The English Patient


This week, a new novel, Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.”

In 1995 I was browsing in a bookstore in downtown Chicago and saw “The English Patient” displayed along with other Booker Prize winners. I had previously read Ondaatje’s wonderful “In the Skin of a Lion,” so I was curious. But the cover of that edition of “Patient” showed a pastel drawing of a bandaged figure surrounded by palm trees. I’m afraid in my ignorance, I concluded it must be a medical tale that wouldn’t interest me. Time went on the way it does. (And that brings up an interesting issue about how book covers influence readers—something an author may have little control over).

Then on New Year’s Day 1997 my father died after a brief illness. There was a lot to do, getting a grasp of his labyrinthine financial affairs, making sure my elderly mother would be able to continue her lifestyle. Several weeks later, my wife and I decided we deserved a date night. The film version of “The English Patient” was out and had received positive reviews. We arranged for the neighbor to babysit our son (Hi Julia) and headed to a Northside theater.

From the very first few moments, I was mesmerized by the gorgeous scene that referred to Katherine copying the cave paintings, the way the textured paper slowly absorbed the liquid color, the music that sounded Arabic but was not. Based on my love for the film, I resolved to finally read the story.

Twenty-three years later, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. It’s one of the pieces of writing that inspires me to write.

It seems to me that instead of merely being a story, “The English Patient” is about stories—the stories Almasy tells Hana, Herodotus’ Histories, the book which Almasy pastes his own stories into, about the paintings in the Cave of Swimmers (the symbols) that Katherine records in water-soluble ink. The novel begins with a quotation taken “from the minutes of the Geographic Society,” wherein the speaker refers to the tragic deaths of the Cliftons that had occurred several years earlier—an embedded story that foreshadows the larger beastie. (Beastie?)

On page two of the 1993 Vintage International edition, we find: “He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.” He—Almasy—is telling Hana stories. Is the essential, magical point that the stories are written stories—a book about writing? Maybe. “She would sit and read, the book under the waver of light…This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.” Hana reads. “She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” Isn’t this an accurate description of what it’s like to read “The English Patient?” So— you’re reading a book about characters reading. The book is telling you a story about characters telling stories.

Careful! We’re walking near the rabbit hole again.

“This is a story of how I fell I love with a woman, who read me a specific story from Herdotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband.”

What I’m getting at here is the narrational style. There is a narrator in this book, but she/he is very hidden. There is a point later when the narrator makes an appearance, and I will discuss that—but now is not the time. The narrator tells a story of people telling each other stories. But that’s not all. The book begins, “She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway.” Very immediate writing with the present tense, the short, declarative sentences—she stands, she has sensed. There is little mediation—certainly not by a narrator’s consciousness. That would be more like, “I see her in the garden where she has been working. A slight young woman who has sensed a shift in the weather.” In that case, the reader would be imagining a narrator “seeing” the scene.

Ondaatje’s style makes the narrator so close and intimate to the character in the scene that the narrator nearly disappears like a ghost. The character—Hana—goes inside the villa, and, “The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.” This is nearly like telling the actors in a stage-play what to do. Except there is no rush of dialogue.

There are at least two modes in the story. First, the mode where the invisible narrator “shows” us characters and events from the inside and outside. Then, there is the level of the characters telling stories, becoming their own narrators, perhaps. Their own readers? Hmm.

Next time, I’ll delve more into how these modes interact and what effect they bring.

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Alan Bray, Contemporary Author of Fiction

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