated by Elizabeth Bishop who, as I told my dismayed teacher, needed a serious editor to cut out the superfluous words she was tossing in. I switched my project to P.K. Page who was much better at being concise. Salman Rushdie is a prime example of a writer in love with the sound of his (boring, pedantic, unnecessary) words. But there is very little I would cut out of Ondaatje's work. His words are precise and appropriate to generate the extremely vivid images that I get when I read his books and his poetry (his poetry tends to be a lot more sparse in words). I see faces, I hear voices, I can even smell the place he is describing.

So, yeah. I like this book. Everyone should read it.

* If you still can't make yourself like The English Patient, at least try In the Skin of a Lion. It's written in a more concrete style. I know a number of people who have liked that one but couldn't get into The English Patient. And for those of you who are history buffs, it's about Toronto in the 1930's.

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