The English patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English patient by Michael Ondaatje

by ken-mckellar , July 22, 2019

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Dear readers – This is a post by my friend and frequent contributor Ken. Ken decided to review a book called The English Patient. I learned about this book and the related movie at a young age. They are both my mother’s favorites. This masterpiece is one that you discover every time you read or watch. It is quite a disarming story. The reason may be that I have lived in a warzone and in a war period; I may be able to relate to what wars destroy: Love and Lives.

 Thank you Ken for your beautiful gift.

Like Joana, I am a huge lover of films and often read the original book after seeing the film, rather than read the book and be disappointed by the film – which often happens to people I know.

After being mesmerized by the beauty and “douleur exquise” of the film, I simply had to read the book (awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 1992) and was glad that I did. The story is set, to begin with, in an abandoned Italian villa just as the Second World War has ended.

A young Canadian nurse is tending a badly-burned patient, who could be an English desert explorer or a Hungarian spy – this is not clear at the beginning and the people around him are keen to find out.  A Canadian friend of the nurse joins them in the villa together with an Indian bomb disposal soldier. The soldier and the nurse soon become lovers, while the badly-burned patient ( “ the English Patient”) recalls, through a haze of morphine, the events around his love affair with a married English woman whom he met just before the war started.

In a series of flashbacks which make up the majority of the book,  the English Patient is unmasked as a Hungarian Count, Almasy, who as a member of the Royal Geographic Society, was engaged in mapping the Egyptian desert by air, a common practice in the 1930s as small aeroplanes became more commonly available.

It is easy to see how Almasy could have been mistaken in retrospect for a spy, given the strategic importance of the information he was gathering. He is joined in this endeavor by an English couple who return abruptly to England when the affair between Almasy and the wife is uncovered.

A year later, the couple return to the expedition but their plane crashes in the desert on their way to meet Almasy. The husband is already dead and his wife seriously injured by the time Almasy reaches the crash site. He leaves her on foot to get help but upon returning by plane three days later, he finds her dead. While flying back with his dead lover on board, the plane crashes, leaving  Almasy severely burned before being rescued and hospitalized.

Fast forward to the Italian villa: Almasy’s condition is now deteriorating so rapidly that he asks his nurse to give him a double dose of morphine. He slips into unconsciousness and dies.

Ondaatje writes beautifully: the detail is rich, the descriptions sensuous and his use of silence speaks volumes, often echoing the emptiness of the desert and Almasy’s heart.

He brings together disparate characters whose lives intersect at a crucial moment in history and introduces real-life figures who add dimension and credibility to the story. The four people in the Italian villa are in retreat from a world gone mad. Each of them is protecting painful memories and nursing irreplaceable losses. Each is playing a game of secrets which are successively revealed in a gripping narrative.

Numerous reviewers have different perspectives of the book, focusing on up to date themes of gender and racism. For me, The English Patient is all about the lingering effects of war’s brutality and the way it destroys people’s loves and lives.


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