I first picked up The English Patient in 1997. I read about 50 pages and decided that I didn't like it much. It is not an easy book, and in 1997 I was not a very discerning reader. I could see that the writing - which blurs between poetry and prose - was very beautiful, but I found it difficult to become engrossed in the fragmented narrative. The story is mostly set in 1945, in the dying days of World War II, in an abandoned villa where the lives of four strangers, jaded from war, gradually interlace. It progresses in fits and starts, building layer upon layer, employing a kaleidoscope of voices.I came back to The English Patient in 2000, read it through and began to like it more; I read it again the next year; and the next; and a few more years and reads later I realized it was a work of genius. I think that the most interesting novels can often work like this. They're not always the easiest of reads; they can be uncomfortable at first, take their time to grow on us. I did enjoy the film very much, but the love story between Katharine Clifton and Almásy is very romanticized. In the book, it is darker and more destructive, more painful and tragic.One of the most fascinating narrative devices is the way in which Almásy - lying in the Italian villa, recounting scrambled pieces of his past to different characters - recounts his love affair again and again. Sometimes he remembers a look Katharine gave him; sometimes a reading in the desert; sometimes his memory rambles; sometimes it is succinct. It brilliantly captures the way the love affair has embedded itself in his psyche like a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed; he can only circle back to it again and again. The book is divided into different sections and in the middle there is a section simply entitled 'Katharine'. In the space of about ten pages, their love affair is summed up in a series of brief vignettes. These vignettes capture the subtle nuances of their relationship - they bicker over who will carry Katharine's bag up to the hotel room - as well as the more violent aspects as Almásy gathers a list of wounds from his lover. They are perhaps the most electrifying ten pages in the novel; they are certainly the most intense description of a love affair I have ever read.The fractured narrative - which I disliked at first - creates a sensation of shellshock within the text itself. The jumbled, confused, broken chronology reflects the shattered characters trying to piece their lives back together. And the writing itself is beautiful and sensuous. After I'd finished reading The English Patient my mind felt coloured with vivid images: Hanna sitting in the ruined villa, on a half-ruined staircase filled in with books, a thought scurrying through her mind 'like a mouse'; Almásy lying in the desert after the plane crash, approached by a medicine man who looks like an angel, uncorking potions that make camels scream; Katharine in the Cave of the Swimmers. It is a work of extraordinary imagination, so soaked in ideas, character and gorgeous language that I can read it again and again and always find something new to delight in.
When I first picked up The English Patient, my mouth prickled with the anticipation, the awaiting taste of a book I'd heard so much about, a book with so much promise; I couldn't wait to take my first bite. Many books start off like this, thick with tastes to swallow and let flow into you. Soon, they go stale, or become familiar. The English Patient never does. This remarkable novel can be read and reread: each time you can discover a new taste, a new thread of flavour, or texture. It is a banquet of characters, stories, symbols, texts, maps, history, poetry and love.
If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, this would quite probably be it.
Michael Ondaatje employs his wonderful command of the English language throughout the book. It is not simply enough to create these characters, as you read the language itself takes on character, builds pathways where you had not realised there were pathways - recasts the world that you think you know, so that you may rediscover it through language. Ultimately, Ondaatje has created a book that is about language to an extent - what it means to be named, and how we construct and meaning to ourselves, and others.
Ondaatje's narrative takes on the shape of one of the bombs that Kip is constantly dismantling. Each bomb has a personality, and as Kip points out, takes on the personality of the person who constructed it. Wires, trips, fakes, traps - the passages in the novel point to the novel as a whole - each character is intertwined with leads and wires and trip points - and as a reader you are constatly drawn into the structure of the bomb (the story) and you try to figure out when these trip points will come, what will be the explosions that move the story towards an end. Almasy/Kip/Hannah/Carravaggio final scene (which does not occur in the film)...
One of my favourite things abou tthe novel is the fact that the love stories of both Kip & Hannah and of Katherine and Almasy remain unconventional. K & A enter into a violent, sensuous, explosive relationship - it is thrilling on the page, and terrifying - and challenges the quaint notions of love - there is even the implication of necrophilia ...
Kip and Hannah, on the other hand, experience a shell-shocked courtship. It is from Hannah's point of view that we come to sexualise Kip's body - long passages dwell on his foreign physicality - his wrists, his turban, his long hair. Hannah is the seductress, despite her damaged past, she is active, Kip is passive.
Intimacies grow between all the characters - the sensuality is translated in Ondaatje's language - he doesn't show or tell us, but he illustrates it, the way a poet would - eg. the pouring of calamine lotion and the feeding of plums.
Ondaatje has said that his account was not supposed to be a history lesson but instead “an interpretation of human emotions — love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace”.