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Book Recommendation & Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


This review of The English Patient is a rather lengthy one, it counts more than three thousand words I tried to avoid spoilers as much as one can while still discussing the plot and the literal significance of the novel, but I still revealed a fair share of information about it. I kept the mystery of the English patient intact, though. I didn’t revealed who the patient truly was or whether he was truly English. Nevertheless, if you want to immerse into this novel more or less clueless, don’t read this review as it will obviously reveal a lot. If you’re looking for a comparison with the film, I can’t help you as I haven’t seen the movie version. If you want to read a shorter version of this review, you can visit my goodreads profile or scroll down and read just the conclusion at the end of the post (which is very short I promise). 



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THE INTRODUCTION TO THE NOVEL



The English Patient opens up with two characters, set in a specific time and place. A Canadian nurse nurses a patient that is presumably English (but nothing is certain) in an abandoned Italian villa as the Second World War is coming to its end. At the time of the novel, the Germans are retrieving from the Italy, the place is packed with bombes and all the typical post-war atrocities, such as robbery and murder. However, Hana believes that the fact that the ruined state of villa, an Italian monastery turned a war hospital, works in their advantage. Nobody will suspect there are actually people living in there. So Hana, the nurse, refuses to leave as the Allies were advancing. She can’t bear to leave the burned patient, who is no shape to be moved, but she is also deadly tired of war. The Allies army tells her that her act is equal to betrayal, and even cuts the water, but she is relentless.  Perhaps the fact that Hana and the English patient lived in something that is basically a ruin, once magnificent work of architecture, but now nothing more than a ruin, is a good metaphor not only for the state of their spirit, but for the state of world at that moment. Second World War was an atrocity that nobody escaped from, and that the world is still recovering from. Little by little, we get more insight into the story of Hana. Not just the background information about her, but an insight into her feelings and present mental state. The English patient, however, proves to be more elusive. Paradoxically, despite the fact that he doesn’t stop talking, revealing an abundance of information about the desert and fragments from his past, the patient remains a complete mystery. Who is he really?




#Book Recommendation: #TheEnglishPatient by #MichaelOndaatje


THE PLOT

Soon, however, the story gets another character, although with the patient’s past being as buys as it is, perhaps it is fair to say that he and Hana were never the really alone in that house. The patient carries a ghost of a lost love, the most dangerous of ghost, and so does Hana. In this house of spirits (to borrow an expression from Isabel Allende’s writing), another tormented person arrives. As soon as he hears about Hana, Caravaggio leaves the hospital and travels to villa. Caravaggio used to be a friend of Hana’s father and it is implied that he had watched Hana grow up. Caravaggio is an Italian, but presumably he has lived in Canada for a long period of time (or else how could have he been a family friend of Hana). His motivation for finding Hana seems clear, however, he also shows an increasing interest in the English patient.  Caravaggio used to be a thief, but during the war he was a spy for the allies. When Caravaggio arrives to villa, he too is a broken man. The Germans caught him spying and cut his thumbs off. His past seems a haunted place, Hana mentions his wife (and so does he) but it is never revealed what has happened to her. Caravaggio is ironic in his talks, describing himself as a common thief that during the war got the change to use his talent for some good, but it is clear that he is more complex than that. Hana, Caravaggio and the English patient all belong to different generations. Hana is the youngest, Caravaggio is older than her but not as old as the English patient. Nevertheless, they are all haunted by their pasts. Suddenly, another character sets to the scene. As Hana plays the piano, a Sikh sapper (combat engineer) enters the scene. Drawn by the sound of the piano, Kip rushes into the house, not to enjoy music but to warn them of the fact that Germans often hid bombs in pianos and clocks.  Kip’s story gets interwoven with the story of other characters. He becomes their friend and spends time with them in the villa, but he is never fully a part of it, leaving often to work on deactivating bombs. From all of them, Kip is the only one that is still a part of the army and involved into war activities.

Book Recommendation: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

FRAMED NARRATIVE




There is a lot of digressive storytelling in this novel.  As characters reveal their personal stories to others, we’re often taken back in time. Even when the novel doesn’t follow a typical framed narrative, that is, one character telling his story to another (or more of them), the novel is filled with digressions and allusions to the past. It’s not just the personal lives and histories of the English patient, Hanna, Caravaggio and Kip. All the people from their past, some living, some dead, seem a part of the story as well, a characters in their own right. Hanna, lost a father, a lover (a father of her child) and the child. Her story is at times told from the third person narrative, at times revealed through her thoughts, but sometimes it is recounted to other characters, such as Caravaggio and Kip. The English’s patient’s history is probably the busiest one, and is appropriate as he is the oldest one. It is told in a framed narrative, but with many stops. It starts with the patient recounting fragments of his personal life to Hana, but soon he recounts his past to other characters as well. It is a very chaotic narrative, but with time it starts to make more sense. Caravaggio is determined to get the story out of patient and find out who he really is. He does this to ‘save Hana’ as Caravaggio thinks she is too obsessed with the patient, but also because he has a personal interest in the story. Caravaggio was stationed as Africa as well, and it seems he suspect that the English patient is not English at all. On whose side was the English patient on? On the side of the Allies or the Germans? With the help of a potent mix of morphine and alcohol, Caravaggio is determined to get the full story out of the anonymous patient. Hence, we finally found out the full life story of the patient. Within his past, there is a tragic love story. The story of his and Catherine’s love affair is very touching but what fascinated me is how real all the characters in the patient’s story feel. They are all crafted with care.   One character especially caught my attention and that is Madox. Madox is an Englishman, a friend of the patient. Together they have been travelled and researched the desert for what seems like ages. Madox was a true friend to the patient, as different as they were, and I found the story of their friendship very touching. Madox who seemed such a saintly Englishman, proper in every way, carrying Anna Karenina with him, reading it like a Bible, treasuring it the way the patient treasured Herod’s history. 



