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The New Canon: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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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.

The English patient has survived a plane crash with burns covering most of his body. He apparently remembers little of his past life; even his name eludes him, if he can be believed. His personal story will prove to be the centerpiece of the novel, and it resonates with historical intensity, passionate romance, and unspoken tragedy. (The big-budget movie version of the novel emphasized one of these three factors… Guess which one?)

At first, the reader is presented with a few, seemingly random details of the patient’s life. Ondaatje describes his rescue from the plane crash by Bedouin nomads, the mask of herbs they placed on the patient’s facial burns, and how his helpers chew his food for him so he can eat – sharply etched specifics that impart an almost tactile quality to the book’s prose. Over time, more elements of the patient’s biography emerge, and they revolve around a love story in the desert. The tale is the conventional lover’s triangle, but the way Ondaatje presents it is anything but conventional, and the passions released seem to contain a deadly undercurrent that puts the lives of all three parties in jeopardy.

In the landscape of The English Patient, the beautiful often serves as a mask for the dangerous. No character represents this contradiction more fully than the sapper (a military engineer) Kip, an Indian Sikh with the British Army who is entrusted with finding and defusing bombs in the area surrounding the Italian villa where the English patient is living out his final days. When Hanna, who is nursing the patient, plays the piano in the villa, Kip arrives suddenly on the scene, warning her that musical instruments were often booby-trapped by the departing Axis soldiers. The piano proves to be safe after all, but the lesson is quite clear… even the most lovely items in the landscape can be threatening in this charged novel.

The main characters here each seem, on the surface, to be unattached loners. Yet they are bonded together by troubled affections – that of the English patient for the married woman Katharine; the nurse Hanna for her dying patient, whose blank slate of a life allows her to superimpose her own romanticized ideals on to her relationship with him; and the problematic connections between the thief-turned-spy Caravaggio and the sapper Kip with Hanna.

None of these relationships will have a future. And as the book progresses, the past looms larger and larger, eventually overwhelming the storyline. Our English patient, as it turns out, was caught up in infidelities that were much larger than those that break up a marriage. His personal history, as it unfolds, shows him as victimizer as well as victim, and even the most basic things we thought we knew about him — indeed, his very identity as an “English” patient — prove to be part of a complex web of fictions and half-truths.

Historical facts underpin Ondaatje’s novel. The character of the English patient is based on a real-life individual, as is his love interest Katharine. But the story as presented in Michael Ondaatje’s novel bears only the most vague resemblance to the lives these individuals actually led. Yet given the Herodotus-inspired deceptions that permeate this whole novel, the author's departure from biographical accuracy should hardly be surprising. Indeed, one of the lessons of this book is how large a gap often exists between the life lived and the story of it we prefer to relate.

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