Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, 1992 Man Booker Prize


Now as mentioned in my previous post, I have seen the film version of The English Patient, and that film seemed to be a romantic epic of forbidden love in the pre-WW2 North African desert and in Italy during final months of the war. The novel from which it is taken seems to be more of a mystery which slowly unfolds on the reader.

Unlike the film, the central character of the novel isn’t the patient, it is the Canadian nurse Hana who takes it on herself to care for her mysterious patient, who was found horribly burnt after a plane-crash in the North African desert. The only item found on him was a copy of The Histories by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Contained in the book is the real story of who the English patient is and how he came to his grizzly fate.

Now I have to admit that the novel really dragged in the parts, particularly Hana’s story, where she is looking after her patient in an abandoned Italian villa. The more interesting parts of her story arrive with her father’s friend, the thief, cad and possible spy David Caravaggio, who has some personal connection with her patient. There is also love interest in the form of  Indian soldier/sapper Kip, who stays with them to get deactivate unexploded bombs and mines in the area. However, I found this romance to be a bit of a distraction.

Ondaatje writes in an interesting ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach which works well sometimes, particularly when describing the day-to-day activities of the characters. In other parts, particularly in important scenes involving Hana, Caravaggio, Kip and other minor characters, the narrative style can get distracting and it becomes hard to follow what is going on.

The parts where the story really gripped me was the story of the English patient himself and his past. It’s the mystery at the heart of the novel which propels the story along and wants you to keep reading until the end. I was similarly engrossed by the imagery of the novel. Ondaatje beautifully describes the vastness and serenity of the desert, the hustle and bustle of pre-war Cairo and the contrasting of beauty and decay in the Italian countryside which has been fought over by the Allies and the Germans

However, I think had I read the book first and seen the film second, I would have understood the novel and appreciated it more. I really liked the patient’s story because it had been the focus of the film. In contrast, Hana is the main focus in the novel, and maybe this is why I found her parts distracting.

So if I had to make a recommendation, it would be this. If you haven’t seen the film version, READ THE BOOK FIRST.

Continuing with the themes of the Second World War and film adaptions starring Ralph Fiennes, my next Man Booker Prize novel will be Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, which of course inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1993 cinematic masterpiece Schindler’s List.


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