Thursday, June 12, 2008

The English Patient

I can’t believe I took so long to begin reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I bought the book in May 2007 but only got around to reading it now. I will be re-reading it in the near future, savouring its poetic prose and beautiful writing all over again. It even sparked in me, an interest, to read Herodotus. I have not watched the movie but I do not see the reason not to anymore.

The English Patient is a historical fiction set in the hills of Tuscany during World War II – a tale of tragedy and passion. The novel does not go according to chronological order, alternating between the present and flashbacks to memories, seen from the point of view of each of the main characters. It slowly reveals the identities of the characters as the story progresses.

“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.” The novel opens with Hana, a twenty-year old nurse, gardening outside a villa in Italy. The war has just ended with the Germans retreating up the Italian countryside, leaving behind hidden bombs and mines everywhere. Hana decides to stay in the villa with her patient – the English patient, while the other nurses and patients have left the villa to escape to a safer place. The identity of the patient is a mystery. She assumes he’s English by his manner and speech. The only clue she has about him is his notebook, a copy of Herodotus's The Histories marked throughout with his own notes, figures, and observations. He was found by the Bedouin tribe in the wreckage of a plane crash, burned beyond recognition, his whole body black. The Bedouins eventually returned him to a British camp in 1944. Hana reads to the English patient.

Later a man named Caravaggio arrives at the villa and it turns out that he is an old family friend of Hana's father. He comes with bandaged hands as a result of being tortured by the Germans who cut off his thumbs. He was a thief in Canada and his skills were legitimized in the war and he worked for the British Intelligence in North Africa. He is addicted to morphine and Hana provides him with steady supply. In the villa, he reminisces with Hana and mourns with her over the death of her father in the war.

One day, Hana decides to play the piano in the library and two soldiers heard the music and come to her. One of them is Kip, an Indian Sikh trained as a sapper or bomb-defuser in the British army. They come to clear the villa of bombs knowing that the Germans frequently booby-trapped musical instruments. As time goes by, Kip and the English patient get along very well and become friends. Kip camps in the garden of the villa. His job is extremely dangerous as he goes into town to clear more bombs from the area. Kip and Hana soon become lovers.

What about the English patient? His real name is Almasy but this is not known until the second last chapter. He spent the years from 1930 to the start of World War II exploring the North African desert making observations, drawing maps, and searching for ancient oases in the sands. He then met a young man from Oxford named Geoffrey Clifton and his new wife Katharine. They got along very well. However, an intense affair began between Almasy and Katharine, one night after hearing her read a passage from his book of Herodotus. He realized he was in love with her. I will not tell you more than this but instead, let the English patient reveal his story.

The novel – one of the best post-war stories – explores age-old themes such as national identity, the connection between body and mind, and love that transcends place and time. It is a beautifully written piece of work, poetic and thought-provoking. I will remember the story for a long, long time.