The English Patient

Recommendation: Yes, of course you should

Where to read: Armchair, rainy weekend

Read with: Earl grey and a few of these bad boys

In brief: I don’t want to call it indulgent, but it is something to indulge yourself with. Set aside a (this) weekend when it’s raining out and enjoy.

I made something of a project of reading Booker winners a couple of years ago and I regret deeply that The English Patient didn’t come up so I could have had it in my life a little earlier (and why did I have to encounter the profoundly trite Life of Pi instead). As if to add insult to self-injury, it also won the Golden Man Booker in 2018.

The book (not sure about the film) is largely set in an Italian villa inhabited by a Canadian nurse, Hanna, her charge, the titular English patient, the spy Caravaggio, a friend of Hanna’s family before the war, and the Sikh sapper Kirpal, also known as Kip. All four have been profoundly affected by the Second World War, now in its dying months, and the novel dips in and around their experiences and memories. While the story of the English patient is arguably the central mystery, Hanna, Kip and Caravaggio are by no means minor or supporting characters (although, to my mind, Caravaggio is the least interesting of the three).

It’s beautiful – the prose is superbly lyrical, probably bordering on purple at points but never fully tipping into bombastic pretension, the characters fascinating and compellingly drawn and the various plot lines interwoven wonderfully. There are probably allegorical and allusory aspects I don’t fully appreciate, not having sufficient knowledge of Herodotus’ The Histories (and the rest of Western literary canon), but Ondaatje is operating almost at the level of T.S. Eliot so I don’t feel too guilty about it.

Given some of my previous (admittedly snarky) remarks about using the European theatre of World War II as the setting for one’s “look at how profound I’m being, contributing to canon right here, this is a great literary masterpiece” novel, I should probably also note that this is an excellent example of the right way to do it. For a start, Ondaatje does the hard work with the prose and characterisation (not that it feels like work, granted) rather than simply relying on the readers’ knowledge of the war to create the requisite sense of tragedy and pathos. It is also, first and foremost, about the characters and their tiny, tactically inconsequential involvement in the conflict, rather than an attempt at a grand statement about the experience of war. Third, despite being primarily set in an Italian villa, it doesn’t ignore the full scope of the mess – Kip is Sikh, Hanna and Caravaggio are Canadian, the “English patient” is Hungarian and the parts of the war which receive the closest attention are in North Africa, Italy and, right at the end, Japan. In that alone it is a welcome reprieve from the myopic focus on Western Europe.

All in all, this definitely a book which rewards close attention and time and I will admit that I probably didn’t give it enough of either. In my defence, however, there is value I think to letting it wash over you rather than getting into the details – I will need to reread it, but I will look forward to it.

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