I have read a few reviews and spoken to people who found this beautiful novel quite difficult to read; finding Michael Ondaatje’s narrative fairly unconventional and therefore difficult to immerse oneself in. I however, for whatever reason, did not encounter any such obstacle as I explored a rich, atmospheric world inhabited by four fascinating, complex and widely different characters.
**Warning – review may contain some spoilers!!!**
We meet Hana, a Canadian nurse working in Europe towards the tail end of the Second World War, insisting on being left in an old monastery in the heart of Florence where she cares for her English patient; a man who has been badly burnt in a plane accident over the desert and rescued by a Bedouin tribe. Intelligent and deeply enigmatic this mysterious character, despite his terrible injuries, coherently relates his tragic tale of love and loss in the desert, a tale that punctuates the separate stories of the three other main characters in this novel.
As well as Hana, two other distinct men come into our picture, albeit from completely different directions. First of all comes a man called Caravaggio, an old friend of Hana’s father and a thief, who has come a cropper working for the British Intelligence Service, resulting in having both of his thumbs cut off. Upon hearing of Hana’s situation, he walks all the way into Florence to find her. Like the English patient, he is addicted to morphine and spends a great deal of time speaking with the burnt man, revealing him to be László Almásy, the Hungarian desert explorer. It turns out that Ondaatje actually plucked this name from history, after hearing the story of the real Almásy, who helped German spies to cross the desert during WWII. (This man had no particular affiliation to either side during the war, it seems he took on contracts from whoevers proved to be the most lucrative.) The story we see here however, of him falling in love and having an affair with the English Katherine Clifton, is completely fictional.
Our final main protagonist, and my favourite, is Kip, an Indian sapper working in bomb disposal. We are at first cautious of the soldier, as his appearance at the villa whilst Hana is playing the piano seems such an intrusion on her, although quite bittersweet, beautiful and almost peaceful world. However, we soon learn that the Germans have a habit of placing bombs in objects like musical instruments and, upon hearing her playing, he became fearful for her safety. Kip swiftly becomes a welcome presence in the house; his strong, calm demeanor proves to be something that Hana is in dire need of and they quickly become lovers. All of the characters experience flashbacks in this novel, and although I found Almásy’s to be a little confusing at times as they leaped from the most recent events to the earliest and back again, Kip’s clearly recounts his experiences training to work in bomb disposal in England.
When we reflect on WWII, do not the majority of us purely think of the English/German/American/French men who put there lives on the line? India, as part of the Allied Nations, officially declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, and thousands of Indian conscripts began to fight in Europe on behalf of the United Kingdom, along with people from many other different cultures and races that we rarely consider when studying this period of the 20th Century. Ondaatje’s inclusion of Kip within this environment I therefore found very important. I will not go any further into the story as I wouldn’t want to give anything away, particularly regarding the again, bittersweet and thought-provoking end to the book in which Kip has a significant part to play.
Although I can identify the parts of this book that some may find difficult to follow (mainly Almasy’s musings on his former life) I think the style of and ideas behind this novel perhaps fit with the way my own mind works, meaning that I could appreciate the book to its very fullest. This story is not a linear one, we are constantly thrust backwards and forwards in time, essentially so that we may understand the characters as fully as possible. There is less ‘action’ than a traditional novel and more…..reflection, I suppose, and emotion. The meeting of four war-weary people in this beautiful, yet damaged, villa in a beautiful, yet still dangerous, part of the world. The writing is extremely evocative and the imagery vivid, a particularity that made even more sense upon discovering that Ondaatje is primarily a poet. I also discovered, upon listening to a short talk on The English Patient on the BBC World Service that both Hana and Caravaggio are characters who Ondaatje had actually used previously in his novel In the Skin of the Lion, which I would now like to read as I think it will add an extra special element to The English Patient: