If ever a book was written to stir your senses to dizzying heights, it’s ‘The English Patient’. Sometimes the lilting touch of a kiss, sometimes the prancing pace of a musical verse, sometimes the piercing stab of a needle, sometimes the burning pain of a hot iron… the book affects you in every imaginable way. The third novel of the Sri Lankan born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, it follows the sensual and lyrical but spare style of his earlier novels, and build upon them this time with a passionately pictorial prose and an intricate but tantalizing story.
The second world war is coming to an end in Italy, and a Canadian nurse Hanna, emotionally jaded by the death and destruction of the war, seeks refuge in the abandoned villa of San Girolamo. She chooses to make the care of an unrecognizably burnt patient her mission – a patient called ‘The English Patient’ because English is the only language he seems to know.
Shortly afterwards, the villa sees the arrival of two more key characters – the thief Caravaggio, an acquaintance of Hanna from her childhood days in Toronto, and Kip (Kirpal Singh), a Sikh soldier who is part of the bomb disposal squad of the British Army. The interplay between these characters and an occasional solitary dip into the memories of the burnt man lead us to the slow unraveling of the man’s past.
And what a past it is! A middle-aged explorer deeply in love with the desert, falling for the beautiful, young wife of a friend, leading to a wildly passionate and achingly beautiful romance. From this point in life, we will either find or lose our souls. The woman developing a burning sense of guilt at having betrayed her simple husband. And then withdrawing. We will never love each other again. Followed by anger from his side. Madness. I just want you to know. I don’t miss you yet. His face awful to her, trying to smile.
The lovers separate. But the husband comes to know about the affair somehow and tries to kill them all in a plane crash. Almasy, the explorer, survives; George Clifton, the husband, doesn’t. And at the centre of it all, the willowy woman, the one with the classical blood in her face, the one whose voice the weary, hardened explorer had first fallen in love with, Katharine Clifton – she is injured, almost fatally. What happens after that, I will leave you to find out by reading ‘The English Patient’.
In between, we are also treated to another delicious fare – the childlike, vervy romance that develops between Hanna and the soldier Kirpal and occasional flashbacks into how Kirpal has become the smart and courageous, but carefree bomb disposal soldier that he is. And parallel to that, the shenanigans of the thief Caravaggio, who for his own personal reasons, is bent upon discovering the true identity of the English Patient.
Going back and forth between Almasy’s past and this present, the book at times almost drives you to tears with its haunting description of the love between Almasy and Katherine, Hanna and Kirpal. And at other times, leaves you marveling at the lyricism and strength of the prose (and the research behind it) that turns even as dry a subject as bomb disposal into a riveting thriller.
Definitely a book to buy and cherish. No wonder it won the Booker!