‘The English Patient’ – A Reflection on Michael Ondaatje’s Literary Masterpiece and Winner of the Golden Booker Prize.

1992. One of two times in history of which a novel has shared the title of the Man Booker Prize in one year with another novel. Barry Unsworth’s take on 18th century slavery, ‘Sacred Hunger’, took home the accolade with a now Golden Booker Prize winner – exemplifying one of the best novels written within the last 50 years.

Sri-Lankan born and now Canadian citizen, the literary icon has brought home this prestigious one-off award, officially marking the 50th anniversary of this award’s inception.

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Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’ edged out 51 other esteemed nominees and brilliant writers and novels in their own right. Including other South Asian-origin writers and novels, such as V S Naipaul’s ‘In a Free State’ (1971); Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ (1981); Arundhati Roy ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997); Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ (2006); and Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’ (2008).

Since its release, the novel has been translated into over 40 languages, and has managed to sell an incredible 1 million copies. The 1996 film adaptation, starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, and Kristen Scott Thomas, also took home an Oscar Award.

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The English Patient’s primary focal point centres around a small Italian villa towards the latter stages of the Second World War. Four variously damaged, and different character try to come to terms with their pasts. The titular patient is not, ironically, English by heritage. Rather, he is a Hungarian desert explored named Laslo Almasy (very loosely based on a true story) who was burned to a char after an airline crash on the Egypt-Libya border. He goes into detail throughout the book about recounting his story of a doomed love affair with a married woman named Katharine Clifton, all the while being on his deathbed.

This story is then taken by a former spy and thief named Caravaggio, who uses his knowledge of morphine addiction (as a result of Axis torturers removing his thumbs), which makes Almasy become garrulous. The patient is also looked after by a young nurse named Hana, who is herself a victim of violence and war, still grieving and shell-shocked at the death of her father in her own arms. Lastly, Kip, a Sikh bomb disposal expert acts as the Almasy’s admirer, friend, and later Hana’s lover.

Laslo Almasy as a character may at first glance appear to be troubled, adult, and sophisticated. However, as his story progresses, the reader gets a sense of Indiana Jones like adventure in relation to his archaeological discoveries, fascinating journeys, wartime musings, and even a specific incident in which he is spilled from a plane wearing “an antlered hat of fire”. Tying into the other characters and their interesting stories and pasts, it makes sense as to why this film was so good, and a well adaptation. That being said, Ondaatje’s prose and literary prowess cannot simply be caught on celluloid.

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On the topic of his prose, it could go toe-to-toe with Hemingway, and probably end up knocking out Kipling. The richness of Ondaatje’s writing, the utter sensuousness of his physical descriptions, as well as a poet’s gift for using well-executed and timed silences and ellipses further accentuates the reader experience.

“Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise.”

Criticisms for the novel are notably widespread. One of the main objections of the novel is on how it ends with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some individuals in literary circles have suggested that this ending had been tacked on deliberately – which bears some truth has there is a really unsettling and strange impact by the end of the narrative. The way the bombs were described to cut the war short, albeit not an easy way to terminate, left that unsettling feeling to be true from my experience with the book.

All in all, Ondaatje’s masterpiece writes with such depth and substance; ambiguity that rewards its reader slowly and calculated through care and thought – simply another representation of Ondaatje’s meticulous talent and nature. The English Patient is a novel that deserves to be re-read over and over; savoured and remembered, fully deserving its place amongst the ranks of the Golden Booker Prize.

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