Saturday, June 25, 2016

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

The English PatientThe English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first Michael Ondaatje book I read was his memoir, Running in the Family. I remember it for its range of intriguing characters and poetic portrayal of landscape. These two elements also marked my reading of The English Patient, which is perhaps Ondaatje's most famous work.

The English Patient is a novel that crosses continents, a fact that is foremost apparent in its characters: Hana, a Canadian nurse, is tasked with treating a man who has been severely burned during the war (Hana thinks the patient is English but later discovers that he, Almásy, is not). She becomes lovers with an Indian sapper, Kip, but kind of has a complex platonic/romantic relationship with Caravaggio, an Italian-Canadian thief whose skills were enlisted for the war. There are also the Cliftons, who become important when we learn about the 'English' patient's backstory. All of the characters are affected by the Second World War, a total war that was dominated by the "choreography of power" and had widespread effects on people. The primary setting of the novel that shapes its characters is a post-war time.

Yet for me, the most striking setting in the novel is the desert. On the one hand, there is the magic of its vast and endless landscape: "In the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you."

At the same time, the desert also reveals Almásy’s wish for "an earth that had no maps," a transnational territory that does not keep us bound to "the clothing of our countries." Nationality is a malady in the novel; on a global level, it is one reason for war. On a personal level, Almásy's nationality is what precludes him from being able to save his lover (a bit more on that later).

As Ondaatje writes, “the desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names." Although Hana speaks in a different context when she asks, “do you understand the sadness of geography?” her comment points to the way we must label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings" even though a cartography that marks us "by nature" would allow us to remain as "communal histories communal books." The desert, like a great mediator of nationalities, removes the territorial frameworks that send people to war and divide humanity.

I've never read about the desert in that way before and I don't think I'm ever going to forget it.

While set in a time of great conflict and combat, The English Patient is also a story about love. In the main plot, there is the love that Hana has for Kip, Almásy and Caravaggio. But it is the affair between Almásy and Katherine Clifton that appears later on in the novel that truly illuminates Almásy's past and grips you. It's tumultuous, romantic and heartbreaking as hell.
“When we meet those we fall in love with, there is an aspect of our spirit that is historian, a bit of a pedant who reminisces or remembers a meeting when the other has passed by innocently…but all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur.”
“A love story is not about those who lost their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing—not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.”
The English Patient is a powerful novel, which is relevant as it also explores the power of books and language; we learn about a time in Hana's life when "she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.”
“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” 
“A novel is a mirror walking down a road" is a memorable line from the novel and it is striking to think that there are people for whom this novel - with all its heartbreak and war - is a mirror. Yet I hope that this mirror also captures the love and hope for transnationality in The English Patient.

View all my reviews

View all my reviews

Monday, June 13, 2016

You’ll realize that this is where your life is

Hello, all!

My summer holiday has begun, meaning that this book/film review blog is back in business!
I've accepted the fact that I won't be able to post regularly doing the school year; I still do a ton of reading and writing at school, but mainly for class. When I’m not wrangling with words, I spin poi/tumble with the circus and swing dance instead. All in all, college has been a wonderful time.

Anyway, I wrote most of this yesterday while on a plane back to Hong Kong. I was at an altitude of 31,000, the temperature outside was -56 F, and it was 7:38 pm Chicago time, but since we were flying over The Arctic Bay at that exact minute, who knows what time it really was. I peeked outside the window and saw the ice extend forever. Sunlight scorched the land, making the tributaries look like silver. Snow coated the ridges of dark mountains. The whole terrain was like a lithographic print. I would be on that plane for a total of around 16 hours.

I have yet again managed to watch another emotional, heart-rending film on a long-haul flight (other films I have cried to while in the air: Room, Short Term 12, 海角七號).

~ spoilers ahead ~

I heard great things about Brooklyn, but I’m glad that I watched it at the end of my first year of college (you’ll find out why by the end). In the film, Eilis, played by the brilliant and elegant Saoirse Ronan, leaves her home country of Ireland to work in Brooklyn, New York City. While she feels sad about leaving her mother and sister behind, her decision to go is greatly in her favor: there’s nothing left for her in Ireland, where she is stuck working for the awful Ms. Kelly and—despite her brains—will never be given the chance to engage in meaningful work.

Yet Eilis’s initial foray into Brooklyn is far from smooth. Wracked by homesickness (well-foreshadowed by her boat sickness), she is advised to “act like an American” in order to fit in, to be amiable at work, and to essentially settle in ASAP.  

But settling in isn’t so easy, and doesn’t get any easier until Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, a charming Italian who asks her to dance at a weekly Irish dance. The two begin dating, Eilis gradually becomes less reserved, and completely blossoms in Brooklyn: she passes her book-keeping classes with flying colors and falls deeper in love. It seems like nothing could be better.

Then, when Eilis’s sister Rose dies, Eilis is struck by the urge to visit home and returns to Ireland. Paradoxically, it seems like life there—for the month that she stays—will be even better than her time in Brooklyn. She has returned “a star,” strikingly competent and beautiful. Her time in New York was like a spell; Ireland appears to be where she belongs. She is courted by the wealthy bachelor Jim Farrell, offered a job, and encouraged by everyone to stay.

She is so preoccupied with wishing that this was the way life was before she left that she forgets—until an unpleasant encounter with the gossipmonger that is Ms. Kelly—what life was like in a small Irish town in the 1950s. Eilis remembers what drove her from Ireland in the first place and remembers that she has left her heart back in Brooklyn.

The film is a beautiful meditation on what it means to find a new home and create a new identity for yourself. It was slightly clichéd at times, but lovely regardless. I’m glad that I watched it after my first year of college because its last line resonates with me in so many ways:
And one day, the sun will come out you might not even notice straight away—it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that this is where your life is.
I’m not saying that I have immigrated to America and am going to live there forever with an Italian husband, but there are moments when I realize that I have made a life for myself in Chicago, in a library lounge full of swing dancers, in an open gym with people on silks/flipping/juggling/etc, in a room of friends who have become like family.  

And while I have yet to experience genuine homesickness while studying abroad, I resonate with the advice Eilis gives to the new immigrant she meets on the boat:
When you get to immigration, look like you know where you’re going. You have to look like an American.
I remember being nervous when flying to Chicago on my own for the first time, but I'll never forget how happy I was when I landed in Chicago after winter break and took public transport from O'Hare back to my dorm (ft. two luggages and a violin that has become like my fifth limb) while snow paved much of the ground outside. I'm so grateful that I have a life for me and a family in a city almost 8,000 miles away from the one that I live in now.

The next time I’ll be on another long haul flight is late September; who knows what movie I’ll watch and cry to then. Ah well, I’ll write about it when the time comes.

Happy summer!