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.

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