When I heard that Michael Ondaatje had written a new novel, I thought it high time to go back and read his 1992 masterpiece.
The English Patient
The English Patient (302 pages, Vintage, $15.95) is a beautifully written and provocative account of a few lost characters surviving at the end of World War II in a former convent, near Florence, that has been a hospital but is really noting more than a shell.
Among the chief inhabitants of this building are the English Patient himself, a burn victim, whose story gradually emerges as the novel unfolds. There is also a nurse, Hana, who has devoted herself to the care of this patient; Caravaggio, a maimed thief who has a thing for Hana but also keeps a respectful distance; and Kip, an Indian sapper, who is there to defuse the hundreds of bombs and booby traps left behind by the Germans.
Ondaatje turns this only mildly promising material into a beautiful story of love and loss that gives poetic seriousness to the cost of war, a feat so few war novels are able to achieve.
The English patient’s need for constant care has meant that Hana has stayed behind when others have been moved to “safer” locations. Her devotion to the patient, and her careful cleansing of his hideous wounds, gives them an almost lyrical bond. She reads to him and feeds him fruit that she has sliced or sometimes even chewed for him, and he takes his care and nourishment not at all for granted. Instead he seems to know that he is lucky to have this attention.
Caravaggio does not like the patient—he resents Hana’s devotion to him—but he does not trust him either. And he starts on a campaign to discover who this mysterious man really is. While he starts laying traps in conversation and using other ploys to trick the patient’s memory, Hana draws back and unites with Kip, who brings a different ethos to this theater of war.
Kip’s deeply learned character and his commitment to defusing bombs make his a charmed figure in this no-man’s land. He gives it a kind of life that Hana clings to, and before long she and Kip are sharing intimate moments and interleaving their two lives.
As the novel draws to a powerful conclusion, the English patient’s secrets are revealed. While we hear of espionage and a destroyed marriage, on the one hand, Kip learns about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosive ending nearly destroys all those involved in this momentary idyll.
The English Patient is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.