The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje
Quite a few years ago, I read Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and was drawn to the story because of the beautiful way in which he told it and the mystery behind it. I, however avoided The English Patient because it was so popular and so many people who I knew did not care for it. I should know better than rely on even those readers whose taste are similar to mine as we have enough divergences. I’ve discovered this before and I discovered it yet again with Ondaatje’s The English Patient .
I love Ondaatje’s writing. His prose is beautiful and I can find passage after passage that moves me. What I particularly love about his writing that he uses it as a shroud to envelope his story in a mystery so dark that this reader is compelled to continue. I can’t wait to find out what is really going on, but Ondaatje like a magician with a sleight of hand leaves me wondering, “did that happen or was it that instead?”
The story begins towards the end of World War II in an abandoned Italian villa with Hana, a Canadian nurse caring for a single badly burned English patient of unknown name or origin. Soon Caravaggio, a friend of Hana’s father arrives. His skills as a thief were valued for espionage during the war. His hands are bandaged and he sought Hana’s company:
“At night sometimes, when the English patient is asleep or even after she has read alone outside his door for a while, she goes looking for Caravaggio. He will be in the garden lying along the stone rim of the fountain looking up at stars, or she will come across him on a lower terrace. In this early-summer weather he finds it difficult to stay indoors at night. Most of the time he is on the roof beside the broken chimney, but he slips down silently when he sees her figure cross the terrace looking for him. She will find him near the headless statue of a count upon whose stub of neck one of the local cats likes to sit, solemn and drooling when humans appear. She is always made to feel that she is the one who has found him, this man who knows darkness, who when drunk used to claim he was brought up by a family of owls.”
Shortly after Caravaggio’s arrival Kip an Indian sapper, who is an expert at finding and disarming bombs, IED’s and explosives which are scattered about Italy. Each of these four are compelling characters who Ondaatje examines, but always leaves some doubt as to their true purpose and the demons and hurt which drive them.
This is a novel about war and its consequences, and about love and betrayal . The reader is left in the end with much to consider. Lovers of happy endings may indeed be disappointed, but I loved it.