Book 66: The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

I could be predictable and say the story is about the English patient, as the title suggests, or any of the main characters, but it’s not. It’s not even about living through World War II. To me this novel is about survival.

It is about surviving the inner demons that haunt each of us. Although the brutal acts of the war make appearances, and the heinous acts against humanity in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki provide a hauntingly severe backdrop to the novel’s conclusion, the story focuses more on the internal struggle of the four characters. And to this effect, there is a quote in From Boys to Men that sums up my thoughts on this book: “I always remind myself: stories haunt you, and memories. Not people.” (252)

Overall, I thought it was beautifully crafted and as true to WWII as I could imagine. Having never seen the movie and only adding the book to my list as a Booker prize-winning novel, I’m glad I read it and am excited to hear Ondaatje speak in October. I hope that his presence and what he is discussing is as intricately woven and beautifully told as parts of The English Patient were.

Hana, as a nurse, has lost hundreds if not thousands of patients and has physically barred herself off from ever having to experience emotions again by abandoning the war to care for a final lost-cause, the English patient. And yet, she is not haunted by this, she is haunted by her father’s death in the war and their abandonment of her stepmother, Clara. Not only has Hana aged through this war, but she has lost all sense of naivety and childish abandonment. Her story is a story of maturation in a trail by fire and her future is a shroud of mystery as the novel ends with a different narrator than it started.

Prior to the war Caravaggio’s hobby of theft provided an escape and yet during the war it provides his livelihood. Caravaggio’s story is perhaps the most clear cut, but also perhaps the most complex. He is haunted by the removal of his thumbs, and thus his livelihood, but even more so by the ‘one that got away’. His carefully revealed knowledge throughout the novel not only brings closure to some of his greatest unanswered questions, but also provides insight into this highly private individual. Caravaggio’s ending is somewhat murky as his story is the most fleeting throughout the novel.

Kip is the most identifiable character for me. Although I’m not technologically inclined like he is, his distance from humanity and his closeness to humanness are so striking that not to identify with Kip and to feel his pain and his horror at the end of the novel would seem foreign to me. Kip is haunted by the slow realization that he shoulders humanity through his daily bomb-disarmament, but is most profoundly impacted by the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that he is shocked into realizing he is fighting someone else’s war.

The English patient is perhaps the most haunting of the characters as he actually provides a crux through which each of the characters realizes their own hauntings and simultaneously provides perhaps the best example of the mislaid/multiplied allegiances throughout the war, as well as the living casualties of all wars.

Perhaps I’ve totally missed the point of the novel, but this is what I took from it. I believe the complexities and simplicities of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder don’t quite sum up the characters various stories, but I think that is moving in the direction of what I think the story is about. And this is highlighted by the quote about the warring between the future war between personal and public after WWII.

The one thing that truly bothered me about the novel was the chapters surrounding Caravaggio and the English patient’s usage of morphine. I understand Ondaatje was mirroring the effects of morphine, but the narrative became so convoluted I had to reread long passages to know who was talking and whether it was truth or fiction or some combination.

Recommendation: Read it.

Quotes from The English Patient
“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 awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” (12)

“There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet’s woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name.” (140)

“When we are young we do not look into mirrors. It is when we are old, concerned with our name, our legend, what our lives will mean to the future. We become vain with the names we own, our claims have been the first eyes, the strongest army, the cleverest merchant.” (141-2)

“I am a man who has turned my back on much of the social world, but sometimes I appreciate the delicacy of manner.” (231)

“One day after we heard the bombs were dropped in Japan, so it feels like the end of the world. From now on I believe the personal will forever be at war with the public. If we can rationalize this we can rationalize anything.” (292)


15 thoughts on “Book 66: The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje”

      1. I hope so, but he’s the keynote, so there’s no telling if I’ll be able to get in or not. Might try and sit near the back so I can hop in the book singing line right afterward 😀


    1. Haahaa – I read this last year, but just finished reading In the Skin of a Lion and found a typo in here to edit. But apparently it reappeared in something? How did you find this one?


  1. I tried reading this years ago, but just couldn’t get into it for some reason. I put it back on my TBR pile recently, though, so I hope I have a different experience with it this time around. Good review.


    1. I think it’s a struggle because Ondaatje does not write his books with dialogue, he writes them with stories and descriptions. I imagine if he were a film director he would make great Scandinavian films with little-to-no dialogue and gorgeous sweeping views.


  2. I read this book maybe 10 years ago. Though I remember liking it, I can’t remember a lot about it. I remember I was living in the desert at the time, and so I just liked a lot of his passages describing the physical location that seemed especially relevant to me.

    I also love the movie. I think it’s very pretty.

    I should reread this book. Thanks for reminding me.


    1. Thanks for stoppin by, and for the comment! I know what you mean about his descriptions. They are what make his novels, to me. There is something so breathtaking and sweeping with how he describes things. I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet (I’m sure I’ve seen bits and pieces), but I should really change that!


  3. I love how Ondaatje ends each chapter with an event but with a recollection or a memory. Passionate like the ocean on a particularly stormy night, intricate like an immaculately woven mughal motif, this is one book I couldnt put down. I have read it thrice and I have been held spell bound by Ondaatje’s tale of love and wistful longing, revealed through the memories of a completely burnt, nameless, faceless man who is called the English patient, because he only knows English.

    Set in post-war Italy, The English Patient focuses on four survivors coming to terms with the aftermath of war. The Sri Lankan born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje writes sparely but beautifully. Fun fact: In 1992, the Booker Prize was divided between two books: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. I havent read Scared Hunger but am very interested in checking out the competition.


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