Although you couldn’t tell by my school-year behavior, reading is one of my favorite things. So this summer, as I journey through some of the tomes I’ve collected in recent months (the #1 category, no doubt, should I ever keep a solid record of my expenditures), I thought I’d take my lovely readership along with me. Drop me a line with any recommendations! See the review of my first selection after the jump.
The first book of the summer was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Having never seen the movie, I approached the novel with no prior thoughts and found a richly-described set of landscapes populated by intriguing, if ultimately unbelievable, characters. The book centers on a mysterious figure burnt beyond recognition, the titular patient, who is cared for by a Canadian nurse, Hana, in a Tuscan villa commandeered into a hospital as the Allies evicted the Germans from the Peninsula at the end of World War II. An Allied spy named Caravaggio, a friend of Hana’s father who is killed in France, joins the pair when he hears of their refusal to leave as the hospital is evacuated. Rounding out the cast is Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, a Sikh youth trained in England to dismantle the bombs which litter the countryside.
Ondaatje reveals his obsession with our formation of identity by casting his creations into the shadow of war. Kip, unable to trust even the simplest object for fear that it may have been converted into a bomb by the retreating Germans, struggles with his role in what he sees as an English war, especially as his brother has been imprisoned by the English in India for his pacifism. Kip’s stoic nature is a literary precursor to the kinds of neuroses exhibited by returning soldiers from any war, and the development of his wariness with physical objects, his withdrawal from the material world which threatens him, is fascinating to witness, and is, in my opinion, the novel’s strongest element.
Beyond the shattering of Kip’s sense of trust, Ondaatje’s characters become frail and one-dimensional. The English Patient constantly regales his housemates with tales of the desert, as he spent the years before the war exploring the Libyan sands. When it is revealed by Caravaggio that the patient was actually an influential German spy, the reader is lead to reevaluate the Allied concept of the German enemy, as there is nothing imminently threatening or hostile about the burned man. But there is no nuance here, to Ondaatje’s discredit. One would be hard-pressed to find an individual guilty in action, but completely innocent in character, as the English patient is portrayed. It is so easy to wash him of any guilt that that act loses its intellectual force.
The English Patient is a beautifully-rendered work, full of moving prose and curiously illuminating assertions. Ultimately, however, it falls short of the humanity which it so forcefully tries to evaluate.