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The English Patient ()

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    Gary Kamiya : Let me ask you about the genesis of The English Patient. I was curious how it came
    into being. Because it does have a narrative skeleton, but over that is a fantastically imaginative,
    rich overlay of words and images. What came to you first รณ an image? Or was the entire plot
    present in your mind from the beginning?

    Michael Ondaatje : No, the plot wasn't there until I finished the book, probably. I don't really begin
    a novel, or any kind of book, with any sure sense of what's happening or even what's going to
    happen. Almasy [the badly-burned "English patient" whose tragic love affair with Katherine Clifton
    forms the heart of the book] wasn't in the story in my head. Kip [the Indian sapper, or
    bomb-disposal expert, whose love affair with the English patient's nurse, Hana, offers a
    counterpoint to Almasy's story] wasn't in the story. Caravaggio [a shadowy thief with bandaged
    hands] wasn't in the story. It began with this plane crash and it went on from there. Now, why did
    this plane crash? What did that have to do with this guy in the plane? Who was the guy? When was
    it happening? Where was it happening? All those things had to be uncovered or unearthed, as
    opposed to being sure in my head.

    Then there was a nurse and there was a patient, there was a man who was stealing back a
    photograph of himself. It was those three images. I did not know who they were, or how they were
    connected. So I sat down, I started to write and try to discover what the story was. And build from
    those three germs, really. I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme.
    Those things come later, for me.
           -INTERVIEW : Delirious in a Different Kind of Way (Gary Kamiya, November, 1996, Salon)

Long time readers of these pages will be familiar with the concept of "Letting the Tiger out of the Cage" (newcomers may want to read a brief definition.)  Well, what are we to make of a novel whose genesis in the author's mind was the scene where the tiger gets let out?  Because as I was watching the movie version, I desperately wanted the husband to succeed in crashing his plane and his wife into Ralph Fiennes.  I mean, I know this is supposed to be a great tragic love triangle and all, but I'm not big on adultery to begin with, added to which is the fact that they are just horrible people and what passes for love amongst them is really little more than sado-masochism.  So, yes, I wanted them dead.
Nor did I particularly care that the petty sneak thief, Caravaggio, had been dethumbed by the Nazis.

The characters that I did care for somewhat were Hana and Kip.  I realize that Hana was supposed to be this horribly damaged woman, but c'mon, she's played by the luminescent Juliette Binoche, who, by herself, nearly suffices to justify the continued existence of France.  Kip, meanwhile, is all earnestness and courage, easy to like, even if his role onscreen is pretty minimal.  But then, just as it seems these two and their relationship will rescue the story, Kip has his little freak out over the atom-bombing of Japan, and we're left with only Hana.  After three hours, that just wasn't enough for me.

So I probably made a mistake when I tried reading this book right after seeing the movie; bringing too much baggage along from the film to give the novel a fair shake.   Now, rereading it several years later, I do like it better, but I still don't like it.

There's still the basic problem that the English Patient and Katherine Clifton are so profoundly unlikeable and that their affair so little resembles what healthy humans think of as love.  Even more disturbing, when the English Patient leads the Nazis across Northern Africa in exchange for access to the cave where he left Katherine, he acts out the most abhorrent sentiment of the 20th Century, E. M. Forster's monstrously selfish dictum : "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."  It would even be more honorable if the English Patient helped the Nazis out of a genuine feeling of Anti-Semitism.  It would at least reflect a capacity to think of people beyond himself.  But the nature of his relationship with Katherine is exactly this selfish and destructive, so perhaps aiding the German Army follows from the logic (or illogic) of their affair.

Hana and Kip are more central to the story, and that helps greatly.  Kip's background is particularly interesting.  The scenes of him being taught about bomb disposal and of his relationship with the Brits who trained him are especially well done.  Unfortunately, they only serve to make it even more jarring when he reacts so hysterically to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  His meltdown reads as if it's driven more by Ondaatje's ideology than by the dictates of the character.

That ideology is troubling too.  In some ways, this is one of the most racist novels I've ever read : Ondaatje is obsessed with skin and not merely it's substance but it's color. He mentions skin so many times and in so many ways that I lost count, but, of course, the central metaphor of the story is the English Patient, this vast repository of Western knowledge, with his white skin burned away.  Then the old European lovers, he and Katherine, are supplanted by the new multiracial coupling of Kip and Hana.  Finally, after Kip indicts the West for it's racially motivated bombing of Japan, he leaves the Villa San Girolamo, this wreckage of Western civilization, and sets out on his own, symbolically abandoning the white past and heading towards the brown future.  And just in case that's too subtle, the final image of the book is Katherine knocking a fork off of a counter in Canada and Kip catching a fork in India, the tools of civilization being transferred from white hands to brown.  There's a real air of racial triumphalism and moral superiority to the story that perhaps only Third World authors can get away with these days.

