The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
It is all too fitting that the only book owned by the “English Patient,” in Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same name, is a copy of Herodotus’s histories. For Herodotus is the least linear of the historians, the most willing to wander off into fascinating tangents, and the one who is the quickest to present his reader with hearsay and deceiving fictions mixed in with hard facts.
All these elements show up in Ondaatje’s novel. His characters are seldom what they seem at first glance, and the manner in which their stories unfold adds to the reader’s uncertainties. Ondaatje resists the temptation to tell his story in linear fashion - indeed, his recent book Divisadero picked up and abandoned plots faster than Jason Bourne changes cell phones, and ends as virtually a different novel than the one suggested in its opening pages. The English Patient also flaunts the accepted rituals of narrative flow, but is even more pleasing in its rule-breaking. The story slowly circles in on itself, revealing more and more of the characters' haunted pasts than of their looming futures.
The overall effect is similar to that of watching those performance art painters who fill in the canvas with different colors before your eyes, but save the crucial elements until the very final strokes. You may think you “see” the picture in front of you, but not until the very end will you comprehend what it really is. This is not an easy effect to achieve in storytelling, but Ondaatje handles it masterfully.
From the very start of his career, Ondaatje aimed to blur the line between poetry and prose, fact and fiction. Born in Sri Lanka in 1943 but moving to England (in 1954) and finally settling in Canada (in 1962), Ondaatje turned to American jazz as the inspiration for his first novel Coming Through Slaughter, which was based on the life of New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden. Here we encounter the trademarks of Ondaatje’s later works, notably his loose treatment of historical subjects, and a intense, free-flowing writing style that resists standard narrative devices at every turn. Not just the subject matter, but the very style of writing employed here was jazzy, marked by its unpredictability and improvisational flavor. These qualities recur in Ondaatje's oeuvre, but never with such impetuous ardor as in The English Patient.