Thursday, 7 November 2013

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Reading The English Patient immediately after Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, I was struck by the similarities in setting and theme.  While von Arnim's English ladies rejuvenate in a paradisical Italian villa, Hana, Kip, Caravaggio and the burned patient reside in what remains of their Italian villa after the hellish war-time bombardment.  However, all are transformed by their experiences in their respective villas.

The story begins in the war-ravaged Villa San Girolamo, just north of Florence.  The First Canadian Division has progressed northward up the boot from Sicily and now, in April 1945 the war is all but over.  The mobile hospital units following the action have moved on, but a young nurse, Hana, has chosen to remain at the villa which had been used as a hospital for the wounded with the severely injured patient too fragile to transport.  The "English patient" as he has become known is unidentifiable, unrecognizable from his burns, and lacking clues to his name or nationality.

Both Hana and her patient are suffering the effects of their physical and psychological injuries.  They have found a place of solitude and security in which they adjust to their wounds, and together they create a refuge from war, and reality, in which they are able to nurture their souls.  In tending to her patient, Hana also administers care to herself.  They both find solace in reading, and in being read to.  The stories of others allow escape, and eventually lead back to themselves and acceptance of their own stories.  Into this minature world appear, first an avuncular David Caravaggio, secretive, morally ambiguous friend of Hana's father from home, a lost dog, and Kip, a Punjabi Sikh sapper and British soldier.

This is the story of the reclamation of the value of life after a war in which life has been a freely expended commodity.  It takes time to evaluate and re-assess that which is so devalued.  It takes time and trust and quiet.  The group of four (plus dog) find that space alone together. Hana's sense of loss is tinged with an acknowledgement of her own responsibility.  It was not just what was done to her, or done to those around her, but also the death and destruction that she herself caused with which she must come to terms.  The journey each character makes is reflective of the re-forming of society after great upheaval.  It is this healing journey that is documented so beautifully in The English Patient.

The use of stories during this time of healing is central to the novel.  Each character uses stories to explore their feelings, and the connection each has to stories informs the character just as much as their actions.  Each of the characters at different points in the novel play the role of audience and storyteller, and each reveal him/herself in the stories he/she tells.  They are reclaiming and reforming their identities in a new reality. 

Michael Ondaatje photo by Jeff Nolte

Michael Ondaatje is a master of figurative language.  The war-ravaged villa becomes another character in this story; the library of the villa has sustained shelling and "the rest of the room had adapted itself to this wound," which echoes what is happening within each of the other characters.  It is his layered and thoughtful crafting of story that makes you realise at the end of the book that he has created a world so rich, so nuanced, so real that it touches universal truth.  The English Patient is an anti-war novel without a single battlefield scene.  It is about the carnage that is left after the battle is over and the fighting has stopped.  But it is also about the resilience of the human mind and the human body, and the importance of taking the time to "step away from the war" as Hana does and find rest and solace in solitude.  But most importantly for me, it is about the power of narrative to make us who we are, to give us our identity and to make us whole.


Here is a long list of some of my favourite quotes from The English Patient:

This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell.

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

A novel is a mirror walking down a road.

Many books open with an author's assurance of order.  One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle... But novels commence with hesitation or chaos.  Readers were never fully in balance... When she begins a books she enters through stiled doorways into large courtyards.  Parma and Paris and India spread their carpets.

Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly.  Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses.  He is a writer who used pen and ink.  He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.

She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them.  Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape, whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.

Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw.  This, he would say, as if coming away from a brndy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world!  A bouquet!  Great rumours of travel!  She would pretend disgust, but the dog's paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt.  It's a cathedral!  her father had said, so-and-so's garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen - a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal had taken during the day.

If you take in someone else's poinson - thinking you can cure them by sharing it - you will instead store it within you - Caravaggio

She was secure in the minature world she had built; the two other men seemed distant planets, each in his own sphere of memory and solitude.

To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement.

So a man in the desert can slip into a name as if within a discovered well, and in its shadowed coolness be tempted never to leave such containment.

But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from.  By the time war arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.

A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.

He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.

She would have hated to die without a name.  For her there was a line back to her ancestors that was tactile, whereas he had erased the path he had emerged from.  He was amazed she had loved him in spite of such qualities of anonymity in himself.

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.  I wished for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead.  I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings.  We are communal histories, communal books.  We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.  All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.


  1. Your review brings back many fond memories. I read this not long after it came out (feels like a very long time ago and a very different point in my life) and I also saw the movie at least 5 or 6 times. I loved the movie and felt the book was challenging, but I think that was because I was still young. I really would like to re-read this now that I am older. Thanks for this very thoughtful review, which has also brought the book back on my radar!


    1. Yes, I read it soon after it's publication too (three times in succession!) and remembering my reaction to the book then and comparing it to my reaction now was fascinating! I still most identified with Hana but this time for different reasons.

      From the age of 15 I used to read "Catcher in the Rye" every five years as an experiment to measure how much my reaction to the book changed as I aged. It was fascinating to see how my sense of comradeship with Holden transformed. When I was 20 I thought he was hopelessly self-absorbed. When I was 25 I felt nostalgia. When I was 30 I began feeling maternal toward him.

      Just like my favourite quote from "The English Patient": "A book is a mirror walking down a road."

  2. This is such a wonderful review! I adore reading books about healing and recuperation, so I must give this a go. It seems like just what I need right now, and it's one of those books I've been meaning to read for so long. I'll let you know what I think!


  3. I hope it resonates as deeply with you, Lucy. I would still place it in my Top Three Novels of All Time along with A.S. Byatt's "Possession" and "Pride and Prejudice". Definitely desert island material :)


I appreciate every comment left here! Thank you for taking the time to write. All comments are visible after being moderated.