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#MyMojo – Book Review: English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Hello readers. Today my guest is Anshu Bhojnagarwala, who is a – Fiction Writer. Mommy Blogger. Agatha Christie Fan.

Anshu knew she was meant to be a story-teller when her best bed-time stories as a child were the ones she made up herself. And she could barely read then! She would just let her vivid imagination take over. Not much has changed. Even today, she enjoys creating fascinating characters and plots.

Anshu is a popular parenting blogger. When she is not blogging or catering to the many whims of her part-angel part-devil 7-year old daughter, you will find her catching up on movies and tending to her kitchen garden.

Anshu launched her book Tara, available on Kindle and as a paperback on Amazon which was well received by readers. Currently, Anshu is working on a book that is a complete entertainer with drama, sex and murder mystery.

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The English Patient

I had heard about The English Patient, but until I picked it up from my library and googled about it, I didn’t know that the book written by Michael Ondaatje had won the Booker Prize in 1992 and that it had been translated into 40 languages, had sold more than 1m copies and had been turned into an Oscar-winning film featuring Ralph Fiennes.

The English Patient is based on the World War II. The war is almost over – one bullet, more or less, ended it.

The English Patient centers around an abandoned Italian villa where Hana, a young Canadian nurse tends to the English patient. The Englishman, who might actually be a Hungarian and who goes by the name and title of Count Ladislaus de Almásy has survived a plane crash, but his body is charred beyond recognition. He is incapable of movement and is like a living dead – flitting from memories to reality and back in a morphine-induced state, however he is the anchor of Hana’s life who is herself battling death and loss of her father, her lover and her unborn child who she is forced to give up. They are supported by two more characters, Caravaggio, Hana’s father’s friend from Canada who is a thief cum spy, and Kirpal Singh aka Kip, a young Sikh sapper, who is a bomb disposal expert and who becomes Hana’s lover.

The English patient’s personal story that speaks of Indiana Jones’ like exhilarating desert expedition in search of the legendary oasis of Zerzura, passionate romance, betrayal and tragedy is the centrepiece of the novel. The love shared by the Englishman and Katherine is an all-consuming love that is not only wild and passionate but at the same toxic and destructive. The Englishman’s story transports the reader to the rolling hills and verdant valleys of Tuscany in Italy and then in a matter of minutes takes him to the scorching heat and dry orange sun of the unforgiving desert of Egypt-Libya where mystical Bedouins and treacherous winds cohabit.

The book ends with One bomb. Then another. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.

The detonation of the bombs not only end the war, but also snap the fragile thread that has held the four characters of the story together. Kip who has disposed bombs for the allied forces in the war and risked his life every time to save allied lives is unable to bear this open betrayal of the white race towards the brown.

They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation’ – Kip’s final words have an unsettling impact on the narrative and a thought-provoking and shame and guilt inducing effect on the reader.

The story is not narrated in a linear fashion – it reveals little by little and gradually circles back to finish the loop. The characters are not what they appear in the beginning and reveal their depth as the story unfolds. However, it doesn’t take anything from the story, if at all, it adds to the reader’s uncertainties and whets his appetite.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient may at times come across as high-sounding prose, but the originality and eccentricity of the thoughts justify the writer’s latitude.

What do you think of ‘Cold nights in the desert. He plucked a thread from the horde of nights and put it into his mouth like food.’ or ‘there was a thread, a breath of death in her’? Or of these ‘He would be pregnant with her’ and ‘A man in a desert can hold the absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.’?

To me they sound like solemn and sublime free verse poetry. Ondaatje has aimed to blur the line between poetry and prose, fact and fiction, and has been successful at it.

The book is as sensual and romantic as it is poetic. The passages are hauntingly beautiful, the beauty lies in the danger and uncertainty of the situations and enigma and volatility of the characters. A few images from the book stayed with me long after I finished reading the book – the nurse peeling a plum with her teeth and placing it in the patient’s mouth and Katherine sucking blood from a cut on Almásy’s hand and Almásy tasting Katherine’s menstrual blood; I found them to be bold, sexual and disturbing.

