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Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: War and Love

By: Ramlal Agarwal

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was declared the Golden Man Booker winner, a special one-off award to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Booker Foundation in 2018. It was chosen as the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the Man Booker Prize by five judges and then voted for by the public. It has been translated into 40 languages, sold more than one million copies, and turned into an Oscar-winning film.

 It is an absorbing story of endurance, suffering, loss, and love, set against the background of the odds and challenging circumstances of vast stretches of desert and destruction. Hana, a twenty-year-old Canadian nurse, quietly tends to an English patient who has been completely burnt in an air crash. She washes his charred body, bandages his festering wounds, administers Morphine shots, feeds him, and reads to him from the villa’s library. The patient carried with him even when he was burnt—The Histories by Herodotus.

 The nurse and the patient were sheltered in a villa, Villa San Girolamo, a nunnery occupied by German soldiers and then turned into a makeshift hospital. When the war shifts to the North, the staff of the hospital too shifts, but Hana stays behind with the English patient. When not attending to her patient, she nurtures vegetable plants in her garden. Caravaggio, a Canadian thief, working for the Germans and caught by the English and maimed for life, seeks out Hana, the daughter of his friend at the villa. Soon one more person joins them—Kripal Singh, a Sikh youth from Punjab, a sapper detailed to unearth the hidden bombs in and around the villa. Hana reminisces about her childhood, recalls how her father died in the war on a dovecot, and suspects that the English patient is not English. Kripal Singh, or Kip, as he is called by his colleagues, sets out on his job in the morning and returns late in the evening smudged with mud and dirt. He sleeps in the open on pallets at the feet of mutilated statues. Hana watches him from her window and sympathises with him for the risks he is taking. They get close to each other when Kip gets in a tight spot while defusing a large ‘Satan’ bomb with a new device. Hana rushes to his aid. It was a very dangerous job, and a slight mistake could have cost them their lives. But they carry it out most courageously and owe their lives to each other. That night, Hana stays in Kip’s tent and the two become lovers.

 In his curiosity to unearth the true identity of the English patient, Caravaggio gives him extra doses of morphine to make him talk. What comes out is a heady love story. The English Patient was an explorer and historian of deserts and was on an expedition to a desert in Libya along with Maddox and other friends. They needed a plane to move to another desert and contact their friend, Geoffrey Clifton, who joins them with his wife, Katharine. The English Patient and Katharine meet off and on, and there is a crystallization of love between them.

 Notwithstanding the moral hassles, they are swept off their feet by their love for each other. This does not go unnoticed by Clifton. He plans to do away with the lovers, but his plane crashes when he is trying to crush the English patient. He dies, and Katharine is badly wounded and burnt. The English patient pulls her out of the plane and takes her to the nearby cave of pictures. He leaves her there and looks for help, but is suspected of being a spy and taken prisoner.

 When at last he is released, he visits the cave and finds Katherine lying inert. Soon he unearths a buried plane in the desert and takes Katherine along with him to get out of the desert. Unfortunately, their plane crashes and Katharine dies, but the English patient is saved, though horribly burned. In his curiosity, Caravaggio wanted to know the true identity of the patient. He gives him extra doses of morphine and makes him talk. Though the English patient reveals his story, he doesn’t reveal his identity. Caravaggio comes to the conclusion that he was a Hungarian called Count Ladislaus Almasy.

However, this does not make any difference to Hana. Hana truly cares for the Sikh youth and  they enjoy each other’s company whenever he is not defusing bombs. Everything seems to settle to a peaceful resolution despite the difficult and unpleasant tasks they are called upon to do. They are unmindful of the bare, minimal, stoic lives they lead. When the lives of the four seem to fall into a pattern, the novel takes a U-turn, which seems to reject all that has gone before.

 The United States announced that it had dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The news unsettles the Sikh youth, and he undergoes a complete change of mind. He realises that he was risking his life every day to save lives, and that here, millions of lives have been wiped out with no regard for innocent people. He is disgusted and distracted. He recollects what his older brother told him when he enlisted in the British army. He said, “Never turn your back on Europe. The dealmakers, the map drawers. Never put your trust in Europeans. “Never shake hands with them”. But he was taken in by the speeches and medals and their ceremonies and gave his life to diffusing the limbs of evil. He wonders why he did so if this were to happen. He is so enraged by the English that he even aims his rifle at the English patient, but Caravaggio says, “He is not English and he is on your side.” In his rage, Kip says, “American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you are an English man. You had King Leopold of Belgium, and now you have fucked Harry Truman of the U.S.A. You all learned it from English. ” He takes his bike and heads south without so much as a word with Hana, except for a gentle touch on her arm. However, Hana cannot cast him away as he did her. She sees him everywhere. Though he moves away from Hana, he remains deeply embedded in her being.

The sudden jolt of separation overwhelms her with memories of her past life. She remembers how her father, Patrick, was left by his unit burnt and wounded to die on a  dovecot, how she could have nursed him and saved him, or at least been with him till the end. She writes to her sister that she is sick of Europe and wants to come home. Kip’s departure brings the life at the villa to an end; the English patient dies; Caravaggio lives at another station; and Hana moves to another hospital. “Hana,” says Ondaatje, “moves possibly in the company that is not her choice. She, even at this age, thirty-four, has not found her own company, the once she wanted. She is a woman of honour and smartness, whose wild love leaves out of luck, always taking risks, and there is something in her brow now that she can recognise only in a mirror. In that shiny dark hair, you look ideal and idealistic.” Kip is in the medical profession and has two children and a laughing wife. But the “stones,” of memory, keep surfacing unexpectedly and leave them with love and longing for life at the villa.

 This sudden ending of the novel rattles the reader. One wonders what Hana has to do with the bombing. Why should she be rejected straight away? Didn’t he owe his life to her pluck and selflessness?

However, it underscores the destructive power of war and the enduring force of love. The love stories of Hanna and Kip and the English patient in the novel acquire balance, poise, and depth. Physical love is transformed into spiritual love; mortality and separability are transformed into immortality and inseparability.

 Ondaatje has been praised for his elegant prose. However, in a review published in the London Review of Books, a reviewer raises doubts about Ondaatje’s use of figures of speech. He takes exception to Ondaatje’s description of “penis sleeping like a seahorse.” on the very first page. While reading a novel, one need not be so literal. The same reviewer is also piqued by the publisher’s report that Ondaatje took eight years to finish the novel, suggesting the author’s toil in chiselling his style like Flaubert and wonders whether Flaubert would have written a phrase like “turn eternal in a prayer,” or, “there was a thread, a breath of death in her.” It is looking like a gift horse in the mouth.

The fact is that the heroic qualities of endurance, suffering, loss, and unconquerable spirit in the most hostile circumstances and the depressing atmosphere shine through the novel. The English Patient is a neat, clean and deeply satisfying experience as one goes along its course of intrigues and intricacies.

Published by:

Vintage Books (November 30, 1993), paper-back: 305 pages ISBN-13: 978-0679745204

Wilderness House Literary Review 2021

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