Sweeping vistas of the African Sahara desert spring to mind when approaching the reading of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winner – the result of the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the same name with its focus on the love story between the ‘English patient’ and the newly-wed British socialite, Katharine Clifton.
Whilst a central story running throughout the book is the 1930s desert surveys of the Egyptian Sahara, it is only one part of Ondaatje’s poetic contemplation of the nature of identity. The English Patient is the profound yet fragmented story of four disparate characters caught up in a wrecked Italian villa at the close of World War II.
Having being rescued from a burning plane by Saharan Bedouins, the English patient is burnt beyond recognition. From his accent, he is assumed to be English and has therefore found himself transferred from various makeshift hospitals that are each closer to home. A former monastery, the Villa San Girolamo on the outskirts of Florence is the latest resting place. A refuge now abandoned by the Allies, a young Canadian nurse, Hana, insists on staying with her patient too sick to move.
The two have eked out their survival in the badly damaged building, the patient confined to his bed with a regular dosage of morphine: Hana reading to him, finding food and avoiding snipers and booby traps installed by the retreating Germans. With her own burgeoning sexual awareness, Hana inevitably develops a close attachment to her patient, a purity of love in part based on the loss of her own father in the campaign.
Into the villa walks David Caravaggio; a thief legitimised by the Allies as a wartime spy, he is a former friend of Hana’s father. The result of a violent interrogation by Italian fascists has seen both his thumbs being removed and he is now reduced, like the English patient, to a morphine addiction.
The fourth character, Kirpal ‘Kip’ Singh, is an Indian Sikh who volunteered with the British for sapper bomb disposal training. He is sent in advance of British forces in Italy to clear mines, booby traps and unexploded bombs. Basing himself at the villa, Kip develops a close affinity to the English patient but he also becomes Hana’s (discrete) lover.
We learn, incrementally, of each of the four’s histories. Whilst the English patient and the slow discovery of his true identity is key to the novel, each has their own story to tell or hide.
The English patient is not English at all, but Hungarian (Count Ladislaus de Almasy) and a suspected German spy with Caravaggio on his trail for some time. Kip has, in part, become very English. On arriving in the UK for military service, he was ‘adopted’ by the late Lord Suffolk, the head of the fledgling bomb disposal unit, and found himself a frequent guest of the aristocrat and his wife at their home. Yet Kip’s brother is an active revolutionary against British rule back in India.
All four are wounded souls. The English Patient is a web of memories and it unfolds in a series of non-linear storylines and narratives. As with the books that Hana reads to her patient when she randomly opens to a page, meaning seemingly matters little. It’s the shared moment that is of import – and The English Patient is not dissimilar. It’s a journey that meanders without a foreseeable ending.
And it’s that unfocussed meandering that, for me, is the problem with The English Patient. I do not need a beginning, middle and an end – but I need more than what felt like literary gymnastics to extend its melancholic story. Lyrical it may be; poetic prose as an exercise has appeal. But spread over 320 pages it was too much. Its imbued with Boys Own adventure potential. And as a result Caravaggio and Kip are the most interesting characters in The English Patient. Yet somehow I do not think that was supposed to be the case.
The English Patient shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth and Sacred Hunger – the second time it has occurred (1974 with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist tying with Holiday by Stanly Middleton the other occasion). It is reported the judges were bitterly and passionately divided between the books: the decision to jointly award the Booker was made just 30 minutes before the announcing ceremony.