Book 4, a book that became a movie: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Let me start by saying that my review will never do this novel justice. This is not a book—it is a piece of artwork. There is so much to unpack here that even if I try to cover it in broad strokes, I will be writing forever, but I will try to do my best. The best way I can prepare you for this read is to advise the following: do not tread lightly. This novel is going to challenge you as a reader, so you cannot go into expecting a light, easy read. Ondaatje is creating a literary masterpiece here, so the focus is on the art of writing and less on the satisfaction of the reader. Keep that in mind as you plan to add this novel to your list.
Perhaps the most disjointing aspect of the novel is the narrative structure. Most story lines in popular fiction unfold in a linear, chronological manner—they have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Typically, they follow one storyline unless the author feels ambitious and includes multiple storylines and perspectives (GRRM Game of Thrones comes to mind). Sometimes as readers, we are privy to flashbacks or flash forwards. Many writers experiment with narrative structure (think in terms of time, location, perspective, story-within-a-story) and some do it exceedingly well. Ondaatje creates a disjointed, fractured timeline that consists of the “present” (the tail of WWII) and the “past” (the late 1930s leading up to WWII). These two threads continually intersect and butt up against one another. There are the selves before war and the selves after the horrors of war. Both selves are constantly at odds with one another, trying to find a way to co-exist, to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense. He weaves the storylines together creating a rich tapestry that highlights the fragmentation and disillusionment of war as well as the interconnectedness of the human experience. This novel drew a lot of criticism from readers due to this choice of structure; novice readers enjoy a simple plotline that is easy to follow. However, this novel is less about “what happens” in terms of plot and more about the jarring psychological experience of war. The narrative structure shores up the main themes of the novel—i.e. that war is a fragmented, psychologically fraught experience.
Storyline 1- the “present” – The main thread of the story begins in a bombed out monastery in rural Italy, right at the close of World War II. Canadian nurse Hana has stayed behind with the last remaining patient—a horribly burned man known only as the titular English Patient. The English patient crashed his plane in the middle of the desert. The Bedouins found him, nursed him somewhat to health, and he made his way to the Red Cross. Since the patient was burned beyond recognition, the medical unit had no real way to identify him. He claimed to have amnesia, and since his injuries were so terrible, he posed little threat even if he did belong to the German side. Since he spoke English so impeccably, they began referring to him simply as the English patient. As the war moved to other parts of Europe and the end loomed in sight, the medical staff began to leave the area. The English patient is too ill to be move, so Hana volunteers to stay. The horrible things she witnessed as a nurse during the war destroyed her, and the death of her father proved to be the final straw. As a result, she decides to stay behind with the dying English patient and help him die as humanely as possible. The real motivation behind her actions is her inability to tolerate any more death, so she struggles to keep her flagging patient alive.
Shortly after we meet Hana and the English patient, we meet the mutilated Canadian spy Caravaggio. Her late father had a friendly relationship with Caravaggio, the “friendly thief,” and when he hears of Hana’s whereabouts, he immediately comes to the convent. He, too, is broken by the horrors of war. He becomes obsessed with the English patient, believing him to be partly responsible for the torture and mutilation he faced at the hands of the Nazis. Since the English patient is unrecognizable due to his burns, Caravaggio begins interrogating the man to unearth his past. He seeks revenge and redemption through the English patient while reconnecting with Hana, his old friend.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention Kip, the young Sheik “sapper” (slang for bomb diffuser) who meets Hana and engages in a romantic relationship with her. Personally, my favorite parts of the story were the moments in which we see Kip at his work. I found the bomb diffusing incredibly suspenseful and the way they did this impossible work was fascinating. Kip is an outsider due to his race and his religion, but his uncanny ability to find and destroy the undetonated bombs left behind by the Nazis earns him respect and admiration from his peers. He feels a strong purpose fighting against the Nazis despite also having mixed feelings about the Colonization and commodification of his people by Britain. While he distrusts the white Allies, he wants to believe they are fighting a just cause. He will grapple with this until ultimately, he finds it too difficult to reconcile the acts of the Allies upon people of color. Possibly one of the most poignant moments in the novel occurs when the Allies dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kip asks the poignant question—would they have used nuclear bombs on a white country? His answer, “no,” implies that war has blurred the lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” How is the massacre of innocent Japanese people any different from the massacre of Jews by the Nazis?
The storyline follows the relationship of these four very different people the war (and more specifically, the English patient) brings together. We are privy to the brief time they spend together before the war officially ends and each must return to their lives and find a way to live with the horrors they witnessed in times of war. They are changed by the interactions they have with people they would have not otherwise met, and although readers are not given information on the outcome of these people, we hope that the experiences together in the last moments of war will help them find peace in their new lives.
Storyline 2- the “past” intermingles throughout the first storyline. The English patient fades in and out of past and present as he lies dying upon a mattress in the convent. While he claims to forget his identity, we see the story of his past unfold. The events that lead him up to the moment his plane crashes, nearly burning him alive, all the way to his final moments. Through these events, we learn not only the mysterious role he played during the war but also how each decision we make has repercussions that resonate throughout time. His story beautifully depicts a fatal love story set in the gorgeous African desert landscape. As he fades in and out of consciousness throughout the present, we see snippets of his life before and during the war, and the choices he made to honor a promise to the woman he loves.
The writing in this novel is poetic, lyrical, and flowing. Ondaate lovingly alludes to other great writers, most significantly Herodotus, Kipling’s novel Kim, and Stendhaal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. Literature plays a significant backdrop to both storylines, as does history and geography. It is a richly produced snapshot of human limitations during one of the darkest moments in our collective history. I highly recommend this read when you have the time and energy to give in to its charms but also to work for its beauty and layered meaning.