1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient by Sri-Lankan-born Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje is an enormously pleasurable read, even if its theme of diversity and intersection makes a mess of traditional linear narrative form. Successful enough to be made into an Oscar-winning film (Best Picture!), with its two unexpected romances, five major characters from four different countries, from both sides of the war over Fascism, male and female, The English Patient’s patchwork approach to the novel is at times brilliant and original and at others a bit distracting, or even forced.
The story begins in the semi-ruined Villa S. Girolamo (a fictional composite of the villas S. Girolamo and Le Balze, halfway up the Fiesolan hill) overlooking Florence during the latter part of WWII: the Allied armies have already passed through Tuscany and are busy pushing their way northward. The ruinous villa, bereft of amenities and infested with landmines, is indicative of Italy itself in this interim period between the chaos of battle and reconstruction. In the ruined villa we find a nurse, Hana, who has stayed behind the advancing Allied army to minister to an unrecognizably disfigured burn patient whom everyone thinks is English. Caravaggio, a Canadian thief and spy, who was also a friend of Hana’s father from before the war, soon joins them. The English patient’s caramelized person, Caravaggio’s torture and mutilation at the hands of the Nazis, and Hana’s mental paralysis brought on by the loss of her father and her own nearness to so much bloodshed as a nurse during the campaign, all join the ruined villa as tales of the damage that the war has caused and the limits of recoverability from such carnage.
Although the setting and the presentation of these first three characters sounds like a downer, the prose of the opening chapters is actually quite exhilarating. With a poet’s sensitivity to language, the descriptions of the characters’ inner states, the Tuscan scenery, and the mood of the period, are all well worth the price of admission—just beautiful. Then the cultural crosshatching begins to thicken: a sapper, or bomb-defuser, of Indian birth—a Sikh—named Kirpal Singh shows up at the villa for mopping-up operations. This character is not quite as obviously drawn as a trauma victim, although his journey from India, his training in England, and experiences diffusing bombs in Italy, is a terrific example of the novel’s theme of cultural intersections and intertwining personal stories. Soon we settle down to focus on the romances: Kip (as Singh is called) and Hana fall together as Caravaggio begins feeding the English patient morphine in order to discover—surprise!—that he is not English at all. The patent’s romantic backstory, set in Saharan North Africa in the period leading up to the war, and narrated by him to Caravaggio, becomes the centerpiece of the novel and source of most of the film’s power.
Great characters, interesting settings, wonderfully presented and little-known aspects of the time period and war experience, plus beautiful poetic language—it’s easy to see why The English Patient was an award-winner. Still, reading it again 22 years on, I was miffed by much of the narrative’s disjointed wandering. Perhaps it mirrors the way the war set so many people on unexpected journeys to places and through cultures with which they never dreamed to have seen or come to know. Thematically, then, the book works—but it is jarring to pass from Hana’s poetically dis-attached impressions of the villa and its surroundings to straight expository passages explaining Caravaggio’s medical situation, or from the impressionistic beauty of the descriptions of Kip and Hana’s blossoming affections to the English patient’s rather factual and somewhat dry recitation of his North African adventures.
The novel forced me, as a reader, to constantly compare narrative styles, characters, and the relationships between their various stories—and that distanced me somewhat from the people, places, and the stories told. Since another of the themes of the novel seems to be that it’s almost impossible, in a world of personal and private encounters and experiences, to grasp and take sides in the bigger pictures of nationality, conflict, and war, I was annoyed that the diverse narrative forms kept pushing me away from the individual moments described and prompting me to make just such value judgments.
Lee Foust is a fiction writer and performer from Oakland, California who teaches literature and creative writing at various US universities in Florence. He is the author of Sojourner, a collection of stories and poems about the mystery of place, and the forthcoming Poison and Antidote, nine Bohemian tales of San Francisco during the Reagan era. Read more from Lee at www.leefoust.com.