The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

First published 1992

I have meant to read Michael Ondaatje for a long time given the popularity the novel under review has enjoyed after winning Booker back in 1992. And so when I found a first print second-hand copy, I did not want to miss the chance.

However, his style of writing is like watching patches of bright and dark dance before your eyes, sometimes segueing, sometimes running parallel, while you try to decipher what’s being shown, depicted and told; by which I mean it is a lot of guesswork and vagueness, and it plagues Ondaatje’s writing, making the reader feel pained and frustrated with improvised passages. In short: not my cup of tea and not a style I’d like to read in another piece of writing.

It’s a war novel set in the background of World War II. Four characters following different paths through the devastation of war converge on an old abandoned villa outside Florence in Italy. A young Canadian nurse who’s been conscripted and whose life view changes as a result of the war. A thief-turned-spy who knows her from before and hears of her – and goes to find her – during his recuperation at a military hospital someplace else. A Sikh man from India who is a sapper in the British army now working in Italy defusing mines after the withdrawal of Nazi forces. And a burned man whose identity cannot be ascertained and who is called ‘The English Patient’ whom the Canadian nurse is tending and who, not surprisingly, is in ‘love’ with his eccentric speech and stories.

Multiple storylines run through the course of the narrative, arbitrarily, confusingly, ambiguously, flitting back and forth in time and place, – from Libyan desert which ‘The English Patient’ traversed as a desert explorer before the war started to bombing fields of England and from Canadian boathouses to Italian war fronts – as the lives of all characters are recounted in flashbacks as they presently work out their individual future course while staying at the Florentine villa.

A note of importance was the Indian sapper’s point of view of the war and his disillusion when he listens on the radio the news of the nuking of Japan. He is extremely pained, gives up all his allegiance to the British army, counters his confreres at the villa saying that America would never nuke a white country; the excuse that it was necessary to nuke Japan to end the war wouldn’t ever have been used against Germany even if the latter had won all battles. And he leaves on a decrepit motorbike, giving up his budding romantic involvement with the Canadian nurse, to go back to his native Lahore.


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