When I first experienced this novel, I was a freshman in college. My grades had been poor because the journalism major I had thought I wanted to pursue turned out to just be a series of courses on how to write with hot air and the unnecessary rules that bind that style of writing–it was clear that Hunter S. Thompson had made no impression on the School of Journalism at the University of Maine. I was far too depressed and listless to make any real attempt at passing those journalism courses, and the few English classes I was taking were “core” classes and so crammed lots of Shakespeare down my throat (despite my current infatuation with the Bard, I was then much too restless to appreciate the finer qualities of his plays).
And then, Professor Norris assigned us The English Patient.
I remember thinking within the first few pages of reading how bizarre the novel seemed to be. After all, the tense shifts frequently back and forth from present to past in an apparently random fashion. The setting jumps all over the place, from an abandoned Italian monastery towards the end of World War II to a cartographers’ camp outside of Cairo, and so on. And yet, it was clear to me by the time I finished that, despite the apparent randomness of the technical aspects of the novel, no other novel had ever left such a definite and lucid impression on me. I truly knew the characters, how they thought, how they acted, and how they interacted with one another. The plot, while it seemed difficult to follow at first, was not only understandable by the end but moreover heartrending and tragic. I had no idea that novels could do this, be so disjointed and yet singularly impressive and evocative. Needless to say, my faith in literature was completely renewed after reading The English Patient, and while it is perhaps not the best example of the novel (remember, this was years before I first encountered Ulysses), it nevertheless showed me the infinite possibilities of the narrative form.
Indulge me for a moment to divulge a bit more about the novel itself:
The characters in the novel are among those from literature I will remember and cherish as long as my memory remains intact. There is Hana, the young Canadian nurse who is clearly suffering from PTSD (for many things experienced during the War, including the death of her father, a pilot who was shot down) and is trying to make it right by caring for someone who will remain alive. There is Almasy–the titular patient–who we first encounter as a mysterious burn victim, a man pulled from the wreckage of a crashed plane (as Hana’s father would have been had he survived…), but who we later learn is a much, much more complex character. There is Caravaggio, the Canadian thief (and apparent friend of Hana’s father) and sometime secret agent who is now mysteriously missing both of his thumbs. And there is Kip, the Sikh sapper who has joined the British Army in an attempt to show his loyalty to the British Empire and assimilate himself into it, despite protests from his anti-Imperialist brother.
And these are only the characters we meet in the “present” time of the novel, that is, the end of World War II. I have said nothing of Katharine, around whom Almasy’s stories and memories constantly revolve, or Geoffrey Clifton, Katharine’s husband, who becomes an obvious obstacle for Almasy (though the author, Michael Ondaatje, never allows his narrative to sink to the level of a soap opera). These characters live only in the memory of the novel, and we never see them in the “present.”
The reason we never see them in the present is one of the reasons why the novel’s plot is so heartrending. I will say nothing of what happens, except to say that if you have seen the equally wonderful–but incredibly different–Academy Award-winning film adaptation, you only know half of the story. There is so much more going on in the novel, things that cannot be fully translated to the screen because they are expressed in such a dreamlike and poetic fashion.
Michael Ondaatje is one of the contemporary authors I admire most. He follows the “rules” of novel-writing, but only until they hamper his ideas, at which point he bends them or ignores them altogether. He seamlessly blends poetry and prose and is therefore able to touch emotions that most other novelists completely ignore. Undoubtedly, it is for these reasons that I found The English Patient so refreshing back in the spring of 2001, and why I have since returned to it time and time again.