Book Recommendation: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


HANA


The characters I find myself relating the most was Hana. It was easy to put myself into her shoes. Surrounded by death, nursing countless man to death, but not being able to nurse her own father who died alone in some pigeon house, slowly losing everyone around her, Hana is indeed a tragic character. The father of Hana’s child died, and so did their child. Hana blames herself for everything, for not being there for her child, for not being there for her father. For every man who died on her hands. She recounts the horrors of war with graphic detail. She curses the war generals and the war in general. Hana used to work double shifts, but at the time of the novel, she is a broken woman.  Hana cuts her hair short, so she can free herself from the touch of death (so her long hair wouldn’t touch blood) and spends more than a year without looking at the mirror. I can understand Hana’s state of mind. It is horrible that one so young gets exposed with to so much death. There will always be wars, but I find it twisted that our society still sends youth to death. What is an eighteen old man if not little more than a child? Isn’t it horrible that we expect from someone who has just started living to surrender his life. There should be a twenty five year limit for solders, war nurses and other combat personal. Nobody should face war so young. Nobody should die a violent death that young. It just seems so unnatural. Hana stays with the patient to save him, but also to save herself. Hana is, like everyone else, aware that the patient is going to die. He is too badly burned, to gravely injured. His vicinity to death cleanses him in the eyes of others. Hana adores him, and I don’t think it’s just a Freudian thing, or her compensating for the fact she was not able to be by her father’s side. It’s the need to love that matters. Love makes us human. If war makes us inhuman, than love can be seen a saving grace. It doesn’t matter what kind of love. A friendship or a romantic relationship. The important thing is to feel. It’s better to get angry, then to allow ourselves to fall into the depth of depression. Perhaps Hana senses this. I think she is ultimately a survivor. At tender age of twenty, she is a broken soul and yet she has courage. The patient is her way of surviving. First him and then Caravaggio. The friendship they share, it’s what matters. It could be said that the characters find salvation in one another. Hana has only one surviving member of family and that is her stepmother Clara, who sends her letters from Canada, she never answers but carries with her and treasures. 

THE MINOR CHARACTERS                


As beautiful as the writing is, perhaps the characters are really the best thing about this novel. Even characters one could call minor were brilliantly portrayed, from example the English patient’s friend Madox, Hana’s stepmother and the Sikh’s mentor. The novel features and interesting and colourful cast of characters. I already wrote about the principal characters/ protagonist a great deal, but I want to mention the minor characters as well. They are portrayed in detail and emerge as full personalities in their own right. In many ways, they are not minor characters at all. The turbulent love triangle that happened in the English patient’s past is particularly convincing and well written. Depending on your personal preference, Catherine and her husband can be seen as just as important as the English patient.

Book Recommendation: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje #bookphotography #bookstagram



                              ANALYZING THE NOVEL FROM A LITERARY POINT OF VIEW

THE WRITING: LYRICAL PROSE, SYMBOLISM, POSTMODERNISM, INTERTEXTUALITY AND REALISM

Lyrical prose and technical descriptions

 There is no doubt that this is a beautifully written novel. What fascinates me, however, is how lyrical prose goes well in hand with more realistic passages. A lot of things are explained in detail, with a realistic flare, any yet those technical (to the degree of being almost scientific) passage match the dreamy lyrical passages perfectly. For example, Kip’s work and training is explained in detail. Kip is a combat engineer ( a sapper) and more than once his work is described with a staggering accuracy. Take for example his detonation of a bomb in a pit, the naturalistic description of his frozen fingers, of his tiredness. Kip seems barely alive when they extract him from that pit, and one of the reasons why we can understand him so well is because the writer has included so many technical details.


Historical research


 I would say that the author did a lot of research for this novel. The writer seems to know an awful much about the British expeditions to the desert. It’s not a general knowledge, the author gets very specific often. Africa and the desert are a big part of this book, and the writer does manage to create the atmosphere of a specific time and place. At the end of the book, you can find more about the sources the writer used if you are interested. Once you read the acknowledgements, you’ll see that the writer did a lot of reading for this one. This intertextuality really helped the book feel more realistic.

A postmodern novel


This novel balances so well between the dreamy morphine induced memories and the precise and technical passages. It is a postmodern novel, no doubt about it, but it does a great job of transporting us to the past times. As in a lot of modern and postmodern works, intertextuality plays an important part of this novel.

Intertextuality

The title character, the English Patient, carries with himself one history book that is very important to him. He writes his notes into it, and it seems that the book becomes a part of him. Hana writes notes in book as well, they start to serve as a sort of diary to her. Hana reads from book to the patient, and this connects them. Moreover, Hana carries with herself the letters from her stepmother. Even if she doesn’t answer them for a long time, these letters create a sort of dialogue.


Story within the story: a nineties novel

There are many ‘story within the story’ moments in the narrative. Besides, there are a lot of quotes and literary allusions in the novel. Joseph Conrad is mentioned on more than one occasions as are many historians and explorers. When I started to read this novel, I thought it didn’t feel like it was written in the nineties. Now, I realize that it is very much a nineties novel.


Colonialism

The preoccupation with colonialism and race is very present in the novel, even if it really sparks off at the end, it is an essential part of the novel as and not is not mentioned only in the context of the historical period and time. Kip’s identity crisis, brought on the by atomic bomb, plays an important part in the novel. The fact that Kip an Indian Sikh is fighting for the British, the people who rule his own country is something that is often talked about in the novel.

Symbolism

Symbolism is another thing that is very present in the novel. The villa the novel takes place in is a wonderful symbol for the devastation Europe and the world suffered. A ruin that used to be a grandiose villa, build by Medici family (symbol of Renaissance), then a monastery, then a hospital, and finally a home from a group of broken individuals. Like the villa, the principal characters who inhabit it, are broken but still standing. There is still hope for them, their story is still not finished.




Book Recommendation: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE READING THIS NOVEL

I've finished reading The English Patient yesterday. If I remember well, I read it in two days. It's a very compelling read, I would say. The kind that makes you eager to turn the next page and immerse yourselves into the writing over and over again. While I was reading it, I felt very much immersed in the story. I was amazed by the poetry of its writing but even more by its cast of characters. I truly enjoyed reading this one.

TRIVIA: I ACTUALLY STARTED READING THIS NOVEL SOME TIME AGO


I started reading The English Patient years ago, but for reasons I will never understand, I abandoned the novel. It seems odd that I have done something like that, because this is exactly the kind of novel that I’m bound to enjoy, with its lyrical prose, framed narratives and complexly tormented characters. It’s my kind of novel, no doubt about that. Probably I had only read a page or two, back then, for if I have read more than that, I certainly wouldn’t let a novel like this one wait. 



THE ENDING

I must admit that the ending left me slightly disappointed. I would say there are a few parallel story lines in this novel. Firstly, there is the story of the individuals that live in the villa and the question of what will happen with them. Secondly, there are stories buried in their past. The English patient is the great connector and the story of his past is the big question and source of much of novel’s tension. His story gets revealed by the end of the novel and it was everything a writer might hope for. However, there is one episode towards the end that felt too dramatic and out of place to me. I felt like Kip wouldn’t reacted exactly like that, and I felt he didn’t get ‘enough’ stage light. I wanted to know more about him, and I felt that we were left hanging a little bit. I didn’t find neither Kip’s reaction to the atom bomb out of place, nor his estrangement from others, but I think that part could have been better written. It is like the writer opened the Pandora box of colonialism and just left it like that. Moreover, I wanted to know what happened with Caravaggio. His character development was satisfactory, one could see him slightly taking control of his life (like Hana herself) but I felt that we as readers should have been given some kind of clue as to what ultimately happens to him. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s my impression. The ending felt too sudden and a great contrast between the English patient and the other inhabitants of the villa was created. I don’t mind the ending as such, it is just that I think it could have been better written. Too many topics crapped in too small a space. That’s all.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE


It’s hard to say what I don’t like, because I kind of feel I don’t have any proofs for it. For example, there were some passages in the English’s patient monologue/narrative that I found disturbing, but I’m not sure is it just my personal interpretation or something that was really there. Besides the above mentioned ending that could have been better written, that is about it. For most part, I did really like this novel. Perhaps it is not the easiest novel to follow, but as I’m very used to this kind of writing and narrative I personally didn’t have any problems with following the plot. Still, some people might find it difficult and as I’m mentioning the novel’s possible flaws, I thought I might include that. 



Book Recommendation: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


CONCLUSION

I would recommend The English Patient novel to people that:

-          enjoy postmodernist writing
-          enjoy modern writing
-          enjoy framed narrative
-          enjoy anti-war prose
-          are interested in, or writing about desert exploration and/or WW2
-          are interested in, researching, or writing a paper about colonialism and race (it’s not the only          subject of the novel, but Kip character is something one could write about)
-          enjoy unhappy and tragic love stories
-          enjoy lyrical prose
-          are not dependant on a typical happy ending
-          like complex characters
-          enjoy psychological characterisation
-          …….want to read a damn fine novel!
















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