The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
English Patient
by Michael
The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

It is all too fitting that the only book owned by the “English Patient,”
in Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same name, is a copy of
Herodotus’s histories. For Herodotus is the least linear of the
historians, the most willing to wander off into fascinating tangents,
and the one who is the quickest to present his reader with hearsay
and deceiving fictions mixed in with hard facts.

All these elements show up in Ondaatje’s
novel. His characters are seldom what they
seem at first glance, and the manner in which
their stories unfold adds to the reader’s
uncertainties. Ondaatje resists the temptation
to tell his story in linear fashion—indeed, his
recent book
Divisadero picked up and
abandoned plots faster than Jason Bourne
changes cell phones, and ends as virtually a
different novel than the one suggested in its
opening pages.
The English Patient also
flaunts the accepted rituals of narrative flow,
but is even more pleasing in its rule-breaking.
The story slowly circles in on itself, revealing
more and more of the characters' haunted pasts than of their
looming futures.

The overall effect is similar to that of watching those performance
art painters who fill in the canvas with different colors before your
eyes, but save the crucial elements until the very final strokes. You
may think you “see” the picture in front of you, but not until the
very end will you comprehend what it really is. This is not an easy
effect to achieve in storytelling, but Ondaatje handles it masterfully.

From the very start of his career, Ondaatje aimed to blur the line
between poetry and prose, fact and fiction. Born in Sri Lanka in
1943 but moving to England (in 1954) and finally settling in Canada
(in 1962), Ondaatje turned to American jazz as the inspiration for his
first novel
Coming Through Slaughter, which was based on the life
of New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden. Here we encounter many of
the trademarks of Ondaatje’s later works, notably his loose
treatment of historical subjects, and a intense, free-flowing writing
style that resists standard narrative devices at every turn. Not just
the subject matter, but the very style of writing employed here was
jazzy, marked by its unpredictability and improvisational flavor.
These qualities recur in Ondaatje's oeuvre, but never with such
impetuous ardor as in
The English Patient.

The English patient has survived a plane crash with burns covering
most of his body. He apparently remembers little of his past life;
even his name eludes him, if he can be believed. His personal story
will prove to be the centerpiece of the novel, and it resonates with
historical intensity, passionate romance and unspoken tragedy.
(The big-budget movie version of the novel emphasized one of these
three factors . . . Guess which one?)

At first, the reader is presented with a few, seemingly random details
of the patient’s life. Ondaatje describes his rescue from the plane
crash by Bedouin nomads, the mask of herbs they placed on the
patient’s facial burns, and how his helpers chew his food for him so
he can eat—sharply etched specifics that impart an almost tactile
quality to the book’s prose. Over time, more elements of the
patient's biography emerge, and they revolve around a love story in
the desert. The tale is the conventional lover’s triangle, but the way
Ondaatje presents it is anything but conventional, and the passions
released seem to contain a deadly undercurrent that puts the lives of
all three parties in jeopardy.

In the landscape of
The English Patient, the beautiful often serves as
a mask for the dangerous. No character represents this
contradiction more fully than the sapper (a military engineer) Kip,
an Indian Sikh with the British Army who is entrusted with finding
and defusing bombs in the area surrounding the Italian villa where
the English patient is living out his final days. When Hanna, who is
nursing the patient, plays the piano in the villa, Kip arrives suddenly
on the scene, warning her that musical instruments were often
booby-trapped by the departing Axis soldiers. The piano proves to
be safe after all, but the lesson is quite clear . . . even the most lovely
items in the landscape can be threatening in this charged novel.

The main characters here each seem, on the surface, to be
unattached loners. Yet they are bonded together by troubled
affections—that of the English patient for the married woman
Katharine; the nurse Hanna for her dying patient, whose blank slate
of a life allows her to superimpose her own romanticized ideals on to
her relationship with him; and the problematic connections between
the thief-turned-spy Caravaggio and the sapper Kip with Hanna.

None of these relationships will have a future. And as the book
progresses, the past looms larger and larger, eventually
overwhelming the storyline. Our English patient, as it turns out, was
caught up in infidelities that were much larger than those that break
up a marriage. His personal history, as it unfolds, shows him as
victimizer as well as victim, and even the most basic things we
thought we knew about him—indeed, his very identity as an
“English” patient—prove to be part of a complex web of fictions and

Historical facts underpin Ondaatje’s novel. The character of the
English patient is based on a real-life individual, as is his love
interest Katharine. But the story as presented in Michael Ondaatje’s
novel bears only the most vague resemblance to the lives these
individuals actually led. Yet given the Herodotus-inspired
deceptions that permeate this whole novel, the author's departure
from biographical accuracy should hardly be surprising. Indeed,
one of the lessons of this book is how large a gap often exists
between the life lived and story of it we prefer to relate.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
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