Monday, 28 April 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Even though it was years and years ago that I saw it, I wish I'd read the book before seeing the movie made of The English Patient. It would likely have meant that I'd have despised the movie, but having seen it kept me putting my attention in certain places, and never seeing other aspects creeping up until it was too late.

The movie, of course, is a romance. The book, although it has romances in it, is not. It is about war, and its effects on people. How some are destroyed, and some think they have found themselves.

The irony of the title is not just that eponymous character may not be English, but that no one in the book is. Hana and Caravaggio come from Canada, (Caravaggio probably from somewhere else before that), Kip from India. Yet they are all in France at that certain time, having participated in the war effort for the English, as a nurse, a thief, a mine clearer. Englishness itself lingers over the scene of the book, but no one hails from the country for which they are in the war - they are all from the colonies.

Englishness is not well-defined - the sections on Kip are the most direct, but even in that case, it is a particular Englishman and his entourage, rather than Englishness as a whole. Still, Kip's mentor in disarming bombs comes to stand for what Englishness can be, to him. Kip sets himself up as a living reproach to a still-much-loved older brother, who went to jail rather than fight one day for the English.

Caravaggio has been destroyed in the service of the Empire, stealing secrets (quite literally), suffering horrible consequences, with no apparent concern from the people he was stealing them for. Hana loses her father and almost herself in the war, and has very specific reasons why she will not leave her badly burned patient to die alone.

The English Patient is the story of these four, and how they knit a small community out of the ashes of the destruction. Not in grand ways, in small ones, working through suspicion, formality, and pain. They create a world which no one who had not been through the conflagration would understand, and come to some sort of equilibrium, having seen the worst that they could see. Where simple patriotism has given way to weary resignation.

And then even that is shattered. The worst was yet to come. And I never saw it coming, most of the political aspects being excised when they made the movie. But once it had happened, nothing could ever be the same. I had never even seen Ondaatje laying the groundwork for that moment, but once it came, everything came together at once.

Does that make the book a metaphor for the double fuze [sic] bomb Kip has to figure out how to disarm? While I was paying attention to one fuze, everything else was surreptitiously burning towards this other source of an explosion.

The English Patient is well worth reading. But the part that is the lion's share of the movie is perhaps the smallest part of the book. I enjoyed the patient's stories, but was far more engrossed in what was going on in their little corner of France.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite books. You are totally right about the book vs the movie. I was lucky to read the book first, and was disappointed in the movie. Ondaatje is a great writer, he seems to be able to quietly pull you into his story and then surprise you with his insights and plot twists, truly not only a good writer but a great story teller as well. Thanks for the review. You have inspired me to read it again.