In an abandoned villa in Tuscany as the Second World War comes to a close, a nurse cares for an anonymous patient, an Englishman so badly burnt that he himself does not know who he is. She cares for him, and in doing so saves herself. The only clues Hana has to his identity are his haunting memories and a scrapbook history containing the story of a tragic love affair. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is about this man but it is also about a lost Europe, reeling from the destruction of another world war, and how a human could possibly integrate what they had just witnessed.
The Golden Man Booker Prize earlier this year lead me to realise that I hadn’t, in fact, actually read Ondaatje’s most famous book. It was a set text in school for a subject I dropped, and The English Patient was so embedded into our cultural consciousness that I think I absorbed it without reading the text. I think the movie also has actually distracted from the book. Yes, we are swirling around this man who is lost even to himself, but the novel contains what the movie could never capture: moments of pure poetry and profundity captured through exquisite lyricism.
The English patient is the centre of this odd, beautiful universe; never moving, other characters revolving around him, drawn to and repelled as needed. The Germans are retreating and the bombed Tuscan villa that did function as a field hospital empties out. All other patients and nurses, except for Hana and her single charge, leave. As the war closes Hana finds a kind of retreat herself, with the patient as her single purpose.
So she cares for him, dresses his wounds, reads to him, and roams around the villa, gardening for their vegetables, washing in the fountain, sleeping in an old hammock strung up wherever she feels the need: it is summer, and now the closed-in winter has left Hana sleeps where there is air. The patient sometimes tells her stories, sometimes she reads from the villa’s library or records her own, and so the narrative weaves together their existence in this graceful way.
Because it is not just the story but how the story is told that is so important here. The beauty of the writing is arresting, Ondaatje’s use of language to capture the poetry of a perfectly observed moment is profound. It cuts right to the quick, it relates so deeply you want to tear through from scene to scene to capture more and more but you just have to stop to relish what was just expressed. There is a universality of feeling while also being completely unique to a character.
“Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog’s paws. Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in all the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog’s paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It’s a cathedral! her father had said, so-and-so’s garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen – a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal has taken during the day.”
For almost all of this book, I could not understand how the movie could possibly be based on the novel because it was not about who the eponymous patient was, but about this writing. And then the plot sneaks up on you, it becomes gripping, the mystery holds you.
So simultaneously Ondaatje manages to create a book of such beauty your breath stops, with a great enigma at the centre of it. Around the bed of the patient, around the villa, around history and time, around Europe the story revolves, pulling all along in its wake. It is a story that will remain with you long after you put the book down, with characters whose presence echos across time.