Ultimately, I did like the book somewhat better on rereading and it's much better than the movie.  There are some great images and the language is lyrical and often captivating, though after three hundred pages it does get kind of cloying.  I guess this is one that I have some significant problems with, but find interesting enough to give an extremely cautious recommendation.


Grade: (C)


Michael Ondaatje Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Michael Ondaatje
    -INTERVIEW: Telling Everything All at Once: A Conversation with Michael Ondaatje: Howard Norman Talks to Poet-Cum-Novelist About His First Collection in 25 Years (Howard Norman, March 20, 2024, LitHub)     -INTERVIEW : Delirious in a Different Kind of Way (Gary Kamiya, November, 1996, Salon)
    -Michael Ondaatje: An Overview (Canadian Literature and Culture)
    -PROFILE : Author gets dose of med school : Michael Ondaatje: Columbia appoints writer-in-residence to sensitize doctors (Charlie Gillis, National Post)
    -ESSAY : The Toronto Circle :   In accomplished stories and novels South Asian writers who are exiles in Canada are re-creating the worlds they left behind (Jamie James, Atlantic Monthly)
    -LECTURE : Diagnosing The English Patient:  Contributions to Understanding the Schizoid Fantasies of Being Skinless  and of Being Buried Alive (March 6 1999, Australia Keynote Lecture Version,  Norman Doidge, M.D., F.R.C.P. (C))
    -ESSAY : Whitewashing Politics, The English Patient (Rob LaVelle)
    -ESSAY : Mapping the Woman's Body in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (Lilijana Burcar, University of Ljubljana)
    -ESSAY : Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, "History," and the Other (Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek)
    -PROFILE : The real 'English Patient' was no count and no Nazi sympathizer (ALEX BANDY, Associated Press)
    -An Index to the Vintage 1993 edition of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Index by Lisa Mirabile)
    -READING GUIDE : The English Patient (Random House)
    -DISCUSSION GROUP : The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Book Chatter)
    -REVIEW : of The English Patient By Michael Ondaatje (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE ENGLISH PATIENT By Michael Ondaatje (Judith Grossman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: English Patient (Stephanie Sy-Quia, Granta)
    -ESSAY: The English Patient Plays Casablanca (David Aaron Murray, First Things)
    -REVIEW : Hilary Mantel: Wraith's Progress, NY Review of Books
       The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : of The English Patient (Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of English Patient (Kelvin Ha, Flying Inkpot)
    -ESSAY : Canadian Patient: visit with an ailing text (O.W. Pollmann, The Antigonish Review 113)
    -REVIEW : of Anil's Ghost By Michael Ondaatje (Richard Eder, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  ANIL'S GHOST By Michael Ondaatje (JANET MASLIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SECULAR LOVE By Michael Ondaatje (Liz Rosenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE SKIN OF A LION By Michael Ondaatje (Carolyn Kizer, NY Times Book Review)
    -AWARDS : Governor General's Literary Awards  1992 The English Patient Michael Ondaajte

    -BUY IT : The English Patient (1996) DVD (
    -BUY IT : The English Patient (1996) VHS (
    -INFO : The English Patient (1996) (imdb)
    -The English Patient Central
    -English Patient Unofficial Homepage
    -The English Patient : A Novel Film Unofficially
    -The English Patient and Others
    -Anthony Minghella Interviews (Ovrdedge)
    -INTERVIEW : The Patient Englishman - Getting Personal with Anthony Minghella (Tomm Carroll, DGA Magazine)
    -English Patient Interviews (Spliced Online)
    -FAQ : The English Patient FAQ compiled and maintained by Liz (ovrdedge [at]
    -ARTICLE : Against all odds, 'English Patient' hits the big screen (Cynthia Tornquist, CNN)
    -REVIEW : of The English Patient (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : Herodotus Goes to Hollywood : Michael Ondaatje's postmodern meditation on identity and history has become a visually stunning romantic saga (Alan A. Stone, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of The English Patient (GARY KAMIYA, Salon)
    -REVIEW : 'English Patient': Love Is the Drug (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : English Patient (Piers Marchant, Tucson Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The English Patient (Christopher Null, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : Man to Man, The English Patient Is A Bit Too Epic (Cynthia Fuchs)
    -REVIEW : The English Patient A Film Review by James Berardinelli
    -REVIEW: of 'The English Patient': A Classical Tragedy of Love and Paradox (Juliana Geran Pilon, Humanitas)

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