Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

I first read this book about 15 years ago, and was blown away. I rushed to finish it the day before the movie came out, and thus ruined my enjoyment of a highly acclaimed film.

My disappointment stemmed from the filmmakers choosing what I considered to be the secondary love story as their main theme. Otherwise, I remember it as beautiful and moving. What can I say, the book is always better...

Rereads are so satisfying. I love to see how I'll react to a book once I've moved into a different phase of life. And then, of course, I already know the ending. When I read this the first time, I was closer in age to Kip and Hana; now I'd call Caravaggio and the English patient my contemporaries. I feel more nostalgia for the younger pair, and having been disappointed and having disappointed in turn, I have more sympathy for those characters who fail to act honorably, or who suffer lapses in judgment.

The story takes place in 1945, in a bombed out Italian villa. A young Canadian nurse takes care of a badly burned man, known only as the English patient. Her wounded surrogate uncle stumbles them, and joins the household. Which coincidence somehow seems reasonable. A young Indian sapper, a bomb-defuser, lives in the garden while he clears mines from the countryside. The story relies on flashbacks and internal dialogue, as the four of them limp through the physical and emotional aftermath of the war. There is a mystery to solved, which takes pressure off the rest of the story; the relationships among those present and missing is the real meat of the novel.

The writing in this book is gorgeous. Ondaatje evokes landscape vividly, and is one of those authors who says a lot with just a few words. Each character is given a lot of attention, and all are fascinating. Despite being a wartime novel, this is less about the horrors of war then about the profound solitude they engender. The two older men embody loads of moral ambiguity, while Kip and Hana are mostly reacting to the unrelenting sorrow they've been exposed to, and do so with strength and grace. This may be a comment on the complexities that arise from age and experience; it's hard to stay untarnished over the course of a lifetime.

There's an undercurrent throughout of disaffection, isolation, people intentionally turning their backs on familiarity and tradition, and the damaging aspects of obsession. This is a terrific book, worthy of rereading, and definitely deserves to be called a classic.

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