Sunday, August 2, 2009

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje has a writing style that is unique, poetic and lyrical. The story is set in Italy during the end of World War II. The narration moves back and forth in time, revealing bits and pieces from the lives of the characters.

The first half of the novel makes for some dry reading and the back-and-forth narration leaves one a bit confused. I felt it a bit hard getting into the book, but the book picks up pace from the second half and it is not until the end that everything makes sense.

The story revolves around four characters - Hana is a Canadian nurse who lives in the now-abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy. The scars of war are evident in her indifference to life; she has witnessed enough death and grief to become detached. She is very mature for her young age. Caravaggio is an Italian thief and used to be a friend of Hana's father. He was used as a spy by the allied forces during the war. The Germans get to know of him and torture him by cutting off his thumbs. He learns of Hana living in the abandoned Villa and arrives there in search of her.

Kip - Short for Kirpal Singh, an Indian Sikh. He is recruited by the British as a sapper, someone who clears minefields and disposes bombs. Kip stays on in the Villa, and disposes of the bombs in the vicinity of the Villa, which was full of unexploded bombs. He had joined the British army out of loyalty towards them, even though his brother does not trust the West and is strongly anti-British.

The English Patient - He is the title character and arrives under Hana's care at the Villa burnt beyond recognition. All that is known about him is that he is British and was in a plane crash and escaped alive but badly burnt. They just refer to him as 'The English Patient'. He and Kip are good friends and The English Patient's past is revealed later in parts.

Both Caravaggio, who is carrying physical and mental scars due to the war, and The English Patient who is badly burnt, are addicted to morphine, which Hana administers to them. Ondaatje describes four lives, each of them a world on its own, each containing their own fills of love & betrayal, all brought together by the circumstance of the war. The characters and situations are described incredibly well and there are certain passages & conversations which are poetic and one cannot help but appreciate the beauty in the lines.

"...Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Pick this up if you like stories which move at a slow pace and have a leisurely afternoon to spare. It is a beautifully told story, but I must admit it drags at times.

Some trivia about the book:

  • The book won the Booker Prize for fiction and the Canadian Governor General’s award in 1992.
  • The book was adapted into a 1996 movie of the same name. The film was directed by Anthony Minghella and it won 9 Academy Awards.


Smita said...

Hey this sounds like an interesting read but...1st half is slow??? hmmmm somehow a book has to grab my attention in the 1st 10-12 pages otherwise it remains unread :(

You know I haven't read Da Vinci Code?? I tried thrice but couldn't last beyond 12 pages :-(

But your review is tempting me to give this book a dekho!! may be will check out initial pages & decide!!!

ZiLliOnBiG said...

Thank you, nice review.i would love this book. sounds like my kind of book.

The excerpt added to the beauty of your review. beautiful prose.I have heard of the movie though not yet seen.

I have become choosy. i need books which stir me and move me.

Read Naipaul, try his-bend in the river -or- A house for Mr. Biswas. Slow moving, but initially, once you settle into the narrative pace, you would love every minute of reading. CIao.:))

Rahul Anand said...

@Smita: Yes unfortunately the first half moves slowly. The writer takes his time describing the characters and the war. I read the Da Vinci Code long ago and don't remember what the beginning was like, but once into the story I could not put it down for sure :)

@ZiLliOnBiG: Thanks man. I might have watched about 10 minutes of the movie and thought it was well shot.
If you are looking for fiction + a dose of philosophy, you know the ones which you have to read between the lines to appreciate the writing, then go for this one. You will enjoy it!

rahul said...

nice review dude will definately try and get a hand on it!!

Rahul Anand said...

@Rahul: Thanks for reading! Take care

HaRy!! said...

nice review now...wil read that...but is it quite slow in the first couple ? managed to hear as such? cya around!

Rahul Anand said...

@Hary: Yes it takes some time to get into the story. Thanks for reading!

Webster Fortyone said...

loved the kipling quote in ur review.