The war is almost over, but its presence is omnipresent throughout the story.

It lets its presence known in the defacement of the villa by phosphorous bombs and explosions, urine and shit and insane mining of the towns from which German soldiers have retreated. This description reminded me of a short story by Guy de Maupassant called ‘Mlle Fifi’ where during the Franco-Prussian war, a battalion of German then Prussian soldiers inhabit a château in Normandy and take extreme pleasure in blowing out silver heirlooms and precious artworks. It illuminates the depravity of the human mind and the inability to accept defeat with dignity.

My Review:

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is not just an illuminating novel but a beautiful blend of prose and poetry. Every word is pregnant with depth and meaning. This book is like a wine, to be felt and savoured for its romance and lyricism.

It’s a classic piece of literature and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is taught to English literature students in the category of South Asian Literature.

Michael Ondaatje has written many books before and after The English Patient, but this book has to be his best so far, his chef d’oeuvre. I am now going to find the film on Netflix if I can lay my hands on it.

If you have enjoyed this review, you might also like the review of A Man Called Ove which goes in my list of 10 books that I read in 2018 and got bowled over.


Intrigued? pin it for later!Book review - author- guestpost - english patient

 

You could check out my review of another book set in World War II  – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

 

 

 

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15 thoughts on “#MyMojo – Book Review: English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

    1. Thanks Priya – this month has been made special by all the blogger friends who have written such wonderful posts for me!

  1. Shalini once again congratulations on hosting guest blogs for a full month. I don’t like war books, it disturbs me immensely to read them. However, when I read your prompts, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and read something which I hadn’t. The English Patient is one book that glares at me every time I visit my library, so as part of the guest blogging campaign, I thought of picking it up. And seriously, I was not disappointed. I just loved this book for its bizareness. I hope others who read this review will be compelled to read this book too.

  2. Ah ! Anshu I couldn’t agree with you more. I loved this book and the movie. Perhaps it was the dashing Ralph Fiennes? Butthe book itself was lyrical almost and unputdownable. I read it when it first came out and remember had to grab it while my daughters were reading it too! Three readers at one time. I think I will pull it out of the shelf and give it yet another read

  3. Oh wow.. I havent heard about this book . And considering it won a booker prize( even if it happens to be 1992), plus it is a genre I love reading, makes this sound like a worthwhile read!!! Anshu thanks for your recommendation

  4. Wow, Anshu!!! What a review! I was stunned by the way you have described the book, the writing and the story. Awestruck at your book reviewing skills, Anshu! Will surely look for the book as well as for the film. Let’s hope I find either of these!

  5. Superb review! The bits from the story surely sounded like poetry. Just like Anshu, I don’t read war based books. Especially books on Second World War are severly disturbing. The only book, I read, was Anne Frank’s Diary in school and that was the end of it until recently. I see a lot of good word for the English Patient in the comment thread which prods me to consider picking it for reading.

  6. And my son recently bought this book and told me ma you will love to read this one. I’ve heard a lot about the movie based on this book and now I am looking forward to reading this one. That was a nice review, Anshu!

  7. Thank you so much all. Sanchee, Tarang, rachna and Priya do read this book, you won’t be disappointed. Sunita, that’s the word unoutdownable though I am not a poetry person, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Oh yes, I can see Ralph Fiennes as the mysterious patient. Anamika I still haven’t dared to read Anne frank.. I know I will be crying while reading it. Shilpa to tell you the truth even i was amazed at the way the review came out, guess it had something to do with the book.

  8. I am always on the lookout for books revolving around WW2, even though I am not currently in the state of mind to read them. So I’ll add this to my TBR for future reference. Thank you for an amazing review!

  9. I have been oblivious of such wonderful books for so long. And I am so grateful to you Shalz for taking up this as a theme for your guest post series. I am really going to get enlightened at the end of it. Adding this too to my TBR.

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