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[372] The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

” But now there is hardly a world around them and they are forced back on themselves. During these days in the hill town near Florence, indoors during the day of rain, daydreaming in the one soft chair in the kitchen or on the bed or on the roof, he has no plots to set in motion, is interested only in Hana. And it seems she has chained herself to the dying man upstairs. ” (II 40)

Imagery and lyricism reign in this novel. Set at the end of the Second World War, The English Patient follows the relationship of four people who are thrown together by the fluke of the war in a near-ruined Florentine villa. The novel meanders its way back to the individuals’ past exploits, interwoven in a non-linear manner, that both require and repay a reader’s act of faith and scrupulousness.

The English Patient begins in Villa San Girolamo, when a Canadian nurse Hana attends to a severely burned man, the English patient of the title. There is no way she can press weight on him without causing pain. Even a touch. She bathes him, reads to him, and gives him morphine: tending his last days in life. Since all the other nurses have been transferred out after Allied forces have got the upper hand, Hana’s only communication is with the burned man, whose name and identity she does not have a clue, despite a wealth of information—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, pages cut out of other books—in his commonplace book.

He speaks in fragments about oasis towns, the later Medicis, the prose style of Kipling, the woman who bit into his flesh. (III 96)

He brought pale brown cigarette papers and glued them into sections of The Histories that recorded wars that were of no interest to him. He wrote down all her arguments against him. (VI 172)

Joining the nurse and patient later is David Caravaggio, a friend of Hana’s father. He entered British foreign intelligence service in the late 1930s because of his skill as a thief. Left behind to spy on the German forces, he was eventually caught and tortured. He lives through a time of belligerence when everything offered up to those around him was a lie. His forte allows him later to unthread the story out of the English patient who, after all, is neither English nor a soldier, but an expeditioner and cartographer working in Africa, where an affair with a woman led to dire consequences.

Kip was accustomed to his invisibility . . . The self-sufficiency and privacy Hana saw in him later were caused not just by his being a sapper in the Italian campaign. It was as much a result of being the anonymous member of another race, a part of the invisible world. (VII 196)

An Indian combat engineer who specializes in dismantling bombs and mines also arrives in the make-shift hospital. Hana’s piano music attracts him to the villa, where he dismantles bombs left by the Germans and fixes booby-trapped instruments. Emotionally detached, the sikh fought a war as an outsider, feeling disconnected from England’s cause. He feels betrayed by the side he was fighting for. It’s Hana who breathes new meaning into his life and brings back a sense of community.

He isn’t an Englishman. American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA. You all learned it from the English . . . They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation. (X 286)

The English Patient is a piece of unforgettable literature. Buried under feats of espionage, archaeological exploration, bomb disposal and warfare are two love stories that soar above cultures and times. The quiet and elegant prose possesses an artistry in the uncanny unfolding of the novel’s themes and variations. The shell-shocked characters, of diverse nationalities, and the shadows of their memories infuse a sense of destiny and delicacy about being human in times of adversity. That the perception of events’ order is uncertain renders the novel rich in layers. The fragments of memories accentuate the harrowing fact that war shattered these people’s lives: all that remains are fragments of those endearing moments of relationships. It’s a beautiful book about human relationships, in particular love, that traverse and transcend over time, place, and nationality.

302 pp. Picador UK softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]