Author: Michael Ondaatje
This actually won the booker prize in 1992. I have a habit of picking up and reading booker prize winners. Suffice to say my opinion of the booker prize has decreased ever so slightly with this… this… bitter fruit of tender skin.
The story focuses on a nurse in the Italian villa de Girolamo who cares for a burnt up man they call the English Patient. He is a genius and they are joined by a Caravaggio, a thief, and Singh, an Indian sapper, who is also a genius. The primary dramatic questions are ‘who is the english patient?’, and ‘how have they suffered during the war?’ and ‘how will they deal with the ghosts of that suffering?’
Where to start. You read the book and you are bewildered by the language. All the phrases, sentences, paragraphs are put together like a contemporary sculpture, like graceful conflicts of curves and lines, circles and squares and triangles and tetrahedrons. It’s at once beautiful and f***ing confusing. You set your eyes to the sentence, and it flows but comes to an abrupt stop before anything and he’s already on the next thought, and instead of being straightforward about it he has to express the second or third layer of emotion. So you’re constantly fighting the author, trying to figure out what’s going on. Worse is, this doesn’t just happen on the micro level, it also happens on the many macro levels. The story is told in a series of flash backs, and some of the most important stuff is left to the end. I’m not stupid, so I did figure out what was going on, but it took a lot of effort. And I don’t like it when books take too much effort, it saps the enjoyment!
And if you’re not going to read for enjoyment? Then what are you going to read for. (To write a hit novel… but that’s another story)
One positive is that the book is well researched, just flip to the acknowledgements at the end and you’ll notice that Mr. Ondaatje spent some time in the archives of the London geographical society and did other research of arcana related to desert exploration. I am unconvinced this proved very useful for the reader, unless he is a genius like 2 of the 4 main characters in the book… except that it makes the reading experience more authentic, though slightly harder. Parts of the Sahara are particularly harsh on the metaphorical tongue.
Plotwise, it’s actually quite weak. The main thrust, or the primary love story they pontificate about in the blurb actually unfolds in the last sixth of the book in the form of a flash back, unravelling the genesis of the burnt up English Patient. Up until then, it’s flash backs on the history of the other characters, some mild love scenes between the most unlikely characters (hardly believable). However these are clearly secondary to the bulk of the content which is Mr. Ondaatje’s forte, the description of moments of fleeting beauty, sadness, lacrimae, or what have you in graceful yet discordant English prose; they’re meant to serve a purpose, and I suppose if you had the time to really meditate on these little morsels of prose which are almost self-sufficient, and littered liberally in any which order, then by all means I recommend this book to you. Otherwise, think twice.
Sound boring? Read the movie, it has a good cast (Ralph Feinnes? Collin Firth?), and won something like 8 academy awards including best picture and best actor.