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The English Patient (1992)
Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books
Gary Kamiya : Let me ask you about the genesis
of The English Patient. I was curious how it came
Michael Ondaatje : No, the plot wasn't there
until I finished the book, probably. I don't really begin
Then there was a nurse and there was a patient, there
was a man who was stealing back a
Long time readers of these pages will be familiar with the concept of
"Letting the Tiger out of the Cage" (newcomers may want to read
a brief definition.) Well, what are we to make of a novel whose
genesis in the author's mind was the scene where the tiger gets let out?
Because as I was watching the movie version, I desperately wanted the husband
to succeed in crashing his plane and his wife into Ralph Fiennes.
I mean, I know this is supposed to be a great tragic love triangle and
all, but I'm not big on adultery to begin with, added to which is the fact
that they are just horrible people and what passes for love amongst them
is really little more than sado-masochism. So, yes, I wanted them
The characters that I did care for somewhat were Hana and Kip. I realize that Hana was supposed to be this horribly damaged woman, but c'mon, she's played by the luminescent Juliette Binoche, who, by herself, nearly suffices to justify the continued existence of France. Kip, meanwhile, is all earnestness and courage, easy to like, even if his role onscreen is pretty minimal. But then, just as it seems these two and their relationship will rescue the story, Kip has his little freak out over the atom-bombing of Japan, and we're left with only Hana. After three hours, that just wasn't enough for me.
So I probably made a mistake when I tried reading this book right after seeing the movie; bringing too much baggage along from the film to give the novel a fair shake. Now, rereading it several years later, I do like it better, but I still don't like it.
There's still the basic problem that the English Patient and Katherine Clifton are so profoundly unlikeable and that their affair so little resembles what healthy humans think of as love. Even more disturbing, when the English Patient leads the Nazis across Northern Africa in exchange for access to the cave where he left Katherine, he acts out the most abhorrent sentiment of the 20th Century, E. M. Forster's monstrously selfish dictum : "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." It would even be more honorable if the English Patient helped the Nazis out of a genuine feeling of Anti-Semitism. It would at least reflect a capacity to think of people beyond himself. But the nature of his relationship with Katherine is exactly this selfish and destructive, so perhaps aiding the German Army follows from the logic (or illogic) of their affair.
Hana and Kip are more central to the story, and that helps greatly. Kip's background is particularly interesting. The scenes of him being taught about bomb disposal and of his relationship with the Brits who trained him are especially well done. Unfortunately, they only serve to make it even more jarring when he reacts so hysterically to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His meltdown reads as if it's driven more by Ondaatje's ideology than by the dictates of the character.
That ideology is troubling too. In some ways, this is one of the most racist novels I've ever read : Ondaatje is obsessed with skin and not merely it's substance but it's color. He mentions skin so many times and in so many ways that I lost count, but, of course, the central metaphor of the story is the English Patient, this vast repository of Western knowledge, with his white skin burned away. Then the old European lovers, he and Katherine, are supplanted by the new multiracial coupling of Kip and Hana. Finally, after Kip indicts the West for it's racially motivated bombing of Japan, he leaves the Villa San Girolamo, this wreckage of Western civilization, and sets out on his own, symbolically abandoning the white past and heading towards the brown future. And just in case that's too subtle, the final image of the book is Katherine knocking a fork off of a counter in Canada and Kip catching a fork in India, the tools of civilization being transferred from white hands to brown. There's a real air of racial triumphalism and moral superiority to the story that perhaps only Third World authors can get away with these days.
Ultimately, I did like the book somewhat better on rereading and it's much better than the movie. There are some great images and the language is lyrical and often captivating, though after three hundred pages it does get kind of cloying. I guess this is one that I have some significant problems with, but find interesting enough to give an extremely cautious recommendation.
-INTERVIEW : Delirious in a Different Kind of Way (Gary Kamiya, November, 1996, Salon)
-Michael Ondaatje: An Overview (Canadian Literature and Culture)
-PROFILE : Author gets dose of med school : Michael Ondaatje: Columbia appoints writer-in-residence to sensitize doctors (Charlie Gillis, National Post)
-ESSAY : The Toronto Circle : In accomplished stories and novels South Asian writers who are exiles in Canada are re-creating the worlds they left behind (Jamie James, Atlantic Monthly)
-LECTURE : Diagnosing The English Patient: Contributions to Understanding the Schizoid Fantasies of Being Skinless and of Being Buried Alive (March 6 1999, Australia Keynote Lecture Version, Norman Doidge, M.D., F.R.C.P. (C))
-ESSAY : Whitewashing Politics, The English Patient (Rob LaVelle)
-ESSAY : Mapping the Woman's Body in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (Lilijana Burcar, University of Ljubljana)
-ESSAY : Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, "History," and the Other (Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek)
-PROFILE : The real 'English Patient' was no count and no Nazi sympathizer (ALEX BANDY, Associated Press)
-PROFILE : THE ENGLISH PATIENT: EGYPT'S CELEBRATED HUNGARIAN BROTHERS (Samir Raafat, Egyptian Mail)
-An Index to the Vintage 1993 edition of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Index by Lisa Mirabile)
-READING GUIDE : The English Patient (Random House)
-DISCUSSION GROUP : The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Book Chatter)
-REVIEW : of The English Patient By Michael Ondaatje (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of THE ENGLISH PATIENT By Michael Ondaatje (Judith Grossman, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: The English Patient Plays Casablanca (David Aaron Murray, First Things)
-REVIEW : Hilary Mantel: Wraith's Progress, NY Review of Books
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
-ANNOTATED REVIEW : of The English Patient (Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Humanities)
-REVIEW : of English Patient (Kelvin Ha, Flying Inkpot)
-ESSAY : Canadian Patient: visit with an ailing text (O.W. Pollmann, The Antigonish Review 113)
-REVIEW : of Anil's Ghost By Michael Ondaatje (Richard Eder, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of ANIL'S GHOST By Michael Ondaatje (JANET MASLIN, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of SECULAR LOVE By Michael Ondaatje (Liz Rosenberg, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of IN THE SKIN OF A LION By Michael Ondaatje (Carolyn Kizer, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : IN THE SKIN OF A LION. By Michael Ondaatje (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
-AWARDS : Governor General's Literary Awards 1992 The English Patient Michael Ondaajte
maybe i'll read the book. the movie was painful, like rubbing pepper vodka on the jock itch you pick up strolling the sahara. the book can't possible be as bad.
- jon grena
- Nov-11-2006, 22:21