This is exactly the reason I decided to take up the 1,001 Books challenge. I would almost certainly never have picked up The English Patient otherwise and even if I had, I would probably have cast it aside after the first few pages, which would have been a grave error.
The English Patient is set in the Villa San Girolamo, a war-damaged villa in Italy. Here, a Canadian nurse is ministering to a mysterious English pilot, who has been severely burnt in a plane crash in North Africa. Into their solitary lives come Caravaggio, a Canadian thief and spy, who was a close friend of Hana’s father, and Kip, a Sikh Indian sapper, who is responsible for clearing the area of mines.
Ondaatje lets the story unfold slowly, giving us glimpses into the histories and personalities of his characters in an impressionistic style, allowing our knowledge of them to grow slowly until we understand everything, which only really happens at the very end. The English patient in particular tells his stories through a mix of dreams and snippets of memories, something that Ondaatje’s prose reflects wonderfully.
Each of the main characters is damaged, either physically or emotionally and, for the majority of the book, they give each other love and care that appears to help them until the outside world intrudes and causes the break-up of their household.
Two love affairs provide the structure around which the book is woven. The first is the doomed love affair of the English patient and the wife of one of his friends in pre-war Cairo. This is an impassioned, sensual affair which ends in tragedy. The second is the love that grows between Hana, emotionally withdrawn from the loss of her father, lover and unborn child, and Kip, who is deeply conflicted by his willingness to fight for Britain and his love for his brother, arrested for anti-Imperial activities. Their affair is more tender and reserved but still destined for failure.
Another theme is that of identity and deception. The English patient, although able to describe his history and adventures in the desert in detail, is unable to shed any light on his identity until it is revealed by Caravaggio. Even then, his recollections shift perspective so one can never be absolutely certain of who he is. Embedded in the gradual revelation of his story are the various deceptions that surround him – personal deceptions like the one he and his lover practice on her husband and professional deceptions practised by the husband and Caravaggio.
Despite the skilful way in which Ondaatje slowly reveals more and more of his characters’ lives and experiences to bring the overall story together, I did find the climax a little jarring and clumsy. Kip’s near-hysterical reaction to the news of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his blaming of England for it (and, indeed, everything done by all other European and North American countries) is both bizarre and implausible, given Kip's previous views, behaviour and relationships. Without trying to deny the calumnies perpetuated by Great Britain in the name of Empire, I really don't feel we can be held responsible for everyone's actions. It’s at this point that the novel becomes unbalanced with Kip becoming both the dominant character and also the hero, with some laboured metaphors for the passing of the torch of civilization from the old, predominantly-white world to the new, Asian world.
Despite my reservations about the ending that, I’m afraid, did affect my enjoyment of the book, The English Patient is, undoubtedly, a fantastic piece of writing. Indeed, if I were to play the game of trying to predict which modern novels will be considered classics in another hundred years, I strongly suspect that this will be a contender for inclusion in a new literary pantheon. I can’t say that I loved it but I’m definitely glad I read it.