This review was originally published Saturday, September 19, 1992
THE ENGLISH PATIENT
BY MICHAEL ONDAATJE
McClelland & Stewart
That Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, The English Patient, has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize is hardly surprising. Certainly not to his readers. After all, Ondaatje possesses awesome narrative gifts: Prose as beautiful and clear as rainwater, a composer’s artistry in the canny unfolding of his stories’ themes and variations, a flair for suspense and, not least, characters whose destinies shake us like a death in the family.
The Second World War is drawing to a close. To slow the Allied advance through Italy, the Germans dynamite bridges, mine roads, booby-trap buildings. In that spring of 1945, a young woman might sit down one evening at a piano, strike a high C and be blown to pieces, along with the room around her. To escape, at least partially, this random violence, four people find themselves inhabiting an abandoned, half-ruined nunnery outside Florence. Each of them has been terribly wounded by the war - and the war isn’t over yet.
First, there is the badly burned, slowly dying English patient. Who is he? Discovered by Bedouins in the Libyan desert after a plane crash, he has miraculously survived long enough to reach northern Italy and the care of a young Canadian nurse, Hana. (Just 20 now, Hana first appeared, briefly, as a little girl in Ondaatje’s previous novel, In the Skin of a Lion.) When the hospital staff to which she is attached moves on, Hana prefers to stay with the bed-ridden Englishman, living like a scavenger, sleeping in a hammock in the corners of rain-swept, cavernous rooms, reading at random from books in the library. She is half crazed from so much death - the soldiers, a lover, her baby, her father.
These two damaged beings, symbiotically linked, are soon joined by the thief Caravaggio, a memorable secondary character from Lion, who once escaped from prison by painting himself entirely blue. “Only Caravaggio would walk into a room and look up into the high corners to see if he was alone.” During the war this shrewd yet amiable criminal has been working with Allied intelligence; a small mistake, almost nothing, ends up costing him his thumbs and turning him into a morphine addict. He becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the English patient.
Completing the quartet is the gentle Sikh bomb disposal expert or sapper, Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, who spends each day clearing the city of explosive devices. “The successful defusing of a bomb ended novels,” writes Ondaatje early on in his own. “Wise white fatherly men shook hands, were acknowledged, and limped away, having been coaxed out of solitude for this special occasion. But he (Kip) was a professional. And he remained the foreigner. . . .”
As these four characters interact, several different stories emerge, the past gradually taking shape in the present, the present darkened by hints of the future. As Caravaggio probes the English patient’s memory, an adulterous love story comes to light about a desert explorer and a younger colleague’s wife. Kip practices his dangerous trade and remembers how he learned it. Hana finds herself drawn to the young Sikh. Burdens of love and loyalty accumulate. “How Long Has This Been Going On,” notes Caravaggio, “is one of the great songs because the introduction’s melody is purer than the song it introduces.” Ondaatje’s novel is, in one sense, a very long introduction, a slow courtship dance among its characters, as measured and, in the end, nearly as sad as Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because its revelations and their timing provide a good deal of the book’s pleasure. The reader only gradually fits together the parceled out bits and pieces. The explorer kisses the hollow in a woman’s throat; much later he asks a learned friend named Madox the scientific name for that part of the body. “Pull yourself together,” replies Madox; nearly 100 pages further on, Madox, about to leave the desert, turns and points “his thick finger to the spot by his Adam’s apple” and says “This is called the vascular sisood.” There are numerous other leitmotifs: explosions, above all, and religious paintings, the “music” of bomb disposal, recurrent observations about the nature of words - “Words give her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.”
Though Ondaatje’s novel is no antiquarian romance, it shares with a book like A. S. Byatt’s Possession a kind of Virgilian wistfulness - and an obsession with books. Hana reads Kim to her burn victim and that classic about colonialism and the “great game” of spying provides Ondaatje with a bank of potent images. Lovers sleep together “like two pages of a closed book.” Caravaggio points out, for his own purposes, that Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca functioned as a codebook for Rommel and German intelligence. The English patient uses an interleaved copy of Herodotus’s Histories as a commonplace book and pocket diary. In a scene reminiscent of Dante’s story of Paolo and Francesca, the explorer listens, with disturbed fascination, as his colleague’s wife provocatively reads aloud Herodotus’s account of how King Candaules allowed Gyges to look upon his queen’s naked beauty. The explorer reminds us: “I was a man fifteen years older than she, you understand. I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in a book.”
Certain histories, observes Ondaatje of Hana’s reading, “open with an author’s assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle. . . . But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat. When she (Hana) begins a book she enters through stilted doorways into large courtyards. Parma and Paris and India spread their carpets.” The English Patient shares aspects of all these kinds of books. It promises serenity and order in the deliberateness of its prose, but repeatedly knocks the reader off balance, and ends by a sudden widening of its vistas into our fallen modern world. That climax is fully prepared, but strikes, just a little, a tone of political correctness.
But this is merely a cavil. The English patient advises Hana to “read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and paper.” Ondaatje may have pounded the keys of a word processor, but his masterly novel deserves to be read just as slowly and with as much care.
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for The Washington Post Book World.