The English Patient was published in 1992 and won the Man Booker Prize (along with Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth). The movie adaptation followed in 1996 and won an Oscar for Best Picture, among other categories.
I’ve been waiting to see the movie until I read the book. It’s taken me awhile to get around to it, like, 25 years. When I came across a $1 copy of the book at a library sale last year, I bought it. These days when I really want to see a movie I don’t wait to read the book.
The story is about four very different people who find themselves in an Italian villa/monastery at the end of World War II. Parts of the story told via characters’ memories take place in North Africa, England, India, and Canada.
It was a challenging read at times. After I realized Ondaatje was presenting the characters with writing crafted in their own voices, it got a bit easier, particularly in sections dealing with the character who most annoyed me, the English patient himself. He was overly dramatic and pompous. He’s actually a bit of a Lancelot character–seemingly above such things as love until he finds himself hopelessly attracted to and then madly in love with a married woman. Oh, how the mighty fall. In the movie, he was softened a bit, made charming by Ralph Fiennes. (Colin Firth plays the cuckold.)
Ondaatje does a superb job crafting his characters–obviously, the character of the English patient was so well drawn that he got under my skin, as he is probably meant to. In the book, the main love story is between Hana, a young Canadian nurse, and Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British Army. In the movie, this interracial love affair plays second fiddle to that of the English patient’s love affair with Katherine, both of whom are white. The movie presents the character of Kip as an exotic and sexualized masculine element. He is relegated to the role of the female–with his long hair flowing, he’s shown bare-chested in sexualized scenes that reverse the male gaze as Hana looks upon him.
One of the themes that the movie carries over from the book is how things take on different uses under extreme conditions. Hana uses books from the villa/monastery’s library to repair stairs that have been destroyed. She uses a crucifix as a scarecrow in the garden where she’s growing vegetables. In a scene from the desert in North Africa, a healer uses his cupped feet as a bowl to mix medicine. Hana’s use of the books and crucifix show her resourcefulness, but symbolically these scenes also depict the idea that in war the knowledge in books and the trappings of religion can be useless or at least their original purpose is temporarily suspended.
It’s been just about a week since I finished this book and as I continue to dwell on scenes and characters my esteem for the novel grows. When I first finished it I thought it was “just okay.” Then after watching the movie, I liked it even more. Writing this post has increased my appreciation of the book even more.
Funny how that happens with some books. Alternately there are those books that I adore and praise immediately upon finishing that I now barely recall (or even forget I’ve read!). Scrolling through Goodreads and looking at the star ratings that I’ve given some books makes me cringe.
The Book Cougars discussed both the book and the movie as a joint read/watch in episode 7.
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: The English Patient
Publisher: 1st published by Bloomsbury, 1992. Edition read: Vintage International, 1993.
Bottom line: You’ll probably want to read this one if you’re into literary fiction about WWII. If you’re not into either, proceed with caution. From my Goodreads review: Some lovely scenes, some lovely sentences, but lots of beautiful writing just for the sake of beautiful writing annoyed me after a while. I yelled (in my mind, so as not to scare the dog), “Get on with the story already!” multiple times.
Reading challenge: score one for the #readmyowndamnbooks challenge.