Saturday, December 15, 2012

213. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


The English Patient (Vintage International, 1992; 302) by Michael Ondaatje is a story about four people set in the period of the second World War in North Africa and Italy: an enigmatic figure referred to simply as The English Patient, because he claims to be English but who was later revealed to be Count Ladislaus de Almásy, an Indian - Kirpal Singh (or Kip, the sapper) an expert in locating and defusing bombs, a young nurse, Hana, whose father died in the war and a Canadian thief, Hana's father's friend, Caravaggio.

Almásy or the English Patient arrived at hospital burnt and without identification except a copy of annotated book of histories by Herodotus. Revealing nothing to anyone, Hana became interested in his situation, perhaps seeking redemption for his father's death. When the hospital was moved away from the monastery-turned-hospital to a more appropriate place in another town where there would be facilities and equipment to cater for the sick, Hana chose to stay with the English Patient because she deemed him too frail to be moved. The two were later joined by Kip and Caravaggio. As the English Patient began to speak and to share his story, his vast knowledge surprised them. And Caravaggio suspected that there is more to the English Patient than he is revealing. He connived with Hana to give him more morphine so that he could question him for his story. Caravaggio suspected that he is not English as he claims to be but Almásy who was being monitored by the English and Allied Forces for helping a German spy cross the desert into Egypt.

The stories of the others feed into Almásy's story. His knowledge of the desert is impeccable and came about as he denounced country and borders and became a man of the desert. Telling his story in flashbacks, he told of his adulterous relationship with his friend's wife, Katherine Clifton. And how the husband, Geoffrey Clifton, finding about the relationship between the two, set on a murder-suicide mission that killed the both husband and wife but which burnt him. 

Almásy's story is told in a dreamlike manner, in vistas, in flashbacks. Ondaatje's Booker-Winning novel is a book that should be enjoyed. His poetic writing-style puts the reader in a sort of relaxed state whilst unfurling the immediate devastation that have gone on. Every body has lost something to the war. The Indian lost a brother who opted for prison rather than help the English fight a war his country had no interest in. Caravaggio whose thieving skill was utitilsed in the war lost his thumbs and part of himself to the war. Hana lost his father and her innocence. But the English Patient lost the most: his freedom being the ultimate. This book subtly examines the thoughts and lives of people tortured by life. There is also a love story, a tensed one that almost wasn't, brewing at the background. This is a story that must be read for its beautiful writing and moving scenes